(Editor's Note: This article was first published in the March 2022 edition of the print Stand HERE.)
The gentle rhythm of the train and the hum of muted voices threatened to lull A. W. Tozer to sleep. His eyelids were heavy and his back ached from the less-than-comfortable springs in his seat. He squinted at the hurriedly jotted lines in his journal, which grew shakier as they wound towards the place where he had stopped, pen poised over the page held tightly in cold fingers. He brushed away the crumbs from his dinner – a cold piece of toast – that had fallen on the page. Some of the crumbs found their way into the gutter between the pages, and after a tired attempt to remove them with a fingernail he let them be.
He breathed deeply, set down his pen, and rubbed the grit out of his eyes with his knuckles. He shook himself a little and looked back at his writing. “… Faith is the gaze of a soul upon a saving God.”
“The gaze of a soul.” The words recalled memories of men and women, old and young, people he loved dearly, their faces all different but at the same time sharing a deeper quality. These were members of his congregation who had turned their soul’s gaze to the saving God.
Their faces stirred him. He closed his eyes as a small smile played at the corners of his mouth. How good God was!
But along with those recollections came other faces. Some were hard and unfriendly, but most were smiling and happy. These were the ones who had not turned their gaze to the saving God. Content to pay what they believed was due respect to religion, they clung to spiritual death. A fresh resolve filled Tozer. He picked up his pen again.
As Tozer would write later on in his life, “The sight of the languishing church around me, and the operation of a new spiritual power within me, have set up a pressure impossible to resist.” But it wasn’t only this urgency that drove him to write his book The Pursuit of God on that train ride from Chicago to Texas. The words of The Pursuit of God, now considered a classic of Christian literature, came to him as fast as he could write them, so full was he of the realization of God’s goodness and holiness. He was filled to overflowing.
Tozer was born in 1897 to a family who lived in a small farming community in Pennsylvania. Growing up, he had little formal education. His father suffered from a mental breakdown, and Tozer was forced to provide for his family. They moved from Pennsylvania to Akron, Ohio, when he was fourteen. Although his family was religious and his grandmother was a great spiritual influence in his life, Tozer did not feel the need for God’s forgiveness and grace in his life.
At the age of seventeen, Tozer went to work for the Goodyear Tire Company, walking back and forth between his job and his home. On the way home one day he passed by a place where a street preacher was preaching.
“If you don’t know how to be saved,” called out the preacher, “just call on God, saying ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner!’ God will hear you.”
The words followed Tozer all the way home. When he got home he climbed into the attic by himself and cast himself upon the mercy of God.
For the rest of his life, Tozer was consumed with seeking the presence of God. He spent hours in prayer and in the Scriptures. This was not so that he could feel good about himself or that others would see him as a spiritually mature person, but a simple, earnest desire to be close to God. In his own words: “Before we can be filled with the Spirit, the desire to be filled must be all-consuming. It must be for the time the biggest thing in the life, so acute, so intrusive as to crowd out everything else. The degree of fullness in any life accords perfectly with the intensity of true desire. We have as much of God as we actually want.” His life began to exemplify the hymn by Bernard of Clairvaux:
We taste Thee, O Thou Living Bread,
And long to feast upon Thee still;
We drink of Thee, the Fountainhead
And thirst our souls from Thee to fill.
He later married his wife Ada and they moved to West Virginia where he served his first pastorate. Afterward, he pastored in Indiana, Ohio, and Toronto, settling in Chicago where he pastored for most of his life. He and his wife, along with their seven children, lived simply, pouring themselves into ministry and their personal walks with the Lord. Every morning, Tozer would go alone to his study and begin the day seeking the presence of God in prayer and the Scriptures. He once wrote in his personal journal: “Oh God, I have tasted thy goodness and it has both satisfied me and made me thirsty for more. Show me thy glory I pray thee that I may know thee indeed.”
When he died of a heart attack in 1963 at the age of 66, these simple words were inscribed on his tombstone: “A. W. Tozer, A Man of God.”
Today Christians are very familiar with prayers for God’s nearness and work in the Church. It would be a rare thing to find a Christian who was just fine keeping God at a distance. But as Tozer said, “We have as much of God as we actually want.” If it is true that if we draw near to God, He will draw near to us (James 4:8), then where are the Christians who are dedicated to this pursuit of His nearness? Why aren’t we stumbling over one another in our eagerness to be near our Heavenly Father?
“I am convinced,” wrote Tozer, “that the lack of grace in this day is due at least in part to our unwillingness to give sufficient time to the cultivation of the knowledge of God.”
A.W. Tozer’s life, one of steadfast devotion to the pursuit of God’s presence, calls us to examine ourselves. Many of us have the desire to work and do mighty things for the Kingdom of God, to be “on fire” for Jesus. We want to live in such a way that when those who haven’t answered the call of Christ can see Christ in the things we do and say. Tozer feared that perhaps well-meaning Christians were hindered in filling up with Christ because they were already full of other things.
Tozer’s life teaches us this: Christ is intrusive. Christ is audacious. He will not settle for a small portion of a Christian; He deserves us wholly. He did not die for us to stand at a safe distance from Him, holding onto whatever worldly treasures we feel we need to be happy. He died to conquer us, to fill us up with His presence, to shape us into His image.
On that train ride from Chicago to his preaching engagement in Texas, Tozer wrote a whole book on what the Christian can expect to find when his heart is set on pursuing God. Tozer was so full of this nearness that he was overflowing. That is how Christians become effective in the Kingdom of God. We should be full to overflowing, like a cup full of water, each little nudge spilling us over.