The Pursuit of God
Family, Work, and the Ghost of A.W. Tozer
My husband Brian and I made our decision to leave full-time vocational ministry for good soon after yet another interview at yet another church. The search committee had asked him, “What are your goals for your ministry here?”
His honest answer—“my main goal is that, at the end of it, my wife and I have a strong, healthy marriage and our children don’t feel resentful of me, my work, or Jesus”—wasn’t exactly what they had in mind, it seems.
But his response was born out of our experiences. We had watched from the front row for years as those who led us—faithful ones whom I believe loved Jesus and carried mighty gifts—one after another lost their marriages or their relationship with their children and often their own souls, all in pursuit of Their Great Big Call for Great Big Ministry. Mostly male, they sacrificed their closest people on the altar of ministry and called it a worthy trade for God’s glory.
At that time of our life, we had our arms full of babies whom we adored and more than our share of ministry burnout and heartbreak already. There were a lot of factors at play, including my own messy religious deconstruction then underway, but soon after that interview, we looked at each other and said, “You know what, we’re done. We did not marry the ministry, we married each other. The price of this is too high so let’s pick us,” and that was that. Brian left full-time vocational ministry, eventually working his way up from the tools to a corporate role in the business, where he still works to this day. We couldn’t fathom glorifying any choice that kept us from each other.
The big irony here? soon after my husband’s choice to leave full-time ministry in favour of protecting our marriage and family, my own work as a writer blossomed into an organic form of growing ministry, effectively making me the one in full-time vocational ministry.
Never saw that one coming.
One of the earliest classics of Christian literature I read was A.W. Tozer’s slim 1949 book, The Pursuit of God. Like so many others over generations, I was captivated and inspired by his passion for God, his remarkable prayer life—sprawled on the floor for hours in adoration—and his devotion to worship. Every biography or essay about the famed theologian and pastor references not only his literary and oratory gifts, but his time-consuming diligence in study and his zealous hunger for more, more, more time alone with God.
As an overly earnest kid1 coming of age in the charismatic renewal movement of the 90s myself, I read the book several times in my teens and twenties. To me, Tozer’s example was inspiring and clarifying. My copy of The Pursuit of God is still dogeared and underlined with teenage ardour. I desperately wanted to “taste, to touch with [my] heart, to see with [my] inner eyes the wonder that is God” as he did. Tozer’s work deeply shaped the church for generations, giving a compelling picture of single-minded devotion to God and a glimpse of discipleship centred on desiring God above all else.
And yet now, as a forty-three-year-old woman, married with four children coming of age, and a life pretty much devoted to Christian ministry, I am more haunted than inspired by Tozer.
The full story of the price of Tozer’s devotion is actually well recorded for us even if it’s not the story we usually hear. Biographers tell us of his absence from the home, always away preaching and writing and spending those hours on the floor of the study in prayer and worship while his wife Ada effectively raised their seven children alone (their son Lowell referred to Ada as “a single parent”), managed their household alone, and when it all became too much, even berated herself for her “weakness” for daring to need love, alone.2
Tozer’s commitment to simplicity meant the family paid a price. He refused to spend money on a car, which was all well and good as he often took the train or was driven around by the faithful who did own vehicles, but this choice left Ada walking long distances in harsh Chicago winters—again, alone. She would show up to church shivering, and then face the long walk home or an equally exhausting navigation of public transportation at the time. He refused to receive a full paycheque out of his disdain for money in exchange for ministry: which, again, is a fine principle. But it was one which meant Ada was left trying to raise all their kids on a half-paycheck and facing financial anxiety, poverty, and deprivation while knowing the circumstance could have been alleviated by her husband. He was unyielding and seemed to lack awareness of the price his wife and children paid for his devotion to God. As biographer Lyle Dorsett wrote, “He had no inkling that his zeal for God’s house was undermining his own.”3
Ada has described herself as deeply lonely for her entire marriage with A.W. Tozer. In this at least, the couple was in sync because near the end of his life, A.W. is reported to have said that his was a remarkably lonely life, too.
After Tozer died, Ada remarried a man named Leonard Odam. Later, when she was asked about the difference between her marriage to The Great Man of God and her current husband, she candidly said, “I have never been happier in my life. Aiden loved Jesus Christ, but Leonard Odam loves me.”
Aiden loved Jesus. Leonard loves me.
So simply contrasted, so utterly devastating.
This story of the Tozers is one of several which have informed my own approach to the notion of balancing ministry and family. I don’t know if I’m doing this perfectly or even, to be frank, very well. Only time will tell. Right now, it feels like a make-it-up-as-you-go balancing act without end—vocation, work, public ministry, motherhood, my health, my own yearning towards contemplative devotion and silence, children with high needs, community, our current apocalypse, always in cooperation or tension.
Many men in ministry were/are able to pay the steep price of pursuing God in a fashion like Tozer because the assumption was/is that they will have an “Ada” at home to keep things going while they are out saving the world for Jesus. Most women in ministry labour under no such notion.
So Tozer’s cautionary tale cannot be an apples-to-apples comparison for women like me. Women lack institutional and financial support for our ministerial callings. We are often left to carve out spheres of ministry in the marketplace or the edges of the church while still carrying the obligations and responsibilities of caring for our families.4 The pandemic has made this abundantly clear as working women across every discipline bore a disproportionate burden.5 We face internal and external pressures to achieve the myth of balance. People, particularly church folks, can be unforgiving of our attempts. We are even more unforgiving towards ourselves.
The thing is I really love my work. I love what I do, it’s a deep joy to me. My work is an altar where I meet with God. I’m a better wife and a better mother because I’m doing meaningful work that I love. And I also find a lot of flourishing, challenge, meaning, and goodness in my roles as a wife and mother. My marriage and my children are also an altar to meet with God.6 Then there are the added aspects of health and family, friends and community work. I am incredibly fortunate to have a supportive partner who fully shares the responsibilities of our home and raising our children, Brian sees my work as ours and our life is fully shared. But I am also typing this article with a kid beside me, gnawing on an apple and narrating their inner monologue at a volume and intensity that makes me jealous of Tozer’s silent hours in the study.
I find it impossible to laud Tozer’s singular and powerful devotion to God and his impactful ministry without the counterweight of his wife and children’s experiences. At this stage of my life, the whole story casts a long shadow.
I am left to wonder: Are we truly turned towards God’s face if our partners and children or our friends or neighbours experience that ‘devotion’ as a closed door and silent disinterest and lack of care? If we neglect the people around us, are we truly pursuing God?
At this point, I find myself prayerfully echoing my husband’s words from all those years ago: Yes, may it be that at the end of this, we still enjoy a strong, healthy marriage and that our children don’t feel resentful of me, my work, or Jesus. And as a woman in ministry,7 I would add: “May I also be stubbornly faithful to the work God gave me to do.”
At the end, in contrast to Ada’s devastating testimony, I hope that those who knew and loved me would be able to say that, “Sarah loved Jesus Christ and so, she loved us.”
I believe there is no line between the secular and sacred because God is forever made manifest right in our ordinary lives—there isn’t one room where God dwells and another room where our families or friends lives. Our whole lives tell the whole truth.
God isn’t restricted to just worship-entertainment or study or silence, sermons or scripture or simplicity. God is also in our back yards and playgrounds, our classrooms and kitchens, our work sites and hospitals. God is worshipped in our bedside chats and our early morning coffee, in our text messages to check in and our dropped off flowers to a lonely pal. God is also glorified in protests and policy making, in love making and teaching a kid to tie their shoes. It’s worthy work to contend for a whole incarnate life.
As Tozer wrote, “Our pursuit of God is successful just because he is forever seeking to manifest himself to us.” This is a beautifully generous view of God, more generous than Tozer embodied perhaps. I have a lot of hope in that posture because I know now that the successful pursuit of God is found right in the midst of our imperfect, complicated, entangled lives with our complicated, beloved people, too.
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…who grew into an overly earnest adult…
No doubt, when one’s emotionally distant partner’s whole shtick is that we should find our happiness only in God, it can be a disorienting to have ordinary human emotions.
You can read more on this in his book “A Passion for God: The Spiritual Journey of A.W. Tozer.” Here’s a link to the Amazon listing.
For more on this, check out the brilliant Kate Bowler’s book, “The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities.”
Of course, there are many altars to meet with God, this isn’t restricted to parenting/marriage or ministry, these are just examples I’m using for this essay.
It’s perhaps no small coincidence that much of the ministry I am part of these days is alongside and for the children of those same movements who bore the brunt of such singular devotion, the ones who were railroaded and neglected, silenced and even abused because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what is godly.
This essay originally appeared at Fathom Magazine in October 2019. It’s been edited for today’s Field Notes.