I have never eaten an awesome meal. I’ve never driven an awesome car or taken an awesome vacation. I haven’t danced to an awesome song or streamed an awesome video. I do, however, know an awesome God.

My history with the word awesome goes back to my childhood, when my father—an amateur linguist and professional theologian—gently corrected my early attempts to apply that word (lit. “inspiring fright”) indiscriminately. In our family, we reserved the adjective for the One whose name is great and awesome (Ps. 99:3).

My dad’s point was not that awesome itself was some sacred incantation only for the divine (the lover in Song of Solomon, for example, ascribes awesomeness to his bride). He simply wanted me to acknowledge with my words that, in both character and magnitude, God is different from deep-dish pizza.

We live in a culture of inflated language. Our text messages and e-mails explode with exclamation points and smiley faces—and we suspect less enthusiastic communicators of being sarcastic or curmudgeonly. Our everyday language swells in an era where immediate eclipses thoughtful, where the objective meaning of words is questionable, and where affirmation is prized. Parents, teachers, and coaches praise children effusively for attempting even basic tasks. And our social media statuses daily attract hundreds of thumbs-ups. As they sing in The Lego Movie: “Everything is awesome.”

But if everything is awesome, then nothing is.

In her book Talking the Walk, Marva Dawn asks, “In a society . . . in which we use words like extraordinary and stupendous to describe laundry soaps, what words do we have left to describe breathtaking grandiosity?” We ...

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