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The Heaviest Obligation

A.W. Tozer has been in the news lately (or in the blogosphere at any rate) following the release of A Passion for God, a biography of the man written by Lyle Dorsett. Dorsett dealt honestly with some shortcomings in Tozer’s character and I, like many readers, was surprised (and perhaps even shocked) by some of what I learned. Yet even as I’ve thought about these things, I’ve found that my high respect for Tozer remains. Much of what he taught continues to resound in my mind. Here is just one example of this.

Tozer premises The Knowledge of the Holy, probably his best-loved book, on the now-famous statement that “what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” While he does not provide a Scripture reference to back this claim (I don’t recall a verse that states, “God spake thus: what thou believest about me is the most important thing about thee…”) I believe he is correct in this assertion. After all, “the history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God.” If no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God, the same is true of individuals. We can never rise above our idea of God.

Why is this important? As Tozer says, “We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God…Always the most revealing thing about the Church is her idea of God, just as her most significant message is what she says about Him or leaves unsaid, for her silence is often more eloquent than her speech. She can never escape the self-disclosure of her witness concerning God.” And he is right, for once we have decided who God is, we chase after that image of God. It is, then, critically important that we learn about who God is through the Scripture, for this is His self-disclosure. Otherwise, we move towards a fabricated and false image of God. We put aside the real thing and chase after a mere shadow.

And here are words that gripped me and have long given me food for thought: “Were we able to extract from any man a complete answer to the question, ‘What comes into your mind when you think about God?’ we might predict with certainty the spiritual future of that man. Were we able to know exactly what our most influential religious leaders think of God today, we might be able with some precision to foretell where the church will stand tomorrow.” This is a sobering though, for when we survey the leaders of the church today we will find a vast variety of views on God, many of which are clearly unbiblical. We have “Christian” leaders who deny the Trinity and others who deny the atonement. We have leaders who, it seems, must never have stopped to seriously consider just what they think of God. There are many followers who have likewise never stopped to consider who God is, what He has done, and what He demands of us. And as we can see where the church will be led in the future, we can look at the leaders of families, men like myself, and understand where we will take our families. When I survey my heart and ask what comes to mind when I think about God, I will know where my family will stand tomorrow.

It is my opinion,” writes Tozer, “that the Christian conception of God current in these middle years of the twentieth century is so decadent as to be utterly beneath the dignity of the Most High God and actually to constitute for professed believers something amounting to a moral calamity.” If this was true of the middle of the last century, how much more true is it in the early years of the current century? And yet, “All the problems of heaven and earth, though they were to confront us together and at once, would be nothing compared with the overwhelming problem of God: That He is; what He is like; and what we as moral beings must do about Him.” But still many Christians do not think deeply about God, about what He is like, or about what we must do about Him. “I believe there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God.”

This is a serious matter. “Before the Christian church goes into eclipse anywhere there must first be a corrupting of her simple basic theology. She simply gets a wrong answer to the question, ‘What is God like?’ and goes on from there. Though she may continue to cling to a sound nominal creed, her practical working creed has become false. The masses of her adherents come to believe that God is different from what He actually is; and that is heresy of the most insidious and deadly kind.”

And here is Tozer’s charge: “The heaviest obligation lying upon the Christian Church today is to purify and elevate her concept of God until it is once more worth of Him—and of her. In all her prayers and labors this should have first place. We do the greatest service to the next generation of Christians by passing on to them undimmed and undiminished that noble concept of God which we received from our Hebrew and Christian fathers of generations past. This will prove of greater value to them than anything that art or science can devise.”

Having read these words and having pondered them, I see, more clearly than ever, the importance of placing myself and my family under the leadership of spiritual leaders who have a high and biblical view of God. If nothing is more telling and more important than what comes into my mind when I think about God, it must also be critically important that I learn from men who think deeply about God and who humble themselves under His word. And I see the importance of being the kind of spiritual leader who has a conception of God that is worthy of God. This task of learning who God is through his self-revelation in Scripture, and honoring Him as He really is, is the greatest service I can do to my family and to its future generations.