A.W. Tozer used to be one of my favorite authors.
Tozer, who pastored a church in Chicago for 31 years in the early 1900s, was hailed in his day as a "20th-century prophet” and garnered immense influence as a traveling speaker and writer.
He wrote signature works such as The Pursuit of God and The Knowledge of the Holy inspiring believers to pursue the presence of God with uninhibited intentionality.
So why have I cooled off on him?
Well, in A Passion for God, a biography of Tozer, Lyle Dorsett writes about Tozer’s absence as a husband and father (a review here). The book describes Tozer’s wife remarrying after his death and stating, “I have never been happier in my life.”
Now, there may be more than meets the eye in this situation, as discussed in other online publications.
And I’m certainly not saying that we can only read books from perfect Christians, because we wouldn’t be able to read any book if that were the case. But where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and I can’t help but see the smoke of an imbalanced spirituality in Tozer’s life and in ours.
What is imbalanced spirituality?
Imbalanced spirituality a condition in which we zero in on one aspect of godliness to the point that it swallows up and de-emphasizes other aspects of godliness.
For example, the Pharisees were spiritual with their tithes. But they neglected the weightier matters of the law, like justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matt 23:23). In trying to be godly, they over-emphasized one thing to the neglect of something else.
This is actually the root of the majority of false teaching that came into the early church. One heresy called “gnosticism” highlighted the spiritual world while devaluing the material world. That’s why it led the Gnostics to teach that sexual deeds of the body were inconsequential.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking Tozer’s desire for greater intimacy with God. I commend his desire to pray for hours at a time and his rigorous traveling schedule to preach the gospel.
But it’s easy to see the potential spiritual imbalance in others. Here are a few imbalances I see today:
Imbalance 1: "Crazy love for Jesus and crazy critical of his church”
This is the imbalance that orients the Christian faith in a predominantly vertical way.
It’s really about one’s relationship with God, all completely removed and ripped apart from God’s church, of course.
The problem is that you can’t have New Testament Christianity apart from God’s Church. This imbalance leads the person to see God’s church as an obstacle to his or her pursuit of Jesus, whereas the Bible sees the local church as a centerpiece for one’s growth in Jesus (Col 2:19)
You can’t say “Yes” to Jesus and say “No” to his wife, children, and body.
Imbalance 2: “Devoted to the church but can’t make time for Jesus.”
This is the reverse of the previous imbalance.
These are the people whose lives revolve around the church.
But they don’t remember the last time they opened their Bible outside of a church gathering. Outside of church functions, these people never talk to Jesus.
And when they hear from Jesus, they hear from Jesus via John Piper and Tim Keller, “figureheads” of modern Western Christianity, but not necessarily from the Head of the Church through the Scriptures.
Imbalance 3: “The Division of Intellect, Emotions, and Action.”
Some Christians distrust anything emotionally related to Christianity. The moment they feel something, they wonder if Satan is using their emotions.
Others are suspicious of an overly intellectual faith. It’s not that they’re anti-intellectual. They just want to be “on fire.”
Others love their church until there’s a “call to action.” They think, “It’s not about what we do, but what God has done for us on the cross.” So anything we “ought to do” is met with quick suspicion.
Yet didn’t Paul, the one who said that he counted everything as loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus (Phil 3:8), encourage the church to grow in the knowledge of God’s grace (2 Pet 3:18) while being the most aggressive for the advancement of the gospel (Col 1:29)?
We’re to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, and might (Deut 6:5). It’s all of the above.
Imbalance 4: “Keep it Real. Real Sinful.”
Some love their church’s culture of confession and honesty. It’s all about the freedom to keep it real and authentic.
But we’ve taken that to mean that once we share, no one can question, challenge, or confront us, simply because we’ve shared.
We should pursue confession, but doesn’t Paul urge believers to exhort one another as well (Heb 3:13)?
Timing is important, of course, but the Bible doesn’t seem to create much space for authenticity devoid of the pursuit of godliness.
Imbalance 5: “I want to be radical!” (“Where and when I want to be, of course.”)
The word “radical” has been a buzzword in the church world for some time now. It’s good and helpful.
But, we often attach the word “radical” only to things like “overseas missions.”
What about being radically faithful at your workplace? What about radically honoring one’s parents? What about radically being the same person in the church and in the world? What about being radically heartbroken for the unsaved family member when we return from our overseas trip?
Was Jesus ever not radical? Jesus died for the sins of the world, and he also spent well over 20 years of his life working obscurely as an artisan, and it was all radically pleasing to God.
What if the goal of Christian spirituality isn’t to be as spiritual as possible, but to be as Biblically spiritual as possible?
And when the Bible calls us to be faithful in multiple things, what if we chose to honor those tensions as faithfully as possible rather than choosing one to the neglect of the others?
And maybe this is why it’s so important for us to open our Bibles so that we make our spirituality about Him and not about us. After all, wasn’t that the first lie in the garden? The serpent encouraged Eve to “know,” to be "more spiritual," but to do it apart from God?
Will I continue to read Tozer? Absolutely. I think there’s a lot of good things to be gleaned.
However, I want to glean as much as the Bible will allow me to glean. After all, God has spoken, and what could make me more spiritual than His Words?
We’ll be imperfect reflections of His grace, but maybe the world will see the smoke of Biblical spirituality.
Steve Bang Lee is on staff at Living Hope Community Church and serves as the Editorial Director for SOLA Digital.