I’m sure that very few readers actually save words like “awesome” for God. But I’m equally sure that many readers will be surprised at the title of this article, maybe even offended. I have heard it said from time to time that we ought to reserve words like “awesome” for God. God is awesome. Nothing else can compare. Is it really appropriate to describe both God and the new Taylor Swift album as awesome? If we use the word awesome to describe our weekend plans, then we devalue the word and weaken it in reference to God. We ought to reserve some of these terms for God alone.
So the argument goes, and there is wisdom in it. I appreciate the concern with upholding God’s uniqueness, with insisting that God is beyond compare. However, I find this argument misguided for a few reasons.
On a very basic level, we would probably have a hard time deciding which words to reserve for God. “Awesome” seems a strong candidate. But what about “great”? Or “beautiful”? Or “glorious”? I think you could make a strong case for reserving each of these words for God. So which words do we reserve, and how do we settle on standard usage? Maybe someone can create an English to Christianese dictionary app.
Another problem is that we live in a world that inspires superlatives. I defy anyone to stand on the brim of the Grand Canyon and withhold the word “awesome.” After all, awesome means “extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear.” Is that not a perfect description of the Grand Canyon? Or the ocean? Or a thunderstorm? This is a world of superlatives (a word expressing “the highest quality or degree” of something). I could go along with an argument that we should use the word “awesome” for the Grand Canyon but not breakfast cereal. To me, that is being consistent with the meaning of the word (which, alas, is always subject to usage and therefore change). But this world is full of reasons to cry out in shock, in ecstasy, in astonishment, in fear. When something inspires awe, call it awesome.
Rather than diminishing God, I believe that references to the Grand Canyon as awesome actually give God greater praise. God is awe-inspiring. How so? He formed this canyon, which leaves me speechless and makes me feel wonder, fear, and an aching recognition of beauty. God inspires awe in part because he creates things that inspire awe. I do not honor God by sidestepping the awe-inspiring nature of the world he formed, the people he created, or the experiences he makes possible.
On one occasion, Jesus stated, “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18). So maybe we could set aside the word “good,” insisting that it applies only to God. Yet Jesus himself used the word “good” in reference to people (Matt 5:45), gifts (Matt 7:11), fruit (both physical and spiritual, Matt 7:17), soil (Matt 13:8), seed (Matt 13:24), fish (Matt 13:48), salt (Mark 9:50), and wine (Luke 5:39).
This seems to be a good model for the way we use language in reference to God. We don’t need to hesitate in saying that God alone is good, or beautiful, or powerful, or awesome. But that doesn’t mean these words can’t be applied to other people, things, or experiences in this world. There is a sense in which only God is good. God is good in a way that nothing else is good. But there are good things in this world: God himself judged his creation “very good.” There is a sense in which only God is awesome. God inspires awe in a way that nothing else possibly could. But we find ourselves in awe of other things, like the Grand Canyon, and we need not hesitate to apply the appropriate term.
The root issue here is whether or not we need a separate language for talking about God. There is a sense in which everything about God is beyond compare. People can be compassionate. But God’s compassion in forgiving sinners and offering eternal life is in a distinct category. We might be tempted to call it something entirely unique: supercompassion, perhaps. But God refers to it simply as compassion.
God is okay with analogy. He insists that nothing can compare with him (e.g., Is. 40:18), but he also describes himself as a shepherd, a father, a king, a husband, a vine and vinedresser, etc. Language works through commonalities, through analogies. And God is gracious to speak to us in ways that we can understand. He doesn’t speak to us in a heavenly language that is incomprehensible to our silly little human minds. Throughout the Bible God speaks so that people can understand. When he came to earth, he came as one of us—that is the beauty of the incarnation.
So use words like awesome according to their definitions. Acknowledge the awe-inspiring nature of things that truly inspire awe. And when you use the word in reference to God, acknowledge that God inspires awe as nothing else in his awesome world ever could.