"Be thou exalted, O God, above the heavens; let thy glory be above all the earth." (Psalm 57:5)
Before the days of Global Positioning Satellite devices, ships on the open sea could only ascertain their exact location by using a sextant and a chronometer. The instruments we use today differ little from the ones available to Columbus and Magellan.
A sextant is composed of two tubes, each resembling a telescope and joined with a hinge. Each tube must be sighted on something fixed. For instance, one tube could be sighted on the waterline and the other tube sighted on the top of a mountain. When the two images converge in the eyepiece, the operator locks in the hinge and reads the exact angle off the sextant. With some basic geometric calculations the user can determine the height of a mountain or the distance from the ship to land. Thus, a ship sailing near a shoreline is able to determine its exact location.
However, it is a different matter for a ship sailing beyond the sight of land. In open water, there are only two things that are fixed: the horizon at all times and a certain star at a given time. On a clear day, the horizon is the only fixed point available, for no stars can be seen. And on a clear night, a star provides the only fixed points available, but the horizon can no longer be seen. The only time that both the horizon and a particular star are visible is during two brief moments: one at dawn and the other at dusk.
Just before dawn, the navigator fixes one tube on a visible star and waits. As the rising sun begins to illuminate the horizon, the navigator fixes the other tube on the line between earth and sky. He must be ready, for both are only visible for one brief instant. When the sailor has them sighted, he then locks in the hinge, reads the precise angle on the sextant, notes the exact time, and consults a chronometer for that particular star, at that particular time, according to that particular angle. Thus the position of the ship can be precisely known, because at only one place on earth can that angle to that star be measured at that particular instant in time.
The process would be reversed at dusk. This time the crewmember would first fix one tube on the horizon, sharp as a ruler's edge, and wait for the first star to appear. As soon as it was sighted, the other tube would be focused on the star, the mirror that converged the two images flipped down, the hinge locked in, the angle read, the time noted, and the chronometer consulted for position.
All during the day the horizon was clearly visible and all during the night the stars looked close enough to reach out and touch. But only as day was fading into night, and again as night was dawning into day, could heaven and earth be brought together. Thus each day, twice a day, an ocean-going ship could stay on course by means of celestial navigation.
In similar fashion, staying on course throughout our Christian voyage requires that you learn to navigate by fixing your gaze on something that does not move — the unmovable God of the universe. Remember that your spiritual odyssey originally began by focusing on him. In so doing, you became aware of the infinite distance between him and you, between his holiness and your sinfulness. And so, in a step of faith, you chose to accept his free gift of grace.
Now, as you continue on in your faith, you have come to understand that the only way to a closer relationship with your heavenly Father is to once again focus on him — to increase the degree to which you exalt him. By taking daily readings from his Word and choosing to lift him above all else, you can navigate life safely, maintaining the proper alignment between Creator and creation.
This is the theme of the eighth chapter in A.W. Tozer's book, The Pursuit of God, which he titles: "Restoring the Creator-Creature Relation." So far, we've pondered the following questions from each chapter: Chapter 1 — How are you doing with following hard after God? Chapter 2 — How are you doing with the blessedness of possessing nothing? Chapter 3 — How are you doing with removing the veil? Chapter 4 — How are you doing with apprehending God? Chapter 5 — How are you doing with our response to his universal presence? Chapter 6 — How are you doing with listening to his speaking voice? Chapter 7 — How are you doing with focusing the gaze of our soul?
And now, Chapter 8 — How are you doing with restoring the Creator-creature relation? In Chapter 7 Tozer challenged us to a new kind of seeing — the gaze of a soul transfixed upon its beloved. In this chapter, he calls us to continually lift up the Creator in our hearts so that he reigns above all else. This is the chapter in which we progress from being impressed with the infinity of God toward being amazed by our intimacy with God.
A Christian is one who accepts the terms of the created order: God is the Maker, we are the creatures; God is the Redeemer, we are the redeemed; God is the Almighty, we are totally dependent upon him. If we reject these terms, we will attempt to elevate ourselves as gods and create "God" according to our image.
A.W. Tozer introduces this chapter with just such a reminder: "It is true that order in nature depends upon right relationships; to achieve harmony each thing must be in its proper position relative to each other thing." Just as there is a proper sequence and order in the natural world, so too there is in the relational world. But something has happened to the natural order — something is wrong. We see everywhere we go. We hear it in every person we know. We feel it in every moment we breathe. What is it?
Tozer answers, ". . . the cause of all our human miseries is a radical moral dislocation, an upset in our relation to God and to each other." This radical change can be seen in the Genesis 3 account. We first observe it in the relationship between God and the two people he had created for fellowship. They went from a "Thy will be done" stance to a "My will be done" stance. Everything began to fall apart from there, so that the dislocation in Genesis remains with us to this day. For example, we see the "My will be done" stance in our prayers. They often degenerate into childish attempts to persuade or manipulate God into doing our will, rather than an ordained means by which he transforms us into the "My will be done" kind of children.
What we need is a restoration of the Creator-creature relation; it is the only means to maturing our salvation. However, this change is not a judicial change merely, but an experiential change, one that affects our whole nature. The judicial change has to do with what God has already accomplished on our behalf, a change that has been brought about by the work of Christ. However, that change must continue to extend to every part of our being so that we are completely brought back into relationship with God through Christ. It is there that we are free to experience life as part of God's family and as children of light.
It is the Holy Spirit who brings about this "experiential" aspect. The parable of "The
Prodigal Son" is a perfect example of the difference between the "experiential" and the "judicial" relationship. The parable centers around one older man and two younger men. The older man is the father and the two younger men are his sons. This father/son relationship had a "judicial" foundation in reality by virtue of birth. That is, they already were sons and didn't have to do anything to become sons.
One day, the younger son leaves home, abandoning his relationship with his father, and squanders all the financial resources he had demanded from his dad. In time, this led the younger son into virtual slavery and total corruption. It is only at this point that the young man comes to his senses. This is an extremely important phrase in that text as well as a crossroad moment in the story. When someone "comes to their senses," it means that they are forced to ask critical questions: "What on earth am I doing?" "What was I thinking?" "What is my future if I continue following this course of action?" Clearly something brought him to this realization and I suggest that that something was the young man's pain. His decision had led to certain consequences and those consequences led to certain pain. Fortunately, that pain drove him to his knees.
On his knees he admits that his life doesn't work well apart from his father and his home. So, he decides to return to his father's house, reasoning that he would be better off as a slave within his father's estate than a free man in the world in which he now finds himself. However, before he returns he rehearses a speech he wants to give to his father, in hope of finding his favor. The speech is basic: "Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men" (Luke 15: 18-19).
But he doesn't get a chance to deliver the punch line. His father, who had been anxiously waiting for his return, spies him from afar and runs to him, embracing him with kisses. He immediately begins to recite his carefully rehearsed lines, but finds that his father isn't listening. He is too busy preparing for the feast, a feast proclaiming that he who "was lost" has "been found." In the end we observe that while leaving home never jeopardized the son's "judicial" relationship with his father, it did sever his "experiential" relationship. That is, legally he never ceased being his father's son, but relationally he had ceased enjoying the benefits of being a son.
The parable teaches us a couple of very important lessons: (1) Our legal standing as sons and daughters of our heavenly Father is independent of our behavior, even in the face of defiant rebellion; but (2) Our relational intimacy with our heavenly Father is completely dependent upon our willingness to remain with him in obedient fellowship. In order to enjoy the perks of being in God's family, we must make him the fixed point around which we order everything else in our lives.
"There must be somewhere," says Tozer, "a fixed center against which everything else is measured, where the law of relativity does not enter and we can say 'IS' and make no allowances. Such a center is God." When Moses asked God what name he wanted to be called by, God replied, "I AM THAT I AM," signaling that he is the unchanging and only center of everything that has been created. And therefore everything and everyone must be measured against him, the one eternally fixed point.
If we use ourselves as the fixed center against which everything else is measured, then we only become aware of the infinite distance between us and God. But when we elevate God as the fixed center from which everything else is measured, we become aware of the intimate relationship that can exist between God and us. We are able to regain our moral and spiritual bearings as we navigate life. We must be willing, as Tozer says, ". . . to take God as he is and adjust our lives accordingly." Yet many of us insist upon doing the opposite by accepting ourselves as we are and then adjusting our view of God accordingly, even re-creating him in our own image. Or to paraphrase Larry Crabb, "Most of us prefer the better life of God's blessings to the better hope of God's presence."
"So," Tozer implores, "let us begin with God. Back of all, above all, before all is God; first in sequential order, above in rank and station, exalted in dignity and honor." By giving him his proper place, we discover that we exist by his good pleasure and not by our own efforts. We discover that all we are and have is derived from his gracious hand. Now with him guiding us, our pursuit of God results in bringing our total personhood into conformity with the Person of Jesus Christ.
But as with everything in our Christian pilgrimage, sacrificing ourselves and exalting God above all else is an ongoing process. Each and every day we have a choice to make: whether to surrender self and exalt the Lord, or to exalt self and surrender our fellowship with our Lord. It is the challenge of Romans 12:1, where we are called to bring a living sacrifice and lay it all on the altar -- all that we are, all that we have, all that we know of ourselves to all that we know of God.
As Tozer reminds us, "The moment we make up our minds that we are going on with this determination to exalt God over all, we step out of the world's parade." That decision becomes the great tipping point where we tip away from conformity to the world's mold and tip toward transformation into God's perfect will.
"Millions call themselves by his name, it is true, and pay some token respect to him, but a simple test will show how little he is really honored among them. Let the average man be put to the proof on the question of who or what is above, and his true position will be exposed. Let him be forced into making a choice between God and money, between God and men, between God and personal ambition, God and self, God and human love, and God will take second place every time. Those other things will be exalted above. However the man may protest, the proof is in the choices he makes day after day throughout his life."
The re-formation of a person is really the result of habituation. Remember, "Sow a thought, reap an act; sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny." What Tozer is saying is that our external choices are the product of our internal priorities. That which our heart exalts will be that which our behavior exhibits.
"'Be thou exalted' (Psalm 21:13) is the language of victorious spiritual experience. It is the key that unlocks the door to great treasures of grace. It is central in the life of God in the soul. Let the seeking man reach a place where life and lips join to say continually, 'Be thou exalted,' and a thousand minor problems will be solved at once,"
He's not being simplistic. To say "Be thou exalted" with your whole being — your heart, your soul, your strength, and your mind — is a major challenge. If one really desires it to be so, God enthusiastically provides the grace required. Little by little your choices for self-denial here, your acts of being other-focused there, and your decisions to exalt God everywhere, all begin to add up and produce a robust faith. And what happens to you if you're blown off course by an adverse wind? Tozer answers, "[We] will surely return again as by a secret bent of the soul."
"Let no one imagine that he will lose anything of human dignity by this voluntary sell-out of his all to his God," writes Tozer. You will not degrade yourself. Actually you will be honored and elevated to your rightful place in the image of your Creator. In fact, it is our deepest disgrace to usurp of the place of God. And correspondingly, it is our deepest honor to enthrone him over all that our heart holds dear.
However, some may say, "But I'm reluctant to surrender my will to him. How do I know I can trust Him?" Well, the truth is that, in the words of the Bob Dylan song, "It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you're going to serve somebody." Jesus said, "He who sins is a slave to sin" (John 8:34). In the final analysis, you will either serve a heavy-handed and hard taskmaster or you will serve the Master of the universe who offers you a light burden and an easy yoke.
Ironically, if it is true freedom you seek, you must voluntarily return home. As Tozer so eloquently puts it, "God was our original habitat and our hearts cannot but feel at home when they enter again that ancient and beautiful abode." For any freedom sought apart from God will surely condemn you to a life of bondage. If you take the world's system and invert it, you have a pretty good snapshot of what life in the Spirit is all about. For as Jesus said in John 12:26: "If any man serve me, him will my Father honor." The one who stoops to serve is the one God lifts up in honor.
Or consider the words of God to Eli in 1 Samuel 2:30: "Them that honor me, I will honor." God is reminding Eli, the high priest of Israel, of the basic covenant between God and man — you honor me; I'll honor you. But he was also warning Eli that the obverse is true: you dishonor me; I'll dishonor you. This warning was given because Eli had failed to discipline his two sons who were also priests. Their behavior did not honor God. They stole from the temple offerings. They defiled the temple sacrifices. Yet Eli refused to discipline them and so the young Samuel is sent to announce the consequences of that failure.
Judgment comes in the form of what Tozer calls the "Law of Reciprocal Honor." This universal law has been secretly working all along. And God's wrath falls swiftly. Eli's two sons and the other disobedient priests die in battle. Hophni's wife dies in childbirth. Israel flees from her enemies. The Philistines capture the ark of God. And Eli falls backward and breaks his neck. All of this tragedy is from one man's failure to honor God.
Now, let's look at the lives of people who chose to honor him. Notice how God winks at their weaknesses and overlooks their failures. Notice how he lavishes his grace and blessings upon servants who exalted him. Consider men such as Abraham, Jacob, David, Daniel, and Elijah. These were certainly not perfect men. In fact, in many ways they were people with feet of clay, just like us. Yet, in spite of their weaknesses and failures, they were men characterized by having hearts that exalted God above all else. Or as Tozer puts it, "Not perfection, but holy intention made the difference." And that's the key.
Only in our Lord Christ was this principle lived out in holy intention and simple perfection. In his manhood he never sought his own honor, only the honor of the One who sent Him. In John 8:54 Jesus says, "If I honor myself, it is nothing; it is my Father who honors me. I honor him and because of that he will honor me." The Pharisees struggled mightily with this truth because they couldn't conceive of a person who would honor God at their own expense. And it was this failure that ultimately led to their disavowal of Jesus.
In John 5:39-44, Jesus was talking to the Pharisees, and says, "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that testify about me." Here Jesus confronts them with their hypocrisy. They claim to be diligently searching the Word of God for eternal life, but miss the main point: only in Jesus can eternal life be found. So, Jesus continues, "You are unwilling to come to me, that you may have life." The critical element is their willingness. Either they really are searching for eternal life and are therefore willing to come to him, or they are not really looking for it and are therefore unwilling to come to him. Finally Jesus concludes,
"I do not receive glory from men; but I know you, that you do not have the love of God in yourselves. I have come in my Father's name and you do not receive me; if another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another, and you do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God?"
Commenting on this passage, I believe Tozer is correct when he tells us that ". . . the desire for honor among men makes belief impossible." How true that is. I've seen this throughout all human disciplines, but especially in academia. I've seen graduate students who, at one time, showed interest in spiritual matters before entering an academic career. But because they wanted to be viewed favorably by their scholarly peers, they began to compromise their integrity in order to fit in with the prevailing worldview. Others went so far as to alter their core beliefs so that they better matched their behavior. The price of having the respect of your peers may well be the death of your convictions. Your beliefs are shaped by the audience to whom you play.
This issue presents a defining moment in the life of every Christian. For either you choose to honor him above all else and thereby press on toward Christlikeness, or you choose the plaudits of others over God and stall out in your Christian walk. You have to ask yourself yet again, "Which audience are you performing for?" It cannot be both God and somebody else, for it is impossible to simultaneously please God and impress people. The temptation will be to choose the downhill path, for it's easy and both sides are lined with adoring crowds cheering you on. But intimacy with God does not lie at the bottom of the hill. It lies at the top. And it can only be reached by taking the uphill trail, the one Jesus took to the cross and then to glory.
Touching the Void is the title of a recent film about two young climbers. Joe Simpson and Simon Yates set out to climb the west face of the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985, a feat that had previously been attempted but never achieved. With an extra man looking after base camp, Joe and Simon decided to climb alpine style — in one long push over several days.
Statistics show that 80 percent of the deaths and injuries in climbing occur on the descent rather than the ascent. Their decent was added to that 80 percent. They reached the peak with few problems, but on the way down Joe fell and broke his leg. Despite the hopelessness of the situation, the two continued the descent with Simon slowly lowering Joe down on a rope for 300 meters, then descending to join him and repeating the process. At one point Joe is lowered over a vertical abyss, with nothing below and no ability to climb back up. Simon is forced to make an agonizing decision — to cut the rope, so that both of them don't die. Joe fell into a crevice covered in deep snow. Simon, assuming he's dead, continued on down. However, Joe had survived the fall by landing on a ledge within the crevice.
The rest of the film tells the story of how Simon discovers that Joe is still alive and so lowers himself into the crevice, with no apparent way to climb out. In a last ditch effort Simon descends further into the crevice, hoping to somehow find a way out. He does. Eventually he makes it back to the original camp, enlists the help of others, and rescues his friend. It is quite an amazing story with a miraculous outcome.
Yet, what struck me most about the story was that in the face of certain death, neither man once appealed to God for help. In the book by the same title, Joe describes his early exposure to the Catholic faith tradition and his rejection of it. In time, he became hostile to God, considering him to be totally irrelevant to his life. He had willfully become a person beyond the point of no return, a man with a heart that had been hardened toward God.
This story serves as a cautionary tale for our spiritual journey. For even as God's children we can willfully harden our hearts. And while this does not place our eternal salvation at risk, it does place our earthly lives and our eternal rewards at risk. I urge you to choose to humble yourself, exalt God, and thereby strengthen your heart, while you still have the opportunity. Resist the temptation to go the other way by exalting yourself and hardening your heart. We can only lift God up in our hearts by bowing them down in humble submission.
Tozer confesses; "I have one fear: that I may convince the mind before God can win the heart. For this God-above-all position is one not easy to take. The mind may approve it while not having the consent of the will to put into effect." That is, it is possible for your mind to go along with a decision for which your heart is not quite ready. Tozer well understood human tendencies when he wrote, "While the imagination races ahead to honor God, the will may lag behind and the man must make the decision before the heart can know any real satisfaction. God wants the whole person and he will not rest until he gets us in entirety. No part of man will do."
Tozer concludes this chapter with the following words: "God will unveil his glory before his servant's eyes, and he will place all his treasures at the disposal of such a one, for he knows that his honor is safe in such consecrated hands."
Are you ready for God to consecrate the hands of your heart? If so, he's willing to entrust to those hands his greatest treasures. This prayer is a good place to start:
"O God, be thou exalted over my possessions. Nothing of earth's treasures shall seem dear unto me if only thou art glorified in my life. Be thou exalted over my friendships. I am determined that thou shalt be above all, though I must stand deserted and alone in the midst of the earth. Be thou exalted above my comforts. Though it mean the loss of bodily comforts and the carrying of heavy crosses, I shall keep my vow made this day before thee. Be thou exalted over my reputation. Make me ambitious to please thee even if as a result I must sink into obscurity and my name be forgotten as a dream. Rise, O Lord, into thy proper place of honor, above my ambitions, above my likes and dislikes, above my family, my health and even my life itself. Let me sink that thou mayest rise above. Ride forth upon me as thou didst into Jerusalem mounted upon the humble little beast, a colt, the foal of an ass and let me hear the children cry to thee, 'Hosanna in the highest.'" Amen.