Review – A Passion for God: The Spiritual Journey of A. W. Tozer

Standard

Others before me have gone much farther into holy mysteries than I have done, but if my fire is not large it is yet real, and there may be those who can light their candle at its flame.

—A. W. Tozer

'A Passion for God: The Spiritual Journey of A. W. Tozer' by Lyle DorsettIf I were to examine my life and discover what man has contributed more to my own spiritual growth, it would be no stretch to say that Aiden Wilson Tozer has enlarged my knowledge of God in great ways. No other Christian author has made me think and weep like Tozer has, and I believe I would not be writing this blog if not for him. In fact, I may not have been very much of a Christian presence anywhere if it were not for Tozer.

Most peers would cite C. S. Lewis as their favorite author, but while Lewis is most definitely a profound idea man, he has always paled against Tozer when it comes to describing and helping others discover the mystery of union with Christ. Tozer is as close as Evangelicals get to a genuine mystic, and that is a shame because, in its essence, knowing Christ is the very heart of the divinely mystical. Too few Christians today share that sort of grasping of the person of Christ that Tozer shows his readers, and I must believe that we would be far poorer in this understanding if not for Tozer.

As much as I love Tozer the author, I knew little of the man himself. What a blessing that one of my favorite professors when I was student at Wheaton College, Dr. Lyle Dorsett of Beeson Divinity School (who also happens to be a renowned expert on C. S. Lewis), has written a biography of the patron saint of Cerulean Sanctum. Until this biography, I was not even aware that two previous works on Tozer’s life existed or else I would have devoured them eagerly. Despite knowing nothing of these previous bios, it was my great fortune to write Lyle a few years ago and hear from him that he was in the process of writing A Passion for God: The Spiritual Journey of A. W. Tozer. When the book made it to pre-order on Amazon, I put in my order right away.

A Passion for God is a difficult book, not something I expected on opening it.The primary difficulty comes from  the fact that it contains a mere 150 pages of genuine biographical material, leaving a tad unquenched readers’ thirst to know more about the man who has been routinely labeled a genuine 20th century prophet.  This is not to say that the scholarship here is inadequate, far from it, only that the private Tozer remains almost inhumanly private.

Dorsett chooses to open his examination of Tozer with the quote, “I’ve had a lonely life.” Indeed, as enormous a spiritual giant Tozer most definitely was, he proved a tough man to know. Even his family felt the distance, especially his wife Ada. Dorsett portrays a man who at once was close to Jesus and yet remote from the others who loved him. Once Tozer left the home of his youth, he eschewed visits, even going so far as to resist visiting his wife’s family, even though his mother-in-law was instrumental in introducing Tozer to the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Tozer himself had been converted in 1915 shortly before his 18th birthday, praying to receive the Lord in the attic of his family’s Akron home. Having been born into a poor dirt farming household that later moved to the Rubber City, Tozer never forgot his humble roots. He took his disdain for wealth into his marriage to Ada in 1918; after his death it was revealed that he’d been giving half his paycheck back to the churches he had pastored, had refused a pension in the Christian & Missionary Alliance denomination in which he served for decades, and had taken no royalties on the paperback editions of his bestselling books.

Tozer pastored briefly in several poor churches in West Virginia and Ohio before ultimately receiving a call to Southside Alliance Church in Chicago where he stayed for most of his life. He didn’t like to drive, so his family stayed close to the church for years, even after the humble wooden church was replaced with a far grander building.

Dorsett ably recalls Tozer’s rise within the C&MA as the leaders of that group rapidly understood they had a winner on their hands. Or more like a blaze. For it seemed that wherever Tozer went, people caught fire. He went on to be a radio preacher on WMBI, the voice of Moody Bible Institute, and eventually garnered a nationwide audience.

In 1960, Tozer accepted a call to do nothing but preach at Avenue Road Church in Toronto, serving for three years before succumbing to a heart attack 45 years ago on May 12, 1963.

A Passion for God reveals much more of Tozer’s life than I just summarized. A few worthy notes:

  • Both Tozer and his wife battled depression. Tozer once told his younger assistant pastor, Raymond McAfee, “If you want to be happy, never ask for the gift of discernment.”
  • Tozer was a very staunch pro-American patriot and was deeply affected by World War II, maintaining a special admiration and care for soldiers and their families.
  • Fearing that he’d succumb to too many human compliments, Tozer would avoid greeting his congregation at the door of the church after services, preferring to visit his church’s nursery and talk with young parents.
  • Family devotion times at the Tozer household appear to have been just as difficult to schedule and pull off as they are in some of our homes.
  • Students, especially at Wheaton College, Moody Bible Institute, and later at his church in Toronto, adored Tozer and his messages. Tozer returned that affection, maintaining a lifelong soft spot for young people.
  • Tozer wrote one of his most famous works, The Pursuit of God, in one day while traveling by train to speak at another church.
  • Despite not having much education beyond fourteen years, Tozer devoured as many books as he could read, electing to read widely on many topics, particularly writings of pre-Reformation Christians who had been largely ignored by Protestants of his time. Tozer himself never attended college or went to seminary. He routinely cautioned potential pastors about problems with the seminary system.
  • Tozer spent hours in prayer and study in his office at the church, often prostrate on the floor. He even wore a specially tailored pair of pants that allowed him to pray longer while kneeling.
  • For years, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones tried (unsuccessfully) to get Tozer to come to London to preach at his church.
  • Tozer defined workaholism, somehow managing to squeeze life enough for two people into one, yet when not traveling always made it home for the family dinner.
  • Tozer later regretted some of the harsh statements he made about movies with Christian themes.

While A Passion for God is a deeply needed book on Tozer, I finished it only to have this wave of discontent wash over me. When the forwards, appendices, and index are removed, this book is a scant 150 pages. Because Dorsett revisits some issues repeatedly (Ada Tozer’s longing for a more intimate relationship with a man much more devoted to God than to his wife, for instance), each revisit adds little to what was already said, diluting the fullness of the material even more.

Sadly, the one truth I hoped would be revealed in this biography never seemed to gel for me: What made Tozer’s spiritual journey so profoundly different from all the other evangelical preachers of his time?  Nor did I get a good feel for the one defining aspect of Tozer’s life that set him well apart from his contemporaries: his love for the mystic writers of Christianity. How and why did he latch onto them when they were largely ignored by others?

Dorsett also mentions that in later years Tozer received some critiques for being overly ecumenical, though he devotes only a page or so to this unusual fact about Tozer. This is definitely an underdeveloped thought considering Tozer railed against the increasing worldliness and liberalism he saw steeling away the heart and soul of Evangelicalism. In what may have been an overdevelopment, Dorsett devotes several pages to racial issues in Chicago toward the latter part of Tozer’s ministry there. In truth, Tozer did not have much to say on the issue other than he didn’t want to ignore reaching out to the black community of the time, nor did he like some of the contention, both from whites in his church and blacks in the surrounding neighborhood, that was forcing his congregation to relocate.

Leonard Ravenhill discussed his friendship with Tozer in a few teaching tapes I’ve heard of his, so I was surprised that nothing came of this in the book, especially since I know that Dorsett likes Ravenhill, too. Dorsett also noted that Tozer spoke at several Keswick conferences, though this is not developed at all. I would have liked to have known more about Tozer’s affiliations with some of the trends and schools of thought of the time.

Dorsett’s writing style is light and easy to read, though a tendency to move forward and backward in time makes the sections on Tozer’s childhood and early ministry more difficult to follow than they should be. And while I love Lyle’s passion for certain topics within Christianity, he makes his presence as author a bit too obvious on issues near and dear to his heart, something I loved about him when I had him as a professor but others may find intrusive.

A trade paperback, A Passion for God sports an attractive design, with an easy-on-the-eyes typeface and good whitespace. It includes a few pictures, too. For anyone interested in Tozer, it’s a worthy read, even if it does show that the patron saint of this blog had feet of clay. Then again, so does this blogger.

33 thoughts on “Review – A Passion for God: The Spiritual Journey of A. W. Tozer

  1. Without question Tozer has shaped my spiritual life more than any other author.

    No one else has been able to stir up my longing for God like he does.

    • Seaton,

      Tozer combines a few elements that are rare:

      1. He’s been to the deeper places, so he’s a guide.
      2. He speaks with power to the complacent, so he’s a prophet.
      3. He writes simply and with depth, so he’s a teacher.
      4. He understands the place of paradox and mystery, so he’s a mystic.
      5. He makes us long for more, so he’s a storyteller.

    • Daniel Cowin

      I belive Tozer truly walked with God. His words line up real close to the words of Christ. I was wondering if you are familer with Oawald Chambers his words will also draw you to Jesus Christ and oneness with God.

      Daniel

  2. After enjoying both David Brainerd’s journal and Marsden’s biography of Jonathan Edwards and after reading your book review and closing comment,I think I have a confirmation to this theory of my own on why all good man of God seem to have feet of clay: that our Lord Jesus may shine all the brighter!!

  3. Pingback: Friday Blog Roundup - May 16 « Scott Cheatham’s Weblog
  4. Joshua Cookingham

    I have a question?

    Does it say which statements regarding movies he regretted?

    Just curious, as I’m a Christian film-maker who knows about Tozer’s dis-like for film….

  5. Geert-Jan

    Thanks for the introduction to this Biography on Tozer. He has introduced me to the Cloud of Unknowing, Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle and so on. Amongst other things I think Tozer has made me a more balanced christian. I have given away Tozers books here in Holland for years now, especially the Knowledge of the Holy, I talk back to the devil en the Christian book of mystical verse. And these books change peoples lives! They really do. Lately I have come to look to John Piper as a spiritual guide and mentor. But I always wondered why he is not quoting Tozer more often, as they seem to be real familiair spirits. I certainly look forward to reading this biography and to coming to know more about this modern mystic.

    Kind regards from Holland,

    Geert-Jan.

  6. Brian

    I wish someone would write a book or make a movie about how these larger than life “Christian ministers” forsake the commandment to train their children and disciple their wives. Why do we keep putting these men who miss the qualifications in 1 Timothy to be “lifted up” as great examples of faithful men?

    • Brian,

      We are all products of our times. We forget how it was with other times. The great missionary push of the 19th century would not have happened under a modern Focus on the Family mentality, as such missionaries would have been tarred and feathered in public forums for putting their kids in boarding schools for years at a time while they were away. As for discipling one’s wife, I will contend that’s a very recent notion, at least how we tend to understand it and practice it.

      Jesus said many things about family, not all of them in keeping with modern notions among Christians. Perhaps we make a greater idol of family than we understand.

      Rather than always viewing other ages under my selfish lens, I instead turn their lens on me and ask in what ways I’m wrong. Only then do I reverse it.

      We all think too highly of our own way. Perhaps we should consider another’s with less judgment and our own with far more.

  7. Brian

    Many monks and mystics had “A Passion for God” but the kind of passion that seems to please God does not manifest itself in the dark in the back of a prayer closet and does not ignore the very souls that have been entrusted to us… READ the Following and ponder his legacy…

    I was told that after A.W. died, Ada was asked if she missed him. She had been re-married by this time. Her reply was tragic to me. She said something like this: “A.W. was God’s man, but my new husband is my man.” Oh, that it would not be said of us! May we be wholly given to Him, and to those whom He has given us.

  8. Hector

    Brian,
    Yes,the kind of passion that pleases God “does not manifest itself in the dark in the back of the prayer closet” but that’s where it is imparted to you from God.
    Also, perhaps Ada voiced those feelings about Tozer, perhaps not, but I imagine Jesus’ family (mother and siblings) might have voiced similar feelings concerning Him and His ministry!

    • George

      Hector,

      Possibly, but Jesus never married. He didn’t commit to a wife and family. Had Jesus been a husband, He would have, as He said in His word “love[d] his wife as He [Christ] loved the Church, and gave himself up for her”. Neglecting your wife and kids is not the mark of a godly man. Stop putting men on a pedestal. The guy was no saint. His words were one thing. How he treated his wife and kids was quite another. There is much to question on someone’s words if their life does not match. You may have the respect of thousands of readers, but if your kids resent you for not being a father to them, you deserve no respect. Neglecting the most important assignment you’ve been given is the most tragic thing, regardless of how well you can write. Why spend hours in prayer while your wife is in tears? Go first and deal with your priority, and then let’s talk about being close to Jesus. Perhaps seven kids were tough to raise, and it was easier to run away to the lonely, quiet office, or the far away trip to some speaking engagement. How ’bout the wife facing the seven kids by herself?? Makes no sense whatsoever.

  9. Idowu Dare Leke

    Well, i’v learnt not to Judge others but to learn from their imperfections and to avoid them. However Tozer was no doubt a man who Walked with God.

  10. Idowu Dare Leke

    Ever since i came in contact with a book by Tozer as an undergraduate in Nigeria i’v seen in Him a prophet considering the fact that the modern wave and consumer christianity he spoke against is becoming the order of the Day now, i’v ever loved the grace of God that pervaded his life and ministry. He came, spoke but men did not listen however a few did. This week(sunday) to be precise marks the golden Jubile of His death yet He is still speaking even to us here in Nigeria.
    Even though i don’t really know much about His family, His wife and children and i’l be willing to make inquiry about them especially after His passage into Glory.

  11. Idowu Dare Leke

    Yes we do. But i think God is always saying this ‘and i sought for a man among them’ may The Lord find us tied down as Colt tied for Him

  12. Len Hummel

    Yes. Tozer deserves a much more thorough biography. Tho this one, apparently, is still reasonably well done.

    It is my conviction that Tozer, Ravenhill, and Oswald Chambers have had the most *positive, sobering & convicting* influence on the 20th Century/21st Century church above all others.
    There have been many fine men of GOD in the 20th Century, but these three stand out above all others, in my view and understanding.

    PS/ Here’s a blog suggestion: insights on James Robison linking with Ken Copeland [and others] to “go Home to Rome” and thus meeting with the new Jesuit Pope in further “ecuMenicalism” among established churches and various charismatics. – something is very VERY wrong here.

  13. Perhaps Tozer had a calling on his life he didn’t recognize as a young man, and that was one of celibacy. Christ Himself teaches some are made eunuchs by man, some are eunuchs by birth, while others are eunuchs by choice (Matthew 19:12). It would seem everyone involved would have been better off should Tozer have remained unmarried. Of course, he wouldn’t have had his children.

    It’s obvious in retrospect that God had plans for his life. Perhaps Tozer married to fulfill Scripture that mentions a man of God should have one wife. How often we disqualify men from the pulpit who are not married! The idea, of course, is that if a man can manage his family, he can manage a church. Where, then, does that leave the eunuchs by choice? Are they left to be David Brainerd types, missionaries or evangelists? Can they even be deacons? Wasn’t this the preferred state of the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 7:8)? He wasn’t married, and yet, by his own pen a minister should be of one wife (1 Timothy 3:2). Does Paul therefore disqualify himself from ministry? No, I don’t believe so. But perhaps he did disqualify himself from leading a specific congregation.

    As a woman, I bring a unique perspective to the table in this discussion. I do believe Tozer was in the wrong not to disciple his family. However, we do not know the kind of woman his wife was. We can tell a lot from her words about Tozer vs. her new husband – that Tozer loved Christ and her new husband loved her (which seemed to be the better option in her opinion). This tells me she may have harbored bitterness toward the Lord for using Tozer so mightily, which could have made Tozer unable to reach her spiritually. As the mother of the household, she holds tremendous sway over raising the children. Perhaps she harbored that same bitterness in the hearts of her children. A man’s enemies are those of his own household.

    Perhaps she didn’t want to talk about the things of God while they were together as a family. The man of God would be hard-pressed to do this, as his entire life is saturated in the presence of God day-in and day-out. That is who you are. Literally, Christ IS your life. If you cannot talk about the Object of your life’s work with the one who shares your life, you begin to withdraw. I know about this first-hand. When I married, my husband professed Christ. Twenty years later, he has recanted and now identifies as agnostic. I realized after almost two decades that my husband was a false convert and I was too enamored with him (and too young in my faith) to see it at the time. We were both very young when we married. Now I am in a situation I never thought I would be in – unequally yoked.

    Connecting with my husband is a struggle for me, as I have soared high on the wings of eagles with regards to my love for Christ, yet he is placing all his trust in science and evolution. While Mrs. Tozer was lonely for a “normal” husband to participate in the mundane activities of the day, MR. Tozer was lonely for a like-minded Christian with which to share his passion. You can see this struggle in him in his superbly-written essay, “The Loneliness of the Christian”.

    Mr. Tozer was far from the ideal husband and father. But in comparing his journey to my own, I think I understand him to a point – that all but Christ is vanity. Unlike Tozer, however, I have taken it upon myself to disciple my children in Jesus’ name considering my husband has forfeited his spiritual headship to me through his denial of Christ. I am seeing great fruit from this endeavor, as I believe it pleases God to glorify Him through the hearts of my children.

    It is very painful, sharing a life with a person who wants nothing to do with the very One you treasure. As I said before, the serious disciple of Christ has made Christ the heartbeat of their life. When your spouse is not on the same page, they cannot be intimate with the deepest part of you. I can see this in Tozer’s marriage. For all we know, she was such a wife outlined in Proverbs 21:9 and Proverbs 29:24. Perhaps Tozer took Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:29 to heart. Hopefully, despite his shortcomings, many of those prayers in his closet were for his wife and children.

    • Len Hummel

      Interesting observations. However, I’m sure you agree that we cannot judge a man and his marriage, except, perhaps, by whether his children learned to love & honor him {and the LORD} in their life. Did any of his children later go into ministry ? I’m not sure. But your sharing regarding “being unequally yoked” with either unbelief or a dim & dying fire {or love} for Christ are very very true. Sadly true.
      I thank GOD every day that I have a godly wife who loves Christ earnestly and from the heart. – she has been a gift to me in every way.

  14. I will have to take the time to read this biography, each biography takes a different view of the person. I see this even in the 4 gospels of jesus, each emphasizing different areas or angles of the person. Tozer journyed far and found evangelicalism lacking. We are no better today but worse. We can learn to follow Tozer in some areas were he found the reality of God in his life.

    • Greg,

      Lyle Dorsett was a professor of mine at Wheaton, one of my favorites. He has a gret rep for bringing to life those he bios. I learned many things about Tozer I did not know, so the bio is definitely worthwhile for those who want to know more about him.

  15. Fay

    I have recently read that all seven of Tozer’s children deeply loved and followed the Lord in adulthood. That in itself gives important insight into his success as a father in the lives of his children, although several of them have commented that they had wished for a closer relationship with their father.
    We must also remember that Tozer’s own father was a hard, disagreeable, and harsh man. A. W. Tozer’s children remembered him as gentle and forgiving toward them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *