Yirah: The Fear Factor of God

March 11, 2011 | 9 comments

From shore, I watch Earth stretch awake. Light illuminates the magnitude of sky and sea, and I feel so very small — like all the world is a beach and I am a grain of sand.

I tremble at the bigness of the seas, and the smallness of me.

Ocean waves slap against my farm-wife shins. The vastness engulfs. Did the salt I taste on my lips once touch shores of Haiti, or farther still, Senegal?

Waves at my feet; waves in my innermost spirit … And I recognize the source of my trembling: I’m overcome with fear of the Lord.

Not fear, like fright. No, there is no terror in this fear.

This fear is bursting-awe and reverence and yirah.* It is a sudden reawakening and awareness of His Heaven-high majesty and His ocean-depth power. I’m so overcome that I back away, half-afraid it will carry me out to sea.

It’s the Fear Factor of God. The Yirah of Yahweh.

I’ve been here before. I’ve felt it at the edge of the Grand Canyon, and biking down Haleakala. I’ve felt it at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and in my little country church, with the wooden pews and small white steeple. It’s the bigness of God, crashing up like a tidal wave against the smallness of me.

I’d felt it, in fact, the day before when — with mask and snorkel — I swam along the edge of an underwater cavern that plummeted the depths of ocean back-waters. Holy yirah. I was in such awe that I had to return to the boat’s edge, for fear the discovery would suck me under.

I’ve even felt it while watching movies, like during that scene in Finding Nemo where the little fish stop cold and wide-eyed when they reach the reef’s “Drop-Off.”

These are breath-catching moments that leave me in awe of God’s magnified majesty. And I feel like a gimpy-finned clownfish at the edge of the Great Barrier Reef.

Let all the earth fear the Lord, and let all the inhabitants of the world be in awe of him.”
— Psalm 33:8


I feel this way about Christ’s love, too. I cannot fathom the depth or breadth or height of a love like this.

And yet, He calls us to love with depth. But how? My efforts seem so puny.

I walk down the shore, in search of the Catholic chapel that I saw on the resort map. It’s a glassed-in octagon overlooking the ocean. I walk inside while the world awakens. The glass door closes behind me, and I stand in a room that muffles the sound of waves and morning wind.

But even here, in a small, quiet, empty place, I feel the vastness of Yahweh. I tremble again with yirah.

I run hands along the clothed altar. I stand at the feet of a sculpted Jesus hanging on the cross. Behind the Christ figure, the sun rises higher, illuminating more of what leaves me in awe.

I press my forehead against the glass; my breath leaves a fog.

I’m here in Cancun Latitude: 21°08’N. I draw an invisible line past curve of sea, to Haiti, Latitude: 19º 00’N, and to African shores beyond.

So many hurting people. And I’m standing here with a $1,000 camera around my neck.

“How do I love like You love?” I whisper, voice cracking awkwardly in the holiness.

I keep my forehead pressed to glass, watching waves crash ashore. He whispers in the Spirit voice, the one that I can’t hear audibly but sense deep within my own spirit: “You love them like Jesus loves them.”

And I think about my love, so small. How could I ever, ever, ever love like Jesus loves?

His love is like the ocean. Mine is like a grain of sand.

His love flowed down from a cross; some days, I can barely carry mine.

Then the verse from Matthew 25:40 settles into the soul: “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

“Whatever you did for the least of these …”

“Whatever you did …”

Yes, I know LORD, that even small human gestures of love toward mankind are gestures of love toward You.

And Yes, LORD, I know you didn’t ask me to save the world. You already did that.

But, but …

But I’m still left feeling like I’ve somehow tamed Your Gospel — boiled down love to writing a check, or donating a few blankets, or serving a meal. I know it all counts — like one grain of sand on top of another on top of another to create a shore. This is the multiplication of giving: One + One + One …

But I know there’s more. I feel it in the yirah, in the bigness of You, engulfing the smallness of me.

Father, your love is like an ocean. I want to taste more of it, by giving more of it away. I want to love like You love — with reckless abandon for the Gospel and for “the least of these.” Lord, show me how.

“Could we with ink the ocean fill
And were the skies of parchment made
Were every stalk on earth a quill
And every man a scribe by trade
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry
Nor could the scroll contain the whole
Though stretched from sky to sky.”

— From “The Love of God”

*Yirah — Hebrew, for fear, reverence.

Photos from a sunrise walk in Cancun:
1 – Buoyed by God’s love.
2 – On the shore — grain upon grain of sand. One + one + one …
3 – At the foot of the cross in the seaside chapel.

REPOSTING FROM ARCHIVES while we fly home today.

by | March 11, 2011 | 9 comments


  1. David Rupert

    I get that 'fear factor' whenever i think about eternity, time and space stretching out into the great dark unknown.

    I just say 'wow.

  2. Megan Willome

    That crucifix is stunning, even not in full light.

  3. The Dove Chronicles

    Oh Jennifer, this post has me crying happy-sad-longing-yearning tears. What perfect eloquent love you portray with each word. How I hope I can grow to be as wise and reverent as you are. I am but a neophyte in God's land. I am so excited to be here, but it's God-sharers like you who inspire me to ask my own questions, write my own thoughts, look up into that vast sky…and wonder.

  4. lynnmosher

    Oh, my! Jennifer, I agree with Dove…how perfectly eloquent. As I read, I forgot to breathe. Such beautiful waves of love flowing over me. Oh, to write the depth of feelings as you have. May the Lord bless you!

  5. Charity Singleton

    "How could I ever, ever, ever love like Jesus?" Oh, I have wondered that myself, felt utterly helpless when I needed, so badly, to love others.

    But how grateful I am that he loves that way even when I can't.

    Continue to enjoy your beautiful trip.

  6. Debra

    I love this Jennifer. Just love this! God has just relocated us for a season to the beach and every time we drive down the beach or walk on it, which is often, I am filled with a peace that declares His greatness! Simply awe-some!

  7. Doug Spurling

    This fear is bursting-awe and reverence and yirah.* It is a sudden reawakening and awareness of His Heaven-high majesty and His ocean-depth power.

    His love is like the ocean. Mine is like a grain of sand.

    His love flowed down from a cross; some days, I can barely carry mine.

    No words. Just Love.

  8. Jennifer

    Amazing post–I know you're safe at home by now, but I thank Him for your safe return and hope it was restful.

  9. Sandra Heska King

    Me, too. Show me, too. One person at a time.


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