In Pursuit of God: The Life of A W Tozer
- extract from the book In Pursuit of God: The Life of A W Tozer
This April marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of A.W. Tozer, a preacher
and writer whose works have been a great inspiration to evangelical Christians
for the best part of the 20th century.
The subject of personal spirituality has been given a higher profile in society over recent years. It has been generally recognised that the devotional life of evangelicals has not matched the wealth of rich biblical doctrine. In pursuit of 'spirituality', many have drifted from their evangelical roots. Against this background, the life of A.W. Tozer is important. Here is a man who relentlessly pursued the 'practice of the presence of God' while at the same time holding fast to the Bible.
Aiden Wilson Tozer was born on April 21 1897, the third of six children. The Tozer farm was situated in the hilly, rural area of western Pennsylvania. His mother seems to have been a Christian, but not his father. He received a grammar school education. Following a fire at the farm, the family moved to the bustling city of Akron, Ohio, where there was work at the Goodyear tyre company. Here Tozer was converted.
Open air preacher
Late one afternoon in 1915 - three years after arriving in Akron - as he walked home from work, Aiden noticed a small crowd of people gathered on the opposite side of the street. They were clustered around an older man who seemed to be talking to them. Not being able to hear what the man was saying, Aiden crossed the street to satisfy his curiosity.
At first, the man's speech did not make any sense to Aiden. He spoke with a strong German accent, and Aiden had to listen carefully to catch what the man was saying. Finally, it dawned on Aiden. The man was preaching! Preaching, right out on the street corner! 'Doesn't this man have a church to preach in?' thought Aiden to himself, 'and it isn't even Sunday! Why is he so excited?'. But as Aiden listened, the words of the elderly street preacher began to find their mark in his young heart.
Then the preacher startled Aiden. 'If you don't know how to be saved, just call on God, saying: 'God be merciful to me, a sinner,' and God will hear you.'
Those words burned in Aiden's heart. He could not get the voice of the preacher out of his mind. As he slowly walked home, he thought over what the man had said. Never before had he heard words like those. They troubled him. They awakened within him a gnawing hunger for God. 'Saved. If you don't know how to be saved ... just call on God ... 'God be merciful to me, a sinner'.'
When Aiden arrived home, he went straight to the attic, where he could be alone to think this out for himself and to wrestle with God. No-one knows all that transpired in the Tozer attic that afternoon in 1915. But Aiden Wilson Tozer emerged a new creature in Christ Jesus. His pursuit of God had begun.
Aiden's conversion to Christ was a transforming experience in every way. Inclined to be cynical, suddenly, his entire life was radically and wonderfully redirected. A whole new world had opened up to this youth with unbounded intellectual curiosity.
The Tozer household was a crowded place. But soon Aiden wanted to find the time and a place to get alone with God for prayer and Bible study. In the basement there was a small unused place behind the furnace. He cleaned it out and it became his refuge where he could spend hours in meditating on the Scriptures and in prayer.
In 1918 he was married to Ada Pfantz and the following year, just five years after his conversion and without formal theological training, Tozer began 44 years of ministry with The Christian and Missionary Alliance. For 31 of those years, he was prominent as pastor of Southside Alliance Church in Chicago, serving from 1928 to 1959. Looming large in his public ministry from 1950 onwards was his editorship of The Alliance Weekly, the official publication of his denomination. He ministered as a pastor, author, editor, Bible conference speaker, denominational leader, and to so many as a reliable spiritual mentor.
Strength for ministry
Tozer's real strength came from his prayer life. He often commented: 'As a man prays, so is he.' What he discovered in prayer was taken up by his lively imagination and eloquent descriptive powers.
He spent hours meticulously preparing sermons that were majestic and profound. He learned to use crisp, precise, climactic sentences. He did not have a strong voice, but his message penetrated the soul. People never forgot what he said. The discriminating care with which he wrote his books established Tozer as a classic devotional writer, his most outstanding generally acknowledged to be The Pursuit of God and The Knowledge of the Holy.
During the years 1951-1959, WMBI - the Moody Bible Institute radio station in Chicago - broadcast a weekly programme 'Talks from a Pastor's Study'. Throughout his ministry, Tozer issued a persistent call for evangelicals to return to the authentic, biblical positions.
Lack of spirituality
A major concern of Tozer's was the lack of spirituality among professing Christians of his day. He zeroed in on its primary cause: 'I am convinced,' he wrote, 'that the dearth of great saints in this day ... is due at least in part to our unwillingness to give sufficient time to the cultivation of the knowledge of God.' Speaking about the frenzied pace set by religious leaders, leaving no room for unhurried reflection and meditation, he cautioned: 'Our religious activities should be ordered in such a way as to leave plenty of time for the cultivation of the fruits of solitude and silence.'
While his messages were profound and sober, Tozer's keen sense of humour added a clever, yet sharp touch. Much of his humour was audience-dependent for its effect. Therefore, those who read Tozer will find little of it in his books.
Practise the presence of God
In daily life, Tozer's sense of God enveloped him in reverence and adoration. His preoccupation was to 'practice the presence of God' - to borrow a phrase popularised by mystic Brother Lawrence, whom Tozer delighted to read. Reflecting on his relationship with God, Tozer once wrote: 'I have found God to be cordial and generous and in every way easy to live with.' To him, the love and grace of Jesus Christ was a recurring astonishment.
Tozer's carefully hammered-out convictions about worship dominated everything about his ministry. 'Worship,' he wrote, 'is to feel in your heart and express in some appropriate manner a humbling but delightful sense of admiring awe, astonished wonder and overpowering love in the presence of that most ancient Mystery, that Majesty which philosophers call the First Cause but which we call Our Father in Heaven.' This gave impetus to his entire life.
Tozer's hunger for God led him to study the Christian mystics. Their know-ledge of God and absorbing love for him profoundly attracted Tozer. They were spirits kindred to his own. 'These people know God, and I want to know what they know.' But at the same time, the Bible remained absolutely central.
'Once', Martyn Lloyd-Jones recalled, 'Dr. Tozer and I shared a conference years ago, and I appreciated his ministry and his fellowship very much. One day he said to me: 'Lloyd-Jones, you and I hold just about the same position on spiritual matters, but we have come to this position by different routes.' 'How do you mean?' I asked. 'Well,' Tozer replied, 'you came by way of the Puritans and I came by way of the mystics.' And, you know,' said Lloyd-Jones, 'he was right.'
Not a perfect man, Tozer had his warts. A reclusive disposition, coupled with the demands of a too-heavy schedule, left little time for his wife, Ada, and his family. As a pastor he had little time or inclination for the individual nurture of his people, relegating those matters to others. Never deliberately nasty or venomous, he occasionally had to apologise to someone he hurt when he popped their balloons of pretence and pomposity. In 1959, he moved to a church in Toronto where he spent the last four years of his life.
Toward the end of the ministry, he enlisted his church's prayers for a personal struggle. 'Pray for me,' he requested, 'in the light of the pressures of our times. Pray that I will be willing to let my Christian experience and Christian standards cost me something right down to the last gasp!'
He died shortly after midnight on May 12 1963.
Experience of God
Once at a Bible conference, he testified to a spiritual experience he had as a young preacher. 'A preacher friend joined me for a walk out in the woods for private Bible reading and prayer. He stopped at a log and, if I know him, probably fell asleep. I went on a little farther, as Jesus did, and knelt down and began to read my Bible. I was reading about the camp of Israel in the wilderness and how God laid it out in a beautiful diamond pattern. All at once I saw God as I never saw him before. In that wooded sanctuary, I fell on my face and worshipped. Since that experience, I have lost all interest in cheap religious thrills. The vacuous religious choruses we sing hold no attraction for me. I came face-to-face with the sovereign God, and since that time only God has mattered in my life.'
Much of the material for this article was taken from In Pursuit of God: the life of A. W. Tozer by James L. Snyder, Christian Publications, Camp Hill, Pennsylvania.
Notable Quotes From Tozer:
I had been naive enough to believe that we had been disillusioned by the sorry performances of the personality boys of a few years ago, and that we had recovered from that form of abnormal psychology which we caught from the movies; but evidently I was too optimistic. Like malaria, it's back on us again.
The fashion now is to tolerate anything, lest we gain the reputation of being intolerant. The tender-minded saints cannot bear to see Agag slain, so they choose rather to sacrifice the health of the Church for years to come by sparing error and evil; and this they do in the name of Christian love.
The first work of truth is to secure an unconditional surrender of the sinner to the will of God. Until this has been accomplished, nothing really lasting has been done at all.
O God and Father, I repent of my sinful preoccupation with visible things. The world has been too much with me. Thou hast been here and I knew it not. I have been blind to Thy Presence. Open my eyes that I may behold Thee in and around me. For Christ's sake, Amen.