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Following Hard After God

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As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God." (Psalm 42:1)

The Question

"What do you want more than anything else in the world?" The question is always there. It ignites the wish behind every birthday candle ceremony. It enchants the dream expressed in every child's Christmas list for Santa. It informs the hope that accompanies every wedding toast. It breeds the expectation that attaches to each new birth. It fuels the yearning that erupts in a mid-life crisis. It colors our understanding of every promise in Scripture. And it articulates the imbedded anguish in every prayer request. It is the question: "What do you really want?" "What do you really want from God?" "What do you really want from God, more than anything else in the world?"

Aiden W. Tozer's answer to that profound question is elegant simplicity itself. More than anything else in the world, he wanted God, God alone. And so he chose to order his life around that one single pursuit — the pursuit of God. And he penned a classic little book that invites us to join him in that holy pilgrimage. In 1948, he offered The Pursuit of God as a "modest attempt to aid God's hungry children so to find Him."

In many ways Tozer was a modern-day prophet as well as a down-to-earth mystic. He was a self-educated man, forced by his home situation to forfeit the formal education of either high school or college. Yet, through years of diligent study and disciplined prayer, he prepared himself for the God-ordained role of calling the modern Church back to the practice of godliness. With no teacher but the Holy Spirit and many good books by ancient spiritual masters, he looked up from his lifelong posture of kneeling and cried out for others to follow him in the only pursuit that truly satisfies. He was convinced that a life given to seeking God first does not constrict one's life, but enlarges it beyond one's wildest wishes, hopes, and dreams.

Tozer was not a man who spoke of God by way of hearsay, like those religious leaders of his generation, for they hungered not for his presence, but for his presents. But he spoke of God as one who spent extended time with God. He knew God as an intimate friend. To highlight the difference between the two, he takes us back to Mt Carmel where Elijah is doing battle with the prophets of Baal. In Tozer's retelling, he pictures the religious leaders as those who have carefully laid out the stones for the altar, and have precisely divided the sacrifice into parts. But instead of calling down God's fiery presence from heaven, as Elijah did, they are caught up with the ritual of counting the stones, arranging and rearranging the pieces, as if that is what will please the Lord, oblivious to the fact that God is not there.

Is this not often true of many of us? We take such delight in bringing our sacrifice and in building our altar to code, and yet seem unable to reconcile ourselves to the continued absence of fire. He cites biblical teachers who, while satisfied to teach the biblical fundamentals of the faith year after year, seem strangely unaware that there is no manifest Presence in their teaching, nor anything with the mark of the divine in their personal lives. People come longing to meet with God, but leave with that longing still in their breasts. Still there are those few who "are athirst to taste for themselves the 'piercing sweetness' of the love of Christ."

How God Grows a Saint

In Robert Clinton's book, The Making of a Leader," he lays out a process by which God often grows his spiritual saints. It includes 6 developmental phases: (1) Phase 1 — Sovereign Foundations; (2) Phase 2 — Inner-Life Growth; (3) Phase 3 — Ministry Maturing; (4) Phase 4 — Life Maturing; (5) Phase 5 — Convergence; and (6) Phase 6 — Afterglow.

During the Sovereign Foundations phase, God providentially works through a person's family, environment, and life events in such a way as to woo them, court them, and draw them unto himself in the "in-Christ relationship." For instance, if you were to think back over your lifetime, you would realize that your life is much like a story, with certain actors, a unique plot, riveting drama, ongoing narrative, captivating suspense, and surprising resolution. No two people have life stories that are identical. Everyone who is "in-Christ," was brought into that relationship in a different way. For our infinite God has an infinite number of ways to connect with each of his unique children.

After the Sovereign Foundations phase, comes the Inner-Life Growth phase. Here God's emphasis is on growing the interior life of the believer. One learns the importance of understanding and obeying God's word, of becoming fluent in the two-way dialogue of prayer, of trying and testing one's ministry muscles for the first time. For just as a newborn will naturally progress from infancy to childhood and on to adolescence and adulthood, so the new believer should intentionally progress beyond spiritual infancy. The absence of such growth is what appalls Tozer, as it ought to shock us. A baby acting like a baby is cute. But a mature adult functioning like an infant is not cute, it is tragic. But it is infinitely more tragic in the spiritual life of the believer.

Next comes the Ministry Maturing phase. Here, the task is to grow up with respect to serving God by developing your exterior "ministry proficiency." As a maturing person, you must discipline yourself in the realm of biblical knowledge, ministry skills, proven techniques, and valuable resources. This is the season where you should begin to recognize and express the unique way in which you have been designed to contribute to the Body of Christ. As you integrate all of God's good gifts (i.e., your deepest convictions, your unique enablement, your providential life experience, your educational background, your network of relationships, your complementary skills, etc.), you should sense a growing clarity regarding God's sovereign call for you.

For example, if God has gifted you to teach, you should be aware of several things by the time you reach this phase. First of all, you should have observed that your gift of teaching has been present within you from your earliest days, albeit sometimes cloaked in not-so-obvious expressions. Secondly, you should have recognized that your gift of teaching is highly conditioned as to what topics you prefer to teach, what ages you are most comfortable teaching, what environments motivate your teaching, what teaching style comes most naturally to you. And finally, you should have sensed that your gift of teaching expresses itself as something you "love to do" and "do well," as you define well. This means that it is much more than something you "can do" or even something you "can do well." It will feel more like a mission, a destiny, a calling, a "must do."

Furthermore, as you continue to express your teaching gift, you should become very aware of your dependence upon God. For even though teaching gift is God given, it still must be God powered to be pleasing to him. You must recognize that your effort alone, no matter how disciplined and committed, is not enough to meet the needs of those who come hungry for God. Thus the stewardship of your gift must involve extended time on your knees in communion with him. But what happens after you've taught for a while? You'll be tempted to depend upon your technique and experience, rather than the power of the Holy Spirit. And the day you stop being totally dependent upon the Spirit is the day you stall out in this phase and fail to progress to the next phase.

The Life Maturing phase comes next and complements the Ministry Maturing phase. Here, the task is to grow up with respect to serving God by focusing on your "spiritual formation." As a maturing person, you must devote yourself to biblical obedience, developing a servant's heart, engaging in the disciplines of the Spirit, and in following hard after God. This is the season where you should begin to explore the unique way you find intimacy with each person of the Trinity. And rather than focusing on the gifts given to you, you find your truest satisfaction in focusing on the Giver, the only Gift that truly matters.

There has been a wonderful renaissance of awareness in recent years as to how one goes about loving God with a whole heart. And, as a consequence, virtually every Christian graduate school and seminary now has some course of study devoted to encouraging the formation of Christlikeness within the life of each believer. In my book, Conformed to His Image, I express my conviction that our ministry service ought to flow out of the reality of what the Lord is developing within us. Our lives of "doing" ministry should be energized out of "being" in Christ.

Then Clinton talks about the Convergence phase. By convergence he means that the "doing" of the Ministry Maturing phase and the "being" 'of the Life Maturing phase should gradually blend into one seamless whole. My unique approach to serving God should blend with my unique relationship with God. It is much like what happens in the development of an artist. At first, the painter or musician disciplines herself to imitate the works of those who preceded her. Then, over time, she initiates work that, while still reminiscent of her mentors, begins to evidence distinctiveness. Finally, convergence takes place between the "technology" of the craft and the "artistry" of the heart. Now, we see her innovating in her own signature style. As C.S. Lewis observes, "If you try to become original, you'll never be original." The only path to true originality is to merge the uniqueness of your God-given design together with the uniqueness of God's very presence in you. The by-product is an idiosyncratic reflection of the image of God.

Finally, the last phase is Afterglow or Celebration. This is the culmination of a lifetime of pursuing God and pursuing God's calling for one's life, which is often marked by well-deserved recognition. Frequently, people will seek out the accumulated wisdom of those who have achieved this distinguished phase. And while there is no recognizable task during this phase, it does offer time to reflect on God's faithfulness through the years and to receive honor where honor is due.

Tozer arrives at the same destination as Clinton, yet with greater simplicity. The pursuit of God requires one to move beyond the purely cognitive level. The mind may be the key starting place for this pursuit, but it is not the finish line. While we would never embark on such a journey without the mind-transforming work of the Holy Spirit, the transformation of the heart is the true objective.

This is why "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 call the 'program'". The "program" — a word that harkens back to a stage performance, put on solely for its mass entertainment value. We've taken a vital message of truth, watered it down, dumbed it down in order to fill more seats. We're tempted to think that we've been successful at worship if after a given service we conclude that it was a "good program." We've had fun, but we haven't met with God. We've seen a top-notch production about God, but we haven't actually seen God.

We Pursue Because He First Pursued Us

In the opening chapter, entitled "Following Hard After God," Tozer begins with a reference to "prevenient grace." That is, God's grace always seeks us out before we seek out God's grace. As Jesus says, "No one can come to me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him" (John 6:44a). And so, before we can begin our pursuit of God we must realize that the pursuit of God itself has first been placed within us by God. We hunger for him because he gave us the appetite. We thirst for him because he made us to be thirsty for him. We feel drawn to him because he is drawing us to himself. In short, Tozer tells us, "The impulse to pursue God originates with God, but the outworking of that impulse is our following hard after Him."

The Psalmist states it eloquently: "My soul follows hard after thee; thy right hand upholds me." (Psalm 63:8). Here, there is a mystery, yet no contradiction between God's previous "upholding" and the human's present "following." All the time that we are pursuing Him ("following hard after him") we find that we are already in His hand ("his right hand upholds me").

The key is to see the mystery as a reciprocal response between two persons. God's search for you requires you to search for Him. The real error would be to suppose that once He has found us and we have found Him, the search is over. Actually, once you've embraced Him, the quest to know Him really begins. On the one hand, finding God means that our hunger and thirst for righteousness has been satisfied. But on the other hand, finding God means that the quest continues forever, for our hunger and thirst is infinite and is only satisfied in eternity. The tragedy is that many of God's children, having once quenched their spiritual thirst and tasted God's goodness, abandon the pursuit and settle for the long ago memory of being satisfied.

God calls us into His limitless depths, and the heart that is listening for that call will understand and respond. Tozer was well acquainted with the literature of earlier writers whose works evidenced an intimate knowledge of those glorious depths, He quotes frequently from The Cloud of Unknowing, from Frederick Faber, from Teresa of Avila, from Thomas A Kempis's The Imitation of Christ, from Nicolas of Cusa's The Vision of God, and from Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love. These spiritual masters knew something we need to learn: the most beautiful moment in God's presence is the moment after this.

Making First Things First

My own conviction is that we come more and more to that which we aspire. That is, what we long for, what we desire shapes who we become. So, we return once again to the opening question, "What do you want more than anything else in the world?" Solomon was asked that question by God and assured that whatever he chose, God would give to him. He could have asked for wealth, or longevity of life, or victory over his enemies. But he asked for none of those things. He simply asked for wisdom, that intimate knowledge of God that strengthens one with the skill to guide and govern people in a way that pleases God. And so, because he chose intimacy with God over wealth, long life, or power over one's enemies, God gave him what he asked for, and then threw in the other things as a bonus.

It's the timeless principle of the first and second things. If you pursue the world you'll never find God, and you won't actually find what you're looking for in the world either. For example, if you pursue satisfaction apart from God, as an end in itself, you'll never be satisfied. However, if you pursue God first, then you will find intimacy with the Father, and secondly, the deep satisfaction He knew you also wanted. Pursue Him first and the best of this world will be given to you.

Since God is a person, our pursuit of him is best understood in the language of an intimate relationship rather than the language of a deer hunt. Knowing God cannot be achieved in a one-time encounter as in "I came to know Jesus at a certain time and place." It is not a matter of "I hunted for him; I found him; I'm finished." In fact, I grew up in a subculture where the tradition of giving such testimonies was common. I recall an elderly gentleman who would stand and talk about how he came to faith in Jesus 40 years earlier and then would sit down. Then another person would stand up, give a testimony of coming to faith in Jesus 25 years ago, and then sit down. And on it would go, week after week. But afterwards the question that I was left with was, "So, what has happened since then?"

In other words, these people spoke of their faith journey as a search for God that had been concluded 15, 25, or 40 years ago. And everything since then seemed to be totally irrelevant to them. Is there no connection between what happened long ago and what happened in their life today? Is there no difference between that first step of faith and their walk of faith today? I'm clear on what God did back then, but what is He doing today? But I sat silently and kept the question to myself — until now. And so I ask it of you, as does Tozer, as does your heavenly Father.

The pursuit of God is not a one-step journey. It is a life-long journey. We begin our pursuit with the startling discovery that he has been pursuing us — continuously. And he expects us to respond by pursuing Him — continuously. Tozer emphasizes that our call, our job is to follow hard after Him. While in His gracious grip we are called to pursue him. His initiative toward us carries with it an implicit responsibility. That is, he makes us "response-able" — able to respond. All those who have welcomed His gift of saving grace, also have within them a new longing to know Him better and better as the years progress. And since He is infinite, that pursuit will last throughout all eternity, always as fresh as the moment we met Him for the first time.

The call is for a response of personality to Personality, the response of the created personality to the Creating Personality. Eternal life is not a state of existing forever, but rather being eternally in the presence of a Person. "And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God" (John 17:3). Therefore, heaven is not so much about a place as it is a Person. How strange to find people who have spent their whole life avoiding God, yet thinking that they'll someday enjoy being with him forever. For them heaven would be hell.

Spiritual Masters

We see that to have found God is to still be motivated to pursue Him. It is the soul's paradox of love. When you "come near to the holy men and women of the past and you will soon feel the hear of their desire after God."

Remember Moses and his great encounter with God? Go back to Exodus 33 and hear the radical request he makes of God, "Now therefore, I pray you, if I have found favor in your sight, let me know your ways so that I may know you, that I may find favor in your sight" (Exodus 33:13). How remarkable. He's saying that since his relationship with God is going well, his greatest wish is not to remain where he is, but to go beyond that. He continues his request with the words, "If your presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?" (Exodus 33:15-16).

"And God said to Moses, 'I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and know you by name. Then Moses said, 'Now show me your glory'" (Exodus 33:17-18). Now that's a mighty bold request to make of God. But God is delighted with it.

"I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But, you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live. There is a place near me where you can stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen' (Exodus 33:19-23).

"And so God passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, 'The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin'" (Exodus 34:6-7).

In this exchange between Moses and God, we see that God's glory is accompanied by his attributes. Who God is and what God does go hand in hand. Moses quested hard after God and God responded by showing him more of himself.

We see the same pattern in the life of David — a life full of spiritual passion, but which was sometimes passionate about the wrong things. Yet God did not characterize him according to his sins, but according to his heart. He was " a man after God's own heart." And the reason David's heart was patterned after God's heart was because David's heart was in pursuit (following hard after) of God's heart.

The Apostle Paul evidences the same pattern. His great prayer in Philippians 2 was, "That I may know Him." The knowledge Paul sought was not simply cerebral but intimately personal. And that is what the pursuit of God is — drawing near to God's heart with our heart. Being able " . . . to taste, to touch with our hearts, to see with our inner eyes the wonder that is God."

But this seeking cannot be done apart from a very genuine and deep commitment on the part of every person who longs to see his face. Someone else cannot do it for us. Someone else cannot make the decision for us. There is no other way but to embark on our own personal quest for God's heart, with all of our heart. Any lack of what Tozer calls "holy desire" is a deadly foe of all spiritual growth. Without it, he will not come to us nor allow us to come to him. Like a good lover, he doesn't waste time whining about being wanted, he simply waits to be wanted. And this is really the language of intimacy; he waits to be wanted. He waits while we tire of substituting our slick programs, trendy methods, streamlined organizations, and frantic activities for the sublime ecstasy of his presence alone.

Seeking God-and or God-only

To pursue God with a "holy desire" requires us to simplify our lives. We must learn to approach him as children, with the sense of wonder and awe that is characteristic of children. As Jesus said in Matthew 11:25, "I praise you, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to little children." We are encouraged to approach our heavenly Father with the simplicity of child-like trust. I remember that whenever my father invited me to take a trip with him, I never concerned myself with where my next meal would come from or even if I was going to eat the next day. I never squirreled away food for fear that I would have nothing to eat the next day. I had an implicit child-like trust in my father and knew he had my best interests at heart.

And that's what it comes down to regarding you and God. Does he or doesn't he have your best interests at the heart of his heart? You must wrestle with that question, both parts. First, do you believe that he's in control and you're not? And secondly, does he have your best interests at heart? Clearly faith is involved here, for you don't even know what your best interests are. Therefore, when you pray, your prayers ought to be modified by what he wants for you rather than what you want from him. If he always gave you what you wanted, you'd be destroyed. Better to simply make your needs known and trust him to do what is best.

Simplifying our approach to God means stripping down to the essentials. And when all is said and done the only thing essential is God himself. This requires us to do away with the evil habit of seeking God-and. For it is in that and that great woe lurks. To seek God-and not only prevents us from finding God in any intimate way, but also from finding any lasting satisfaction in any of the ands we attain. However, if we eliminate the God-and mentality, then we will soon find God, and in Him we will find all that we have longed for all our lives.

What kind of ands are you tempted to attach to God? Do you struggle with getting God to approve your personal agenda? Do you reason that if you give God what he wants then perhaps he will anoint your plans? Or, perhaps if you couch your plans in religious sounding language then maybe God will rubber-stamp them? In short, you might be tempted to think that because "reverse psychology" works well on young children, impressionable students, codependent spouses, gullible friends, and naïve parents, surely it will work on God.

Or perhaps your and is happiness. You expect God to make you happy, because you have the right to be happy, don't you — the right to pursue happiness? That's in the Bible, isn't it? No that's in the Constitution, not the Bible. God is not committed to your happiness; he is committed to your holiness. And there is a big difference between the two.

Or perhaps your and is knowledge. Perhaps you are someone who forever lusts after some deep, sophisticated knowledge about God. Your pursuit of him is reduced to an academic exercise that consumes, but does not quench. It only ends in a thimble full of data about God -- his resume, his curriculum vitae, his biography.

But, if you have exhausted yourself on the God-and treadmill, always running after spiritual nourishment, but never getting any close, then you should heed Tozer's admonition. Pursue God-alone. For if you travel that path you will begin to see him with the eyes of your soul, and hear him with the ears of your heart, and feel the gentle way he takes up residence deep in your spirit.

Choosing God's Presents Over His Presence

I once watched a NOVA produced special on "The Mysterious Universe." Among the many interesting topics explored were some edgy hypotheses, such as "string theory." It was some very intriguing stuff. But it seemed strange that these brilliant scientists would expend so much energy in a search for the answers to the big questions of life in our universe, yet never search out the bigger question concerning the meaning of life in our universe. They found amazing examples of beauty in the natural world, but never really raised the larger question of where the beauty came from. It is quite remarkable that people who spend their whole professional lives getting a first-hand look at the intricate wonder of creation, never wonder who brought it into existence. Just so, a Christian who is not careful can also miss God in their quest for spiritual truth about him.

I've seen this happen in Seminary. A person is trained to study the Bible. But after a while they treat it as simply another textbook, forgetting that it is alive and active and able to bring them to the very throne of God. If we're not careful, even biblical education can be a dangerous thing.

Here's a paraphrase of how Larry Crabb puts it in his book Shattered Dreams: Most believers really are more desirous of the better life of God's blessings than they are of the better hope of God's presence. Do you catch that difference? Like greedy little children on Christmas morning, we run past the presence of God to get at the presents from God. We begin to view God as a sanctified Santa Claus who is only good for stuffing our lives full of goodies. Or we treat him as a religious genie who, if we rub him the right way with our prayers and promises, will grant us our fondest wishes. Eventually, we loose sight of God's presence altogether and only pursue the and stuff.

But Tozer uncovers the insanity of this approach. He says, "We need not fear that in seeking God only we may narrow our lives or restrict the motions of our expanding hearts. The opposite is true. We can well afford to make God our All, to concentrate, to sacrifice the many for the One." To pursue the and things of God before the person of God himself, is to insure that we will receive neither. To pursue the person of God, and him alone, is to insure that we will get the one thing our hearts long for most — Him, and with him, comes all the riches of heaven.

A Risky Bet

But remember, there is a risk involved pursuing God-alone. The tribe of Levi was given an inheritance, just like the other tribes, but with a significant difference. The other tribes were given parcels of land, but God said to the tribe of Levi, "I am you parcel and your inheritance." Question: Who got the best deal? Well, the answer depends upon your perspective. If you're after the goodies from God, then Levi lost out. But if you're after the truly good God, then Levi hit the jackpot.

This brings to mind the Lord's words in Matthew 6:33, "Seek first the kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well." Tozer concludes the chapter with this:

"The man who has God for his treasure has all things in One. Many ordinary treasures may be denied him, or if he is allowed to have them, the enjoyment of them will be so tempered that they will never be necessary to his happiness. Or if he must see them go, one after one, he will scarcely feel a sense of loss, for having the Source of all things he has in One all satisfaction, all pleasure, all delight. Whatever he may lose he has actually lost nothing for he now has it all in One, and he has it purely, legitimately, and forever."

 

Let's face it, it's easy to talk about pursuing God-alone, but far from easy to actually do it. It's difficult to abandon our pursuit of what we can see, touch, taste, and posses, and embrace the pursuit of Someone who we can't see. It presents us with a risky decision. After all, we'll be tempted to wonder if we've won big or lost out. My suggestion is to go back through Scripture and history and read the stories of men and women who faced the exact same dilemma. What is their overwhelming testimony? Do you not hear them encourage you to abandon yourself to the pursuit of him above all else, and find that your soul has come home? Do you not hear them proclaim that you are loved by a Father every bit as much as he loves his only begotten Son? Do you not hear them speak eloquently of a divine ability to love him completely and to love others compassionately?

Related Topics: Spiritual Formation