One Shot: Reflections on the Life of A.W. Tozer

October 17th, 2008 by

I am just finishing up a new biography on one of the most beloved prophet-hearted teachers in American history. It’s entitled A Passion for God: The Spiritual Journey of A.W. Tozer, written by Lyle Dorsett. I have long loved Tozer’s writings and messages. For over a decade I’ve relished in his insights and fed off of his knowledge of God, and the intensity of his worshipping heart. I’ve read some of the other bio’s on A.W., but this biography is a real gem, and I’m commending it to all of the pastors and laborers in our fellowship here in Kansas City.

It tells of his formation as a man of prayer and incessant worship. It tells of the trials he endured and the stretchings he experienced. It inspires us to forsake a vain pursuit of ministry-breadth, and calls us back to the pursuit of depth in the secret place. Tozer’s relentless longing for the presence and person of God grabs us by the collar of our professional or subjective ideas on ministry, and plops us down in the dust on the backside of the desert. Before long we see the glow of the bush again, and remember why and how we ever put our sandals back on and proceeded to face the people.

I am jolted again. This man labored for 4-plus decades- contending for the faith, reaching out to souls in darkness, setting aright faddish movements and faulty doctrines. Most of all, every soul that was remotely close to A.W. Tozer knew that there were at least 5 hours a day where he was intently removed from all contact with anyone other that the God of Majesty. He knew what it was to behold the uncreated One, to love Him, to listen to Him, to gaze upon Him with delightful and sometimes awe-full attentiveness. He didn’t need adrenalin, entertainment, or programmatic pick-me-ups to bear up his walk with the Lord. He had what Moses had…what David had…what the prophets had…what Paul had. He had a singleness of heart in pursuit after the God of Israel, and he was not willing for anything to stand in the way of that impassioned vision.

I wonder how far we have fallen from this kind of Davidic intensity.

Still, there is another stinging thing in the story of A.W. Tozer. Many believers who have been profoundly affected by his teachings are unaware of the manner of his life at home, and even the manner of his death. He died in a Canadian hospital room in the year of 1963. He was all by himself. He was alone in his death as he was in his life.

One of his colleagues noted that one of the last remarks he ever heard Tozer make was this:

“I have had a lonely life.”

The young revivalist may read this and unleash a heroic cry: “Yes! This is the price that every true man of God pays. You cannot follow the Lord and make friends with every one around you.”

Indeed, this is true. When we cling to the Lord in this life, there will be great opposition and trial. But mere loneliness is not a sign of prophetism, and isolation from family and friends is not necessarily a hallmark of an eternity-centered life. We were created for community.

As Gordon Fee points out, the idea of salvation in the mind of Paul was never primarily a thought toward whether an individual person would be able to make it to heaven or not. Salvation, in the hebraic mind of the early apostles, was a picture of God’s Kingdom breaking into a society and wrenching loose a group of souls from the spirit of this age, that they might be formed and fashioned together by the power of the Spirit into a Body that expresses the very nature of Christ. In other words, we need Christ (!), but we are not likely to experience Him fully if we don’t also experience Him through our experiences in family life and church life.

Life is a fragile thing. “Man is but a mere breath,” the psalmist declares (Psm. 144.4a). I wept on numerous occasions in the reading of Tozer’s biography. For the first time I saw areas of his life that I had never seen before. Gaping holes. Perhaps he was oblivious to them. Perhaps his engagement with ministry travels, reading, writing, preaching, and the remarkable amount of time he spent in “speechless adoration” of Christ filled his plate to the extent that he was incapable of figuring in other necessary Kingdom responsibilities and privileges.

The most heart-wrenching of these blind-spots was his inability, over the course of 40-plus years, to connect relationally with his wife Ada and their 7 children. He also struggled with connecting relationally to the vast majority of the saints who were under his care for all of those decades. They say that he and Ada never fought or argued (as best as we know), nor was there ever a known issue of infidelity or abuse. There was simply this radical, unexplainable inability to relate with his wife and kids to the extent that he would be a presence in their lives. He would be drawn to them as long as they were babies, but when it got past that, he struggled to father them. The story goes that his father was a hardworking farm-man who was quite non-relational himself. I would assume that this passed to his sons and daughters, and it certainly seems that way with A.W.

When Tozer died, though Ada had scarcely (if ever) complained about their distant relationship, she made several things clear. Both she and the children (all adults by the time of his death) were in agreement that they knew very little about this man whose teachings and writings have sent waves of revelation through many hungry hearts. This, to me, is a tragedy of tragedies.

It is not enough to say that “a prophet is not without honor except in his own town.” (Mt. 13.57) Too long have preachers been presumptuously putting themselves in the sandals of Jesus, and blaming the unhealthy condition of their families on the requirements of ministry. We are not Jesus, friends.

Most of us have spouses. Most of us have children. What shall they declare at our funerals? What will our children leave with when they move on into adulthood?

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.

Ironically, a few weeks ago I had just picked up this Tozer bio, and was really getting into it. The kids were playing outside so I decided to sit on the patio in my chair. The plan was to get into the bio (I have a thing for books, in case you didn’t know) while being close enough to supervise the children. As I was reflecting on the fact that Tozer’s children barely knew him, I was looking at his face on the front of the book. Just then, my son Simeon said,

“Daddy, will you play ball with me?”

There was a trembling that went through my soul, and it was as if Tozer was bellowing from the heavens, “Bryan! Don’t look at him the way I looked at mine. Look him in the eye. He is a little boy with a soul, and with his own thoughts, and he is sensitive to you. His heart is beating for you to father him. He is awaiting you, and he will never forget your response to him in this moment. There is a vast difference between ‘supervision’ and fathering.”

I set the book down, and played catch with my son.

I do tremble, friends. I tremble at the busyness of our American ways. I tremble at the awesome responsibility and privilege of raising these boys and girls. I weep over the fact that it is so easy for us to be engaged in ourselves- even religiously– to the neglect of our spouses, or children, or congregation members, or unbelieving neighbors.

As I was praying into this some days later, I had a strong word of Fatherly caution from the Lord:

“You’ve got one shot at this, son.”

18 or 20 years is all we have with our children. What shall they take from us? Will they feel like it was a mere obligation for us to feed them and care for them? Will they feel like we really didn’t want them around? Will they feel like all of our talk about the nature of God was mere flourish or rhetoric? Will they feel that they are valued and cherished? Will they have been fathered? mothered? Or just raised? I believe that God desires to give us wisdom and love enough to be a literal representation of Himself in the home. We will certainly miss the mark here and there, but He will enable us to actively engage them with a whole heart. To hear them, for real. To speak into them, for real. To love them, for real. That’s fathering and mothering, and it’s an awesome privilege available to us all.

“One shot…”

The great revivalist Leonard Ravenhill, who was in many ways mentored by Tozer, used to say that you can’t catch up your prayer life when you get to the judgment seat of Christ. I certainly agree, and he was a man to back up his talk with a real value for prayer and intercession.

I’d like to acknowledge another cut in this fine diamond of discipleship. We can’t catch up our parenting, or the way we treated our spouses, or the depth of our humility toward others at the judgment seat either. We have one shot, saints. It will be a journey, and we will all trip up and fall in one way or another along the way. But abandoning ship is not an option. We’ve got to face our spouses, face our children, face our congregations, knowing that we’ve got “one shot” with all of them.

Whitefield said to speak every time as if it were our last, and “compel them to cry, ‘Behold, how He loves us.'”

I want to burn with a passion for God like Tozer did. I want to know the long seasons of adoration, awe, and intercession. I want to stand as a pillar in the household of faith. I want to exalt Christ and cling to the cross, fixing my eyes on Him while the latest fads rise and fall.

I also want to love and tremble toward those who are closest and most familiar to me. We all have those who are most familiar…spouses, children, parents, neighbors, fellow believers. I want to see a generation of preachers raised up who are aware of the mercies of God, are immersed in His love, and who walk with a “one shot” consciousness. They look at each person with a radical value, a Spirit-dependent outlook. They make priority for prayer and scripture as Tozer did, while stretching out the tent of time and relationship for those whom the Lord has given them.

Every occasion is another “shot.” Every conversation with the wife…”one shot.” Every seemingly irrelevant question from a child…”one shot.” Every interaction with an unbeliever…”one shot.” Every time of secret prayer and scripture reading…”one shot.” Every opportunity to father our sons and daughters…”one shot.” The self-absorbed are distracted, double-minded and cowardly. But the true servant of the Lord sees the “one shot” and takes it, while others are passing by as the proverbial stranger in a rush-hour traffic jam. May our eyes be opened to see that every occasion is another shot at learning and dispensing the very love of Christ.

Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
May your deeds be shown to your servants,
your splendor to their children. – Psalm 90.12, 16

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