Fear and reverence are two different reactions to the unknown or the misunderstood. Historically speaking, no one or no thing has been misunderstood more than God, and sadly this has led to fear much more often than reverence. The irony is saddening, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2Timothy 1:7). Instead God has given every human the gift of faith, which allows us to face uncertainty. Faith by definition, presupposes a certain amount of uncertainty, it is not “a perfect knowledge of things”, but it is to “hope for things which are not seen, which are true” (Alma 32:21). Through faith’s singular eye, we are able to perceive the goodness of God, and we “shall be filled with light” (D&C 88: 67). Whereas fear cometh from disbelief, not just from ignorance or misunderstanding; these bring darkness to our minds and hearts.
We are commanded to believe that “man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend” (Mosiah 4:9). Yet, even within the faithful, for some not knowing everything, may be barely bearable, while for others it can be wonderful. Like Nephi, we can accept “not know[ing] the meaning of all things”, because we can “know that [God] loveth his children” (1Nephi 11:17). According to Nephi, this “love of God” is “the most desirable above all things”, and “the most joyous to the soul” (1Nephi 11: 22-23).
In the scriptures, the word joy is often used to describe the feelings of those who encounter the Divine. Joy can be traced back to the theoretical Indo-European root gau-, “to rejoice, to have religious fear or awe,”. For me, awe is an apt term to describe my response to those sublime moments of revelation, “when the arm of God is revealed” (D&C 123:17) or when in spiritual stillness I am made to know that He is God (see D&C 101: 16). This intense joy not only “passeth all understanding”, but also surpasses my ability to express them (Philippians 4: 7).
Although God is mysterious, He is not a nebulous cloud. He is real and revealable to those who diligently desire to know Him. He is tangible, with “a body of flesh and bone” (D&C 130:22). He feels, and therefore, in the scriptures we can see His wrath and His compassion; He has been seen to weep for our sins (Moses 7:27-33), to respond with tenderness to our pleas. Indeed, He loves us to the extent of allowing man the agency to inflict atrocities on others, and then He was willing to suffer the punishment for these sins, so that he could understand us and save us, if we would but listen.
And by this He understands humanity; and He will have us all stand before Him to give an account of our life here on earth. This is a monolithic event, one for which, if we are not prepared, we shall fear (see D&C 38: 30). This is one of our great missions on earth, to prepare to meet God. This preparation is done through repentance, the process of perfection, the remarkable gift given through the atonement of the Christ. For some receiving a remission of our sins is truly mysterious. Enos after crying unto God “in mighty prayer…for [his] own soul”, heard a voice tell him “[his] sins [were] forgiven”, in amazement, he said, “Lord, how is it done?” (Enos 1: 4-7).
Religious mystery is not mysterious, because religious truth is irrational or ineffable, but because it is sacred and wonderful, just like the experience of Enos. In fact, the word Mystery, for early Christians designated ordinances that were sacred. This connection between ordinances and mystery can be seen in D&C 84: 19-21:
“And this greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God. Therefore in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest. And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh”
This is the great mystery of the kingdom of God; that is, we come to know God and prepare to meet Him through the ordinances of the gospel. This begins with the ordinances of Baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost. The covenants associated with them are renewed every time we partake of the sacrament. The sacrament is a sacred moment where we symbolically partake of the form of Christ in preparation for that day “when he shall appear” and “we shall be like Him” (Moroni 8: 48). Ordinances and their covenants whether baptismal or in the temple, all give us opportunities to glimpse the promises our hopes rest upon, this hope as Paul describes, “entereth into that within the veil” (Hebrews 6: 19).
Of course, it is not the ordinances alone, but our attitudes towards them and our faithfulness to the covenants we enter into, which allows our “confidence” to “wax strong in the presence of God” (D&C 121: 45), and then in turn makes it possible for his presence to wax strong in our lives.
At this point, we cease preparing to meet God, and are merely preparing to see him again, for we already know Him. He has made himself known to us, through our own actions.
As a young boy when we partook of the sacrament, I often mistook my Dad’s bowed head and silence as a sign of fatigue rather than of reverence. Upon completion, he would sometimes look at me with glazed eyes and an odd smile that I thought was an admission of guilt for sleeping. But as I have awoken spiritually, I have realized my dad’s expression was wrought by a renewal, a cup that was emptied and one that was filled till it ran over glazing his eyes with emotion. He has never told me this, but I know him well enough to understand the reasons for his reverence. For I too know that God lives, let us prepare to stand worthy before Him, so that we may enter into His rest.
A lightly edited version of a talk given in 2008.