Let me close with a question. We return to the same question we began with. What do you want more than anything else in the world? By now, you know what the "right" answer is. But this question doesn't call for a correct or incorrect answer. It calls for a decision — a wise decision to follow hard after God or a poor decision to chase after everything else. One leads to intimacy, the other to idolatry. Perhaps you are honestly conflicted. That is, you're not ready to pursue God first, but you really don't want it to be that way. Well then ask yourself this question, if you don't want him first, do you want to want him first? Start from where you are and pray, that by the grace of God, you will one day be ready to make God your first and only delight.
Whichever question your heart is asking, pray this prayer.
"O God, I have tasted thy goodness, and it has both satisfied me and made me thirsty for more. I am painfully conscious of my need for further grace. I am ashamed of my lack of desire. O God, the Triune God, I want to want Thee. I long to be filled with longing; I thirst to be made more thirsty still. Show me Thy glory, I pray Thee, that so I may know Thee indeed. Begin in mercy a new work of love within me. Say to my soul, "Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away." Then give me grace to rise and follow Thee up from this misty lowland where I have wandered so long." In Jesus' name, Amen.
Chapter Two - The Blessedness of Possessing Nothing
"Blessed are the poor in spirit:
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:3)
In recent years, the word "passion" has become fashionable and ubiquitous. It is used to market everything from designer perfumes to diet sodas. Both Oprah and Al Qaeda use it as a buzzword. It is used to mean one thing when referring to a young couple in a passionate embrace and something all together different when referring to how passionate that couple is about their new puppy. Everywhere people are passionately searching for careers, carpeting, and cars about which they can be passionate. One can see a passionate kiss, by two passionate actors, who are passionately promoting their movie, as well as praising the intensity of their director's passion. It would seem that by the use of the word, passion is everywhere.
The only consistent element in the varied usages of the word is that they all refer to some feeling of excitement. This currently trendy meaning is far removed from the original root of the word, which means, "to suffer or sacrifice." In fact, one of the rare proper usages of the word is found in the title of the Mel Gibson movie The Passion of the Christ. In that context, there is nothing thrilling, romantic, or alluring about what Christ endured during his arrest, trial, and execution. Rather it is a gripping reminder of how costly a sacrifice was required to purchase our treasured salvation. And it is this perspective on "passion" that Tozer wishes us to consider in Chapter Two of the Pursuit of God.
It seems that of all the magnificent and mesmerizing delights in God's expansive creation, there is a singular treasure tucked away in the divine wall-safe, available to everyone, yet affordable to few. It is reserved for that rare seeker who is hunting for God's best and will settle for nothing less. No bargain basement shopping nor protracted price haggling for this worshipper. For they know that what they want is worth everything they have. These rare men and women are after the crown jewel of eternity, the one magnificent pearl whose retail cost is not measured in dollars, the infinite-carat diamond of heaven. Follow them to the checkout stand and you won't find a register, but an altar. This altar waits for one courageous buyer to willing step up and lay down their life in exchange.
Chapter one of A. W. Tozer's book The Pursuit of God invited you to asked an intriguing question: "What do you want more than anything else in the world?" It was a question about your priorities, it was a question about your first love, it was a question about your heart's deepest desire. Once you have honestly answered that question, a second question follows closely behind. It is the key question of Chapter two: "What are you willing to pay for that which you want most?" This question is critical to ponder, for life teaches that everything worth our passion is worth our sacrifice. And that is true of the pursuit of God.
Previously, Tozer warned us about the counterfeit mindset of God-and. To our American sensibilities, such a concept seems so right that we hardly notice the hyphenation. But that hyphen provides the minute difference between the genuine item and a really good fake. And so we must join God in the ruthless task of severing the ands from our quest of Almighty God.
This is a chapter about attachments. Each of us has a penchant for attaching ourselves to the things and people of this world. From the very beginning you develop an attachment to your mother, your father, and your siblings. Soon we move from playing with "the toys" to playing with "my toys" — an early indication that we not only attach ourselves to things, but we attach things to ourselves. Similarly, over time we closely connect to other people as good friends, best friends, and romantic friends, while they return the favor. And we may eventually bond our lives to another and bring children into the world, the closest attachments in this life.
It is important to keep in mind that the desire for and presence of attachments is not bad. God has designed us with hearts that naturally seek out and find nourishment from the things and people he has made and freely given us. But sin has so distorted his original purpose for creation that these basic and normal desires have become rebellious and harmful to us, serving as hosts for our personal sin. That is, all of these attachments are natural and good . . . unless they are hyphenated to God. Then they must be cut away, sacrificed on behalf our heart's true passion.
First Things First
Before God created mankind on the earth, he created a world of very useful and pleasant things for our sustenance and for our delight. These pleasant things were meant to be external to us, beneficial for us, and governed by us. But they were never meant to dominate us. Tozer writes, "In the deep heart of man was a shrine where none but God was worthy to come. Within him was God; without, a thousand gifts which God had showered upon him. But the problem began when as a result of our sin God was forced out of his central shrine and these created things were permitted to inhabit that deep and most holy of holy places."
As people began to pursue the things from God over God himself, the peace that existed inside and between men and women was absent. As Thomas Merton so relevantly states, "We are not at peace with one another because we are not at peace with ourselves. And. We are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God." Once sin severed the bond between God and us, the break extended all the way down the entire length of the created chain: broken souls, broken hearts, broken minds, broken bodies, broken relationships, and broken trust with the rest of creation.
And so, apart from peace with the living God, no one has any hope of regaining peace within, or peace between, or peace beyond. About this loss of peace, Tozier writes, "There is within the human heart a tough fibrous root of fallen life whose nature is to possess, always to possess. It covets things with a deep and fierce passion. The pronouns 'my' and 'mine' look innocent enough in print but their constant and universal use is significant." Those innocent looking pronouns reveal how deep and expansive our disease really is. We rudely ask God to vacate his rightful place in our hearts, in order to make room for all of the loot we amass. And then we wonder where the peace on earth went?
That's why the great commandments are ordered as to a first and a second one: The first is "To love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind;" and the second is "To love your neighbor as yourself." The vertical relationship with God is to be the first priority, but it cannot and should not be separated from the second priority. Our primary focus is to become God-centered, having peace with him through the blood of Jesus Christ. And then, having been reconnected to our source of life, our souls now possess the power to become other-centered, able to make peace with each other.
The Downside-Up Law
Why is it that those of us who have begun our faith by abandoning everything for the grace of God, now choose to continue our journey of faith by adding something to the pursuit of God? Is it not the tyranny of these additional things that must be cut loose? Luke 9:23-24 records the unambiguous words of our Lord, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it."
There is no third option or room for compromise here. The naked truth is brutal in its meaning and implication. Having once been transformed from death to life, we now must live this new life according to laws that seem downside-up to us. If you wish to say "yes" to Jesus Christ, you must say "no" to everything else. If you wish to hold on to the life you have, you can only do so by giving it away to God. The way of the easy yoke and light burden requires you to shoulder your cross each day, the cross of suffering. Man could never have invented this law; it could only come from above.
Why would you choose a road that seems so antithetical to everything you've experienced in this world? The answer is that Jesus never makes an appeal to self- abnegation without guaranteeing a greater good. He always promises that if we willingly give up that which appears to us necessary for life, and then willingly take up what appears to us an instrument of death, he will only kill off that which is lethal to us and marked for death anyway, but he will develop in us that which is eternal and abundant in life. God's math is the reverse of what we encounter on earth. Matthew 16: 26 poses the question, "What will a man be profited, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul?" That is to say, when you do a profit/loss analysis on your 75-80 years or so of life, do you finish in the black or the red if, on the plus side you've amassed the wealth of the entire world, while on the minus side you've lost your life for eternity?
The answer to that question is only found through faith in what God says, not in what we see. For what we see will always deceive us, making the unreasonable seem so reasonable and the reasonable seem so unreasonable. In the scriptures, God tells us again and again that there is an enemy within each of us that we tolerate at our peril and it is that self-life — a life committed to protecting, feeding, and celebrating the self. But those who would ascend God's holy hill where the exalted knowledge of God resides must commit themselves to destroying, starving, and condemning the self. They must become at home in the lonely valleys of soul poverty and the abrogation of all things. For only the poor in spirit are granted entrance into the kingdom and into the presence of the King. And only those who have rooted out of their hearts all need to possess anything but Christ are qualified. However, we must remember, this is accomplished not by fighting, but by surrender.
God will not force us to give up our toys, our trinkets, or our sandcastles. His approach is that of a good lover: never coercive, always persuasive. He holds out to us that which is far more appealing and invites us to choose that which our heart truly longs for. When I weigh what he promises to give me versus what I am able to give myself, it is like comparing a gourmet meal, exquisitely prepared by a master chef, to a brown bag of leftovers retrieved from the bottom of a dumpster. There's no comparison. Ultimately, all he wants to do is take away that which is destined for the dump and replace it with that which will satisfy our spiritual hunger pangs and nourish our depleted souls.
Like the beaded necklaces they throw at Mardi Gras, we willingly make fools of ourselves for that which in a moment of clouded revelry seem so valuable, but which in the light of sober observation turns out to be cheap and ultimately worthless. Our heavenly Father is grieved watching the heirs to his estate trade away a chance at his eternal riches for tomorrow's garbage. And while the choice must remain with us, he will out of his loyal love, use pain to slowly pry our fingers open, one by one, until we see that what we had gripped so tightly, was just a cheap plastic bauble. Only then can he give us that which is exquisitely beautiful, reserved for those who know value when they see it.
The Agony of the Altar
As is often the case, New Testament truths are brought to life in Old Testament history. There is no more poignant illustration of the surrendered life than the story of Abraham and Isaac. As you recall, Abraham was very old when Isaac was born; old enough to have been his great-grandfather. Isaac was the delight, but also a potential idol in his father's heart. From the moment when he stooped to take the tiny form in his arms, he was a love slave to his long-promised son. In fact, God himself commented on the intensity of the father's affection for the boy.
Isaac represented everything sacred to Abraham's heart: all the promises of God, the sign of the covenant, the longing of his years, and the hope of the messianic dream. So as he watches him grow from infancy into early manhood, the heart of the old man is knit closer to the life of his son, until at last his love bordered on idolatry. And that's when God, with his loyal love, stepped in to save both of them from the damage of an unhealthy love.
So God says to Abraham in Genesis 22, "Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you truly love, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you of." The writer of Genesis spares us the details of how Abraham must have inwardly wrestled with God during that long dark night under the stars near Beersheba. With great insight, Tozier suggests that, "Possibly not again until One greater than Abraham wrestled in the Garden of Gethsemane did such mortal pain visit a human soul. If only the man himself might have been allowed to die. That would have been a thousand times easier, for he was old now, and to die would have been no great ordeal for one who walked so long with God." How glorious if his last vision in life could have been to but gaze upon his only son, the promised seed, the one through whom all the world would be blessed. But no, God was not finished with this old man. He had much to teach him, even now. And somewhere in the struggle of the night, Abraham finally came to a decision. As the writer of Hebrews reveals to us, he decided to offer up his son just as God had directed him to do, and then trust God to raise him from the dead.
And so, God remained silent and let the suffering father go through with it right up to the point where he knew there would be no retreat in his obedience. Then God spoke. Tozer imagines God saying in effect, "It's all right, Abraham. I never intended that you should actually slay the boy. I only wanted to remove him from the temple of your heart that I might reign unchallenged there. I wanted to correct the perversion that existed in your love. Now you may have the boy, sound and well. Now I know that you fear me, seeing that you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me."
Imagine if you will, that God comes to you and points at something you deeply love and can't imagine living without. Furthermore, imagine that he says to you, "I want you to take this thing that you deeply love and sacrifice it to me as an burnt offering." What is the one thing in the temple of your heart that you fear most having God point to? If you're having a hard time identifying it, here's a clue. It won't be anything that you willingly hold out to him and sheepishly place before him. More likely, it will be the thing that you try and conceal from him, the thing that you dare not look at for fear it will give you away, the thing/person that you'd gladly exchange places with if only God would bend the rules. But he will not. For his love is tenacious when it comes to anything or anyone who competes with him for sovereign reign in your heart.
Now Abraham was a man who was wholly surrendered, a man totally obedient, a man who possessed nothing. He had everything — sheep, camels, herds, and goods of every sort, a wife and friends, and best of all he had his son, delivered as it were from the dead. "He had everything, but he possessed nothing," is the way Tozer summarizes Abraham's life. And that is the secret God whispered into Abraham's ear during his agony at the altar. All things can be avenues of God's blessing, but only if we possess none of them. That is a lesson that can only be learned in "the school of renunciation." Graduation signals that season in which we are finished withholding things/people from God, knowing that our truest treasure consists of what remains in our hearts and in his heaven.
Only Room For One
We are frequently hindered from loosening our grip and giving up our most adored treasures out of fear for their safety. But we need not fear, our Lord came not to destroy but to save. Everything we commit to him is safer than anywhere else. In fact, nothing is really secure that is not committed to his care. Once again we see that God's truth is the polar opposite of the world's truth. In this case, that means that what you surrender to him now will be the only things that are safe throughout eternity. And the things that you squirrel away now, "just to be safe," will be those things that never make the trip beyond the grave. The embarrassing truth is that you don't own anything at all. It is all on loan from above — your life, your spouse, your children, your home, your health, your investments, . . . your next breath. And God has given them to you, not as possessions to keep and protect at all costs, but as property to be invested and managed on his behalf. There is no more secure place than in the nail-scared hands of the Savior.
And it's not just the things that you have, but your time and your talents — these also are "short term loners" from God. As Paul puts it in I Corinthians 4:7, "For who makes you superior to anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you did not?" The answer is obvious. You have no reason to feel or act with an attitude of superiority because every good thing that you have, every good thing that you are, is yours only because God gave it to you. No drowning person, miraculously rescued after abandoning all hope, would dare get in front of a TV camera and boast about how wonderfully they played the part of the victim, would they? And how likely would it have been for Lazarus, upon his resurrection, to have run around Bethany bragging about his part in the miracle? So why should we boast when we having nothing to boast about? Is it not most reasonable that the One who so freely gives us all things, will also safely keep all things? As Jim Elliott said, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose."
If the longing after God is primary and strong, you will want to do something about it. Tozier suggests two things. "First of all, he should put away all defense and make no attempt to excuse himself either in his own eyes or before the Lord." You are to begin by being totally honest with God. Trying to talk God into accepting your sub-standard attic junk, while hiding your heart's most cherished treasure from view, will not do. The Holy Spirit was not fooled when Ananias and Sapphira tried it; I'm quite sure he won't fall for our clumsy attempts. He knows everything before we know anything. He knows that we are terrified of laying down the "Isaacs" of our lives and losing them forever. So give up every deceitful trick your heart tries and courageously approach God with your hands open and ready to release everything to him.
Secondly, not only must you be honest with God about your struggle to let go, but you need to remember that this is holy business. You dare not approach this sacred work as if it were simply a casual matter of cleaning out a cluttered closet. No, you are dealing with a place where the King of kings wishes to reign. Thus, in giving up all the things that occupy your heart, you are making room for the One who bought the right to make it his home. Therefore, this undertaking requires sobriety of spirit and focus of discipline. As Tozier writes, "It may be that he will need to become specific (about the "ands" and the Isaacs), to name things and people by their names one by one. If he will become drastic enough he can shorten the time of his travail from years to minutes and enter the good land long before his slower brethren who coddle their feelings and insist upon caution in their dealings with God."
Eventually, God will have your heart. He will not rest; He will not be satisfied until Christ is perfectly formed in you. You can resist the process or you can cooperate with it. There will always be more pain in resisting than in cooperating, but he will get what he paid for at the cross. You've probably heard of the "cost of discipleship" — that the one who gives much to follow Christ in this life will gain much both now and forever. But, have you considered the "cost of nondiscipleship?" It is much greater. In this life alone, it will cost you the joy of seeing his face, hearing his voice, feeling his presence, experiencing his peace, being used as an powerful instrument for his purposes, standing firm in the midst of anything, and having a hope that does not disappoint. If you're doing some comparison-shopping, look very carefully at both price tags.
"We must, in our hearts, live through Abraham's harsh and bitter experiences if we would know the blessedness which follows them. The ancient curse will not go out painlessly; the tough old miser within us will not lie down and die in obedience to our command. He must be torn out of our heart like a plant from the soil; he must be extracted in agony and blood like a tooth from a jaw. He must be expelled from our soul by violence, as Christ expelled the moneychangers from the temple. And we shall need to steal ourselves against his piteous begging, and to recognize it as springing out of self-pity, one of the most reprehensible sins of the human heart."
Testing the Quality of Our Faith
"If we are indeed to know God by growing in our intimacy, we must go to the school of renunciation." There is no way to become Christlike apart from living like Christ. All who choose to follow him must first let go of the stuff of life so that they can lay hold of Life — this is the sanity of holiness. But the process is not over just yet. Sooner or later, every decision made in faith will be tested as to its quality. For it is one thing to claim by faith that your heart belongs to God above all else; it is another thing entirely to cling to that faith when tested by fire. And know for sure that he will test your faith, and you will not know when that test will come. Abraham's test came very quickly. And, instead of dealing with some of the peripheral issues of the old saint's life, God went right to the heart of the matter, placing his holy finger upon the son of promise, and in effect saying, "I want this."
Even so, you too "will be brought one by one to the testing place, and [you] may never know when [you] are there" till after its over." He will not have a dozen chalices from which you can choose to drink. There will be only one. And your whole future will depend upon the choice you make. Choose wisely. Abraham did. And I am convinced that if Abraham had backed down in disobedience, God would have found another man. But Abraham's life would have been irreparably lost. We would have never known about him. His name would be added to the long, long, tragic list of those whose faith failed in the moment of testing. But to the one who renounces all things, the heart's one true Desire comes, for now there is room for him to abide.
"Father, I want to know thee, but my cowardly 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."
Related Topics: Spiritual Formation