My unassisted heart is barren clay,
That of its native self can nothing feed:
Of good and pious works Thou art the seed,
That quickens only where Thou sayest it may:
Unless Thou show to us Thine own true way No man can find it:
Father! Thou must lead.
[Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). Translated by William Wordsworth]
I. Seeking God: Psalm 42:1-2*
These days, it is popular for Christians to attend seminars that feature foreign speakers who share their expertise in innovative worship and prophetic ministry that promise to kindle higher spiritual experience. However, eager and hungry souls who hanker after such promises may be disappointed, after having tried all these spiritual innovations to find that God remains an inference, a temporary trip rather than an ever present reality. It is no wonder the quest for that spiritual fads and fashions remains a phenomenon among churches today.
Other Christians may confess to a sense of spiritual jadedness resulting from a style of worship characterized by wooden routines of dead tradition that suffocate the longing soul (‘ritual murder’). Perhaps a better way is found in contemporary worship offered by big modern churches that are epitomes of visionary leadership, congregational enthusiasm and certainly organizational sophistication. Surely God is pleased with the impeccably organized programs and the awe-inspiring music that fosters energetic and enthusiastic worship?
However, enthusiasm should be tempered by an awareness that well-intentioned activities could distract God’s people from the fixing their eyes on God and God alone. We may become so engrossed in the affairs of the kingdom that we lose sight of the King himself. We value meetings and methods that promise uplifting spiritual experiences but God is more concerned for godly men and women who hunger for him. In the final analysis, all works of personal piety and church activities are but means to an end – that is, to consecrate men and women so that their only passion is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. Everything else, including good church activities, will pass away for only what is built on Christ will last (1 Cor. 3:10-15).
The children of Elijah should know that God is not found in the mountain-rending wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire, nor in our activities, but in a still small voice (1 Kings 19: 11-13). The way to God begins when we cease from frantic activities that give rise to a warped sense of self-sufficiency. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). It is in quietness that we realize that it is God who reaches out to us instead of us desperately seeking God through our frantic activities. We sense how God partially lifts the veil when he speaks to us in a still small voice and stirs within us an immense longing for him, “My soul pursues you; your right hand upholds me” (Psalm 63:8).
We pursue God because, and only because, He has first put an urge within us that spurs us to the pursuit. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him”, said our Lord. The impulse to pursue God originates with God, but the outworking of that impulse is our following hard after him; and all the time we are pursuing him we are already in his hand (A.W. Tozer, Pursuit of God, p. 12). It is by his grace that we catch a glimpse of his glory. However, this heavenly taste of God is not an end but an inception, for now begins the glorious pursuit of God. “To have found God and still to pursue Him is the soul’s paradox of love, scorned indeed by the too-easily-satisfied religionist, but justified in happy experience by the children of the burning heart” (p. 15). Like Moses, such a yearning heart can only cry out to God, “I beseech you, show me your glory.”
II. The Way of Simplicity
However, drawing near to God begins by stripping away all trappings of impressive religiosity. Sophisticated and frantic activities must give way to simplicity. God’s way of simplicity is open to the ardent heart which is willing to pursue after him with single-minded determination and undistracted attention.
It is like the man who gives away all other treasures that he may find the pearl of great price (Mt. 13:46). We must first be poor before we can become rich in him. As our hearts hunger and seek after God, “we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18). In Tozer’s words:
The way to deeper knowledge of God is through the lonesome valleys of soul poverty and abnegation of all things. The blessed ones who possess the Kingdom are they who have repudiated every external thing and have rooted from their hearts all sense of possessing. They are the “poor in spirit”…Though free from all sense of possessing, they yet possess all things. “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (p. 23).
1. Not Asceticism
Tozer is not calling us to asceticism. Rather, he calls us to be like Abraham, who, though possessing everything, yet possessed nothing (p.27). Like Abraham we must recognize that all we have are loaned to us by God. We must be released from a spirit of possessiveness that clutches the heart so that we may be free to pursue after God. Yes, we are thankful for many blessings from God, but a sense of gratitude helps us realize that what we possess is really nothing before God. Furthermore, our renunciation is not an end in itself, but only to direct our sight beyond the gifts to the Giver. It is to be like the Jews of ancient days, who despite being given gracious access into the tabernacle, will not be contented to be detained by the activities outside the veil where the rich aroma of sacrifices captivates the senses. Into that veil we must enter even as our Saviour did, presenting his total life as an offering to God. Unlike the ascetic, “the knowledge that we are all God’s, that He has received all and rejected nothing will unify our inner lives and make everything sacred to us” (p.122).
2. Not Legalism
Neither is Tozer advocating legalism. He knows that our inauthentic ‘hyphenated-selves’ create obstacles to our communion with God. Our self-righteousness, self-pity, self-confidence, self-sufficiency, self-admiration, self-love, etc., are “not removed by instruction but by destruction” (p.46). Our determination to renew the heart through rules and rituals may be admirable, but such efforts are doomed to fail because “the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”(Jer. 17:9). Tozer’s prodding is firm and convicting, “We have but to look into our own hearts and we shall see it there, sewn and patched and repaired it may be, but there nevertheless, an enemy to our lives and an effective block to our spiritual progress” (p. 44).
The Apostle Paul has warned us that “such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Col. 2:23). Our renunciation must be substituted with or rather, be claimed by the supreme good, i.e., God himself; otherwise, as our Lord has warned, seven greater spirits will repossess the empty house (Lk. 11:26). It is painful when God puts to death the old sinful self in us, but an incomparable experience of the living God is promised to the heart that unconditionally surrenders itself into God’s hands.
Self is the opaque veil that hides the Face of God from us. It can be removed only in spiritual experience, never by mere instruction. As well try to instruct leprosy out of our system. There must be a work of God in destruction before we are free. We must invite the cross to do its deadly work within us. We must bring our self-sins to the cross for judgment… It is never fun to die. To rip through the dear and tender stuff of which life is made can never be anything but deeply painful. Yet that is what the cross did to Jesus and it is what the cross would do to every man to set him free… The cross is rough, and it is deadly, but it is effective…After that is resurrection glory and power, and the pain is forgotten for joy that the veil is taken away and we have entered in actual spiritual experience the Presence of the living God (pp. 46-47).
The wearisome burden of meeting religious expectations and the artificiality of fervent religiosity to mask real inward poverty is left behind as the soul takes delight and reposes in God’s refreshing presence.
3. Not Experience as an End
Only when the soul is gazing upon a saving God will it be delivered from a covert self-centredness, deceiving itself in the guise of seeking higher spirituality. It is indeed a thin line between sensuality and spirituality. It is euphoric to share the celebratory moods and emotions of an exuberant congregation singing and swinging along with the upbeat rhythm of modern worship songs. However, it is only too easy for the spiritual experience to become an end in itself and those who fall into this “spiritual Epicureanism” should take note of M. Bremond’s warning, “I have observed that many draw no distinction between God and the feeling of God, between faith and the feeling of faith … The love that desires to walk the way of God’s will by the road of spiritual pleasure (“parmi les consolations”) walks ever in fear of taking the wrong path, and of loving the spiritual pleasure more than the will of God…. There is no small difference between occupying oneself with the God Who gives contentment, and amusing oneself with the contentment which God gives. The soul to whom God gives holy, loving quiet in prayer, should refrain as far as possible from the consideration of herself and her repose, which to be preserved must not be curiously observed; for he who loves it too much loses it. The right rule to possess this love is not to be obsessed by it” (quoted by Kenneth Kirk: The Vision of God, Longmans, 1932, p. 490).
III. The Real Goal of Pursuing God
On the other hand, Paul has assured us that if God alone is what matters to us, even without any conscious effort, then “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). It matters not if we find ourselves out-of-sync with the ways of the world, for God plants in us, surprisingly, a new outlook and a new sensibility; no, more than that, a new personality that is in conformity with the image of Jesus Christ. The surrendered heart that reposes in worshipful submission discerns the will of God and responds with joyful obedience. The transformed life then becomes a true sacrament (what a felicitous choice of word by Tozer, p.117), an instrument cleansed for the Master’s use (2 Tim. 2:20-21).
The pursuit of God is not to be confused for the lonely spiritual exploits of an isolated pilgrim. Is it not true that to be conformed to the image of the Christ is to become a servant as he was, to be blessed with a greater desire and ability to serve the community of fellow pilgrims? God forbid that we should dichotomise individual spirituality and congregational spirituality. In Tozer’s words, “Social religion is perfected when private religion is purified. The body becomes stronger as its members grow healthier. The whole church of God gains when the members that compose it begin to seek a better and higher life” (p.97).
Taste and See
Following after God will always be an unending paradox. Our soul finds its peace in the bosom of the Good Shepherd but it continues to pursue after him (p.15). When we give away everything, we lack nothing in him. In confessing our own inability, we reap a harvest of holiness in him. All this is because in the final analysis, our blessings rest on the grace of God alone. Only if God first reaches out to us are we able to draw near to Him. We are weak creatures but his promise is ever new, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor.12:9). O taste and see that the Lord is good (Psa. 34:8).
O God, I have a caught a glimpse of your glory and tasted your goodness. You satisfy my deepest longings and make me thirst for more of you. Lift me above the allure of an empty world to discern and desire the fullness of joy that is found only in you. Consecrate every power within me that I may relentlessly seek after you with a pure heart. Amen.
Worship of God and Ways of Man
*A meditation in appreciation of A.W. Tozer. The Pursuit of God. Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1961.