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Surprised by Holiness
A Page from My Spiritual Biography
One short, stabbing sentence in one small book was all it took. I wasn’t expecting it to change my life. But it did. My whole world was turned upside down. Thankfully, I haven’t been the same since.
There I was, a wide-eyed freshmen, beginning my second semester of a systematic theology course. The professor handed out the syllabus and went over the class outline. This semester would be taken up with the question, “Who is God and what is He like?” Surely, with all of the accumulated wisdom of eighteen years, I knew all the answers. How wonderfully wrong I was.
“There will be other reading required in addition to the appropriate sections in your textbooks,” the professor said. Naturally, we grimaced and grunted. My eyes fell upon the obligatory titles. I had never heard of either one of these two men. The first was some dead mystic named Tozer; the second, a Presbyterian (eek!) called Sproul. I remember thinking, “Are there no good Baptists who still write books?”
Our professor then said, “I expect you all to have read the first book within the next two weeks.” Chaos ensued. But then we were all somewhat relieved when he informed us that the first book was just over one-hundred pages long. I picked up a copy of the little volume by A.W. Tozer that afternoon and found a quiet place to read. It was called, The Knowledge of the Holy.
As I took in those first lines, I had something like Wesley’s experience, in which my heart was “strangely warmed.” I did not even make it past the second paragraph of the introduction before I sensed that God was already working in my young heart and mind.
Tozer lamented over the loss of the concept of God’s majesty in the Christian Church,
The Church has surrendered her once lofty concept of God and has substituted for it one so low, so ignoble, as to be utterly unworthy of thinking, worshiping men. This she has done not deliberately, but little by little and without her knowledge; and her very unawareness only makes her situation all the more tragic.
It was a strong indictment. But my own “low and ignoble” view of God verified its accuracy. Then I read the sentence. God turned over my apple cart with seventeen words. The first line of the first chapter was an ego-blasting bombshell. “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” There were apples everywhere. And they all had worms.
That book became a fast favorite as it taught me both Whom I was to worship and how I was to worship. I saw myself as one of those ancient Athenians at the Areopagus whose worship was carried out in ignorance. The Lord of Heaven and Earth was to them an “Unknown God.” It wasn't at all clear whether I had truly known Him at all either. Tozer's grand portrait of God was a far different sight from the wallet-sized snapshot that I had managed to squeeze into my hip pocket. Tozer became for me an epistemological iconoclast, shattering the mental images of a contrived creator.
But there was still a problem. Though I was learning to think highly about God, I still wasn't really thinking deeply about God. There were considerable gaps in my Theology Proper. I was like a television stuck on one channel with no remote. But then came the second book of the semester. This was the one by that Presbyterian fella.
After assuring the class that this Presbyterian was “one of the good ones,” our professor instructed us to take up the book, The Holiness of God. I gave it a thorough reading—then another. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I found the book captivating. From its lucid prose, to the penetrating historical and theological insights, it was a spiritual thrill ride. Tozer beckoned me to take wings and soar into the heights that I might gaze upon God’s indescribable majesty. Sproul urged me to plumb the depths that I might peer into God’s unfathomable mystery—the mysterium tremendum.
That spiritual adventure has now become my singular ambition. To this day I find myself constantly on Jacob’s ladder, ascending and descending, hoping to understand more and more the One who is all and all.
Tozer was right. What we think about God really is the most important thing about us. What comes into your mind when you contemplate the Divine? How high and how deep do those thoughts go? It isn’t enough just to know that there is a God, we must know the God who is.
Sproul was right too. The God of the Sacred Page is the quintessence of majesty and mystery. We will never be transformed by His loveliness until we are first transfixed by His loftiness. God said that no man can see Him and live. May that never keep us from trying. May we take the prayer of Moses as our own, “I beseech Thee, show me Thy Glory!”
“O Lord God Almighty, not the god of the philosophers and the wise but the God of the prophets and apostles; and better than all, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, may I express Thee unblamed? They that know Thee not may call upon Thee as other than Thou art, and so worship not Thee but a creature of their own fancy; therefore enlighten our minds that we may know Thee as Thou art, so that we may perfectly love Thee and worthily praise Thee. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen”
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