Christian Devotional Classics: The Pursuit of God

A.W. Tozer (1897 – 1963)

A.W. Tozer (1897 – 1963). The Pursuit of God (1948). Source: www.cmalliance.org/about/history/tozer.

Although A.W. Tozer‘s (1897 – 1963) life-time has significant overlap with Thomas Raymond Kelly (1893 – 1941) and Thomas Merton’s (1915 – 1968), in some ways they couldn’t be more separate by tradition in 20th Century Christianity — to compare visit Receiving from the Christian Devotional Classics: Thomas Merton & the Desert Fathers and A Testament of Devotion. Furthermore, Tozer’s testimony is simple and focused, one which carried him in ministry throughout his life.

While on his way home from the Akron, Ohio tire company where he worked as a teen, young Aiden Wilson Tozer overheard a street preacher say,“If you don’t know how to be saved…just call on God.” Upon returning home, Tozer climbed into the attic and heeded the preacher’s advice. — “A.W. Tozer.” cmalliance.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Aug. 2013.

Just a few years later, without even a high school education (what a contrast to Kelly and Merton!), Tozer began forty-four years of ministry in the Christian & Missionary Alliance (C&MA) — if you are unfamiliar with this Protestant denomination click here. Tozer pastored and preached in congregations in a number of places including Nutter Fort (WV), Chicago (IL), and Toronto (Canada). Amazingly self-taught, he authored more than forty books [with The Knowledge of the Holy (1961) and The Pursuit of God (1948) considered Christian classics], edited Alliance Weekly (C&MA denominational magazine), and received two honorary doctorate degrees (Houghton College and Wheaton College). According to an article on cmalliance.org, even with a family of seven children (six boys and one girl), Tozer had a prophetic and incarnated passion for simplicity not unlike Kelly and Merton:

His writings impress on the reader the necessity to abandon worldly comforts in favor the deeper life that comes with following Christ. Living out this simple and non-materialistic lifestyle, Tozer and his wife, Ada Cecelia Pfautz, never owned a car, preferring bus and train travel. Even after becoming a well-known Christian author, he signed away much of his royalties to those who were in need. . . . He was buried in Ellet cemetery, Akron, Ohio, with a simple epitaph marking his grave: “A. W. Tozer — A Man of God.” “A.W. Tozer.” cmalliance.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Aug. 2013..

With regard to the question of being a mystic, he writes:

Some of my friends good-humoredly—and some a little bit severely—have called me a ‘mystic.’ Well I’d like to say this about any mysticism I may suppose to have. If an archangel from heaven were to come, and were to start giving me, telling me, teaching me, and giving me instruction, I’d ask him for the text. I’d say, ‘Where’s it say that in the Bible? I want to know.’ And I would insist that it was according to the scriptures, because I do not believe in any extra-scriptural teachings, nor any anti-scriptural teachings, or any sub-scriptural teachings.

I think we ought to put the emphasis where God puts it, and continue to put it there, and to expound the scriptures, and stay by the scriptures. I wouldn’t—no matter if I saw a light above the light of the sun, I’d keep my mouth shut about it ’til I’d checked with Daniel and Revelation and the rest of the scriptures to see if it had any basis in truth. And if it didn’t, I’d think I’d just eaten something I shouldn’t, and I wouldn’t say anything about it. Because I don’t believe in anything that is unscriptural or that is anti-scripture. — What Difference Does the Holy Spirit Make?, by A. W. Tozer. Note: Retrieved from “Was A. W. Tozer A Mystic?” Are You Aware. N.p., 21 Jan. 2009. Web. 14 Aug. 2013.

A timeline to provide more of a context for Tozer’s writing of The Pursuit of God (1948)

  • Aiden Wilson Tozer was born on April 21, 1897 in “a poor home in the hills to Western Pennsylvania” (Tozer’s Legacy, 5)*, in particular the farming community of La Jose (now Newburg) Pennsylvania. His family later moved to Akron, OH.
    • Note the geographical and economic overlap with Thomas Raymond Kelly who was born on a farm in Chillicothe, OH (1893). As a six year old Kelly’s family moved to Wilmington, OH.
  • 1914: Tozer comes to know Christ at the age of fifteen. “He joined a Methodist church and became an active witness for Christ. A dingy corner of the basement of the family home became his private prayer chamber. There, at the very beginning of his Christian life, Tozer established what was to be a lifelong practice of waiting on God” (Tozer’s Legacy, 5).
    • 1914-1918: World War I. America declares war on Germany in 1917.
    • 1915: Thomas Merton born in France (Prades, Pyrénées-Orientales), but his family quickly departs to live with his mother’s family in New York due to World War I.
  • 1919: Tozer began to pastor his first church, a small Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA) storefront church in Nutter Fort, WV.
  • 1928 – 1959: After serving in several congregations through the “Roaring 20’s,” Tozer pastored Southside Alliance Church in Chicago, IL. While in Chicago he exposited Scripture on Talks from a Pastor’s Study (Moody Bible Institute radio station WMBI).
    • The Great Depression began in 1929 and carried through the 1930’s, in many ways coming to a conclusion through World War II.
      • 1925: The Great Gatsby was released by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Click here for a recent Academic Minute on the importance of The Great Gatsby and its “crash” with the Great Depression.
    • American involvement in World War II (1940-1945) was followed by The Cold War (1947 to 1991)
    • 1941: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA was incorporated. For more of the ministry’s history click here.
    • 1948: The Pursuit of God is released.
      • The same year of the publication of Thomas Merton’s best-seller autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountains.
      • Also the year in which Harold Ockenga brought neo-evangelicalism to the table, inspiring a new generation of Evangelicals to engage culture and other partnerships across denominations, including with Roman Catholics.
    • 1950 – 1963: Tozer edits the Ailiance Weekly magazine.
  • 1960′s: Although Merton was significantly involved in both the peace and civil rights movements, a cursory review of material on Tozer did not bring this to my attention. I will research this further in the future. Other events in the 1960’s include . . .
    • The Charismatic movement took off in wider Evangelicalism.
    • 1960: John F. Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic President of the United States of America..
    • 1962 – 1965: Vatican II assembled for the Roman Catholic Church to address significant concerns and next steps.
  • 1963:  “A. W. Tozer — A Man of God.” Tozer passed away on May 12, 1963.
  • 1968: Thomas Merton passes away.
  • 2011: Lauren Barlow of BarlowGirl releases Inspired by Tozer: 59 Artists, Writers, and Leaders Share the Insight and Passion They’ve Gained from A.W. Tozer (Regal). 

What does The Pursuit of God (1948) have to say to us today?

The Pursuit of God (1941) by A.W. Tozer (1897 – 1963). Note: A free on-line edition is available here.

Daily Reflections for the course of the week from which you pick up this post. The material is drawn from drafts I posted on the Emerging Scholars Network Facebook Wall as part of a class on Christian Devotional Classics at Evangelical Seminary. Please email me know if you use the second section to stimulate campus discussion (e.g., brown bag lunch discussion group). I am particularly interested in suggestions on revisions for use in that context.

For a brief overview of The Pursuit of God (1948), let us turn to Bob Trube‘s review from Goodreads.

This little classic is a gem and is actually available for free in e-versions! Tozer speaks in plain language about profound spiritual realities ranging from our longing for God to the blessedness of possessing nothing to the quality of meekness to the way we divide sacred from secular in our lives. He explores how it is that we open ourselves up to God and hear God. While there are points at which his references are plainly connected to his own time, this is more than made up for by the spiritual richness in these pages. We used this for a book discussion and each chapter provided us with 45 minutes of rich content for discussion and the prayers at the end of each chapter became our prayers to end our time together

When we were in Pittsburgh, my wife and I were blessed to be part of a Christian & Missionary Alliance congregation where the pastor had a great respect for Tozer’s life, labors, and teaching. A few quotes from The Pursuit of God (1948) to reflect upon over the course of this week are given below — possibly stimulating further reading of The Pursuit of God (1948) as an individual and/or as part of a small group :) You’ll note a significant difference in approach to “the pursuit of God” which is found in The Way of a Pilgrim (1884).

1. “Aiden W. Tozer educated himself by years of diligent study and a constant prayerful seeking of the mind of God. With Tozer, seeking truth and seeking God were one and the same thing. For example, when he felt he needed an understanding of the great English works of Shakespeare, he read them through on his knees, asking God to help him understand their meaning. This procedure was typical of his method of self-education.

With no teacher but the Holy Spirit and good books, A. W. Tozer became a theologian, a scholar and a master craftsman in the use of the English language. There are not many quotes in his writings, for he had so assimilated all he had read that he could freely write in simple but attractive language the principles of truth he had discovered across these years of anointed study. The evangelical mystics were his favorite study. The longings of his own heart were satisfied by what he learned from the men and women who kept the light of spiritual reality burning in a time when apostasy and spiritual darkness seemed almost universal.

Much of the strong meat in The Pursuit of God came out of the crucible of Tozer’s own personal experience. The chapter entitled “The Blessedness of Possessing Nothing” reflected his desperate struggle to turn his only daughter over to God. The battle for him was intense and devastating, but when full surrender came a new and glorious release became his. He had learned to know God in the school of practical experience” (“Tozer’s Legacy”, p.7).

For Deeper Reflection: Do you go about learning in a prayerful manner, in conversation/relationship with God?

2. “The writing of this book was for A.W. Tozer a deep spiritual experience. Dr. David J. Fant, Jr. his biographer describes the process.

Tozer literally wrote The Pursuit of God on his knees. Perhaps that explains its power and the blessing that has rested on it.

Perhaps the continued usefulness of this book can be attributed to the writer’s great spiritual discovery that to seek God does not narrow one’s life, but brings it, rather, to the level of highest fulfillment” (“Tozer’s Legacy”, p.7).

For Deeper Reflection: Do you concur with Tozer’s “great spiritual discovery?” How does it apply to one’s campus life and future direction? Have you ever had a deep spiritual experience when writing, whether for school or another context?

3. From Tozer’s Preface: “I trust I speak in charity, but the lack in our pulpits is real. Milton’s terrible sentence applies to our day as accurately as it did to his: “The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed.” It is a solemn thing, and no small scandal in the Kingdom, to see God’s children starving while actually seated at the Father’s table. The truth of Wesley’s words is established before our eyes: “Orthodoxy, or right opinion, is, at best, a very slender part of religion. Though right tempers cannot subsist without right opinions, yet right opinions may subsist without right tempers. There may be a right opinion of God without either love or one right temper toward Him. Satan is a proof of this.”

Thanks to our splendid Bible societies and to other effective agencies for the dissemination of the Word, there are today many millions of people who hold “right opinions,” probably more than ever before in the history of the Church. Yet I wonder if there was ever a time when true spiritual worship was at a lower ebb. To great sections of the Church the art of worship has been lost entirely, and in its place has come that strange and foreign thing called the “program.” This word has been borrowed from the stage and applied with sad wisdom to the type of public service which now passes for worship among us.

Sound Bible exposition is an imperative must in the Church of the Living God. Without it no church can be a New Testament church in any strict meaning of that term. But exposition may be carried on in such way as to leave the hearers devoid of any true spiritual nourishment whatever. For it is not mere words that nourish the soul, but God Himself, and unless and until the hearers find God in personal experience they are not the better for having heard the truth. The Bible is not an end in itself, but a means to bring men to an intimate and satisfying knowledge of God, that they may enter into Him, that they may delight in His Presence, may taste and know the inner sweetness of the very God Himself in the core and center of their hearts.

This book is a modest attempt to aid God’s hungry children so to find Him. Nothing here is new except in the sense that it is a discovery which my own heart has made of spiritual realities most delightful and wonderful to me. Others before me have gone much farther into these holy mysteries than I have done, but if my fire is not large it is yet real, and there may be those who can light their candle at its flame” (9-10).

For Deeper Reflection: In what manner do you find the hungry sheep not fed today? How is your campus fellowship and/or in your local congregation seeking to address this concern without becoming “program” focused? 

4. “The modern scientist has lost God amid the wonders of His world; we Christians are in real danger of losing God amid the wonders of His Word. We have almost forgotten that God is a Person and, as such, can be cultivated as any person can. It is inherent in personality to be able to know other personalities, but full knowledge of one personality by another cannot be achieved in one encounter. It is only after long and loving mental intercourse that the full possibilities of both can be explored” (13).

For Deeper Reflection: What a joy to know many scientists who have not lost their wonder of God and this world. Join me in praying for those who have lost their wonder. Furthermore join me in praying that we may no lose our wonder of God’s Word. If you have, I encourage you not just to pray about it, but find a fellowship and/or minister with whom to connect.

5. “I have said that Abraham possessed nothing. Yet was not this poor man rich? Everything he had owned before was his still to enjoy: sheep, camels, herds, and goods of every sort. He had also his wife and his friends, and best of all he had his son Isaac safe by his side. He had everything, but he possessed nothing. There is the spiritual secret. There is the sweet theology of the heart which can be learned only in the school of renunciation. The books on systematic theology overlook this, but the wise will understand. . . .

If we would indeed know God in growing intimacy we must go this way of renunciation. And if we are set upon the pursuit of God He will sooner or later bring us to this test. Abraham’s testing was, at the time, not known to him as such, yet if he had taken some course other than the one he did, the whole history of the Old Testament would have been different. God would have found His man, no doubt, but the loss to Abraham would have been tragic beyond the telling. So we will be brought one by one to the testing place, and we may never know when we are there. At that testing place there will be no dozen possible choices for us; just one and an alternative, but our whole future will be conditioned by the choice we make.

Father, I want to know Thee, but my coward heart fears to give up its toys. I cannot part with them without inward bleeding, and I do not try to hide from Thee the terror of the parting. I come trembling, but I do come. Please root from my heart all those things which I have cherished so long and which have become a very part of my living self, so that Thou mayest enter and dwell there without a rival. Then shalt Thou make the place of Thy feet glorious. Then shall my heart have no need of the sun to shine in it, for Thyself wilt be the light of it, and there shall be no night there. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.” (27, 30-31).

For Deeper Reflection: Are you and/or some of your friends/colleagues at a place of testing? I encourage you to seek prayerful counsel as part of a community seeking after The Way of Christ.

6. “[T]he Presence of God is the central fact of Christianity. At the heart of the Christian message is God Himself waiting for His redeemed children to push in to conscious awareness of His Presence. That type of Christianity which happens now to be the vogue knows this Presence only in theory. It fails to stress the Christian’s privilege of present realization. According to its teachings we are in the Presence of God positionally, and nothing is said about the need to experience that Presence actually. The fiery urge that drove men like McCheyne is wholly missing. And the present generation of Christians measures itself by this imperfect rule. Ignoble contentment takes the place of burning zeal. We are satisfied to rest in our judicial possessions and for the most part we bother ourselves very little about the absence of personal experience” (37).

For Deeper Reflection: Do you find the Presence of God the central fact of Christianity? Do you “know” that God is present with you on campus? Are you part of a community which reminds you of this reality?

7. “The Universal Presence. Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?—Psa. 139:7

In all Christian teaching certain basic truths are found, hidden at times, and rather assumed than asserted, but necessary to all truth as the primary colors are found in and necessary to the finished painting. Such a truth is the divine immanence.

God dwells in His creation and is everywhere indivisibly present in all His works. This is boldly taught by prophet and apostle and is accepted by Christian theology generally. That is, it appears in the books, but for some reason it has not sunk into the average Christian’s heart so as to become a part of his believing self. Christian teachers shy away from its full implications, and, if they mention it at all, mute it down till it has little meaning. I would guess the reason for this to be the fear of being charged with pantheism; but the doctrine of the divine Presence is definitely not pantheism.

Pantheism’s error is too palpable to deceive anyone. It is that God is the sum of all created things. Nature and God are one, so that whoever touches a leaf or a stone touches God. That is of course to degrade the glory of the incorruptible Deity and, in an effort to make all things divine, banish all divinity from the world entirely.

The truth is that while God dwells in His world He is separated from it by a gulf forever impassable. However closely He may be identified with the work of His hands they are and must eternally be other than He, and He is and must be antecedent to and independent of them. He is transcendent above all His works even while He is immanent within them.

What now does the divine immanence mean in direct Christian experience? It means simply that God is here. Wherever we are, God is here. There is no place, there can be no place, where He is not. Ten million intelligences standing at as many points in space and separated by incomprehensible distances can each one say with equal truth, God is here. No point is nearer to God than any other point. It is exactly as near to God from any place as it is from any other place. No one is in mere distance any further from or any nearer to God than any other person is (62).

For Deeper Reflection: Pantheism (and the related panentheism) is a significant topic to address. We’ll come back to this concern in the future. For the mean time, I encourage you to read The Pursuit of God (1948) — even discuss with some friends on-line and/or in person. 

* I found “Tozer’s Legacy” in the Christian Publications printing of The Pursuit of Godpublished in 1982.

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Tom Grosh IV

Enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa, four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he hosts the Christian Scholar Series), on campus as part of InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministry (serving fellowships such as the Christian Medical Society/CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine), online as the Associate Director of the Emerging Scholars Network, in the culture at large, and in God's creation.

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