"The way to deeper knowledge of God is through the lonely valleys of soul poverty and abnegation of all things. The blessed ones who possess the kingdom are they who have repudiated every external thing and have rooted from their hearts all sense of possessing." (A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God)
A.W. Tozer, who penned The Pursuit of God in 1948 while on a train between Chicago and Texas, knew little of the materialism and consumerism of this century, and yet he was able to speak words such as these that are so relevant and yet strangely unearthly now. What does he mean to repudiate every external thing, to root out every sense of possessing? How exactly do we do that when we live in a culture and in a time of abundance? That’s what I mean when I say his words sound “unearthly” --- it’s as if he’s speaking to us from another planet. Our way of thinking, habits, and even theology at times so situate us in the tide of consumerism that it’s difficult to even get our head above water to see where the tide is carrying us.
Clearly Tozer did not repudiate “every external thing” if it meant not living in a house, not having furniture, not having books, and not buying a train ticket. He possessed things. It’s likely he even possessed things which went beyond the barest necessities. So what did he mean?
What he didn’t mean was the embrace of some sort of asceticism, the practice of some sort of rigorous self-denial, extreme abstinence or austerity. In such a focus non-possession of things becomes a worshipped possession in and of itself, a form of idolatry. Besides, ascetics are no fun.
He also wasn’t simply exhorting the rich, though they face a special temptation to possess things. Street people who carry all their belongings on their back or in a shopping basket may still possess and hoard. There are rich and poor misers, the only difference being that one has more to be miserly about.
Tozer was on to something different, something the title of his book makes explicit: Life is about the pursuit of God, not the pursuit of things. The latter is a different book, one you’ll find littering the self-help and financial sections of the local bookstore and, unfortunately, even the shelves of some Christian bookstores, its message cloaked in religiosity. So how do we repudiate external things and root out our possessive bent? By focusing on pursuing God, not on either the acquiring and keeping or, conversely, on the giving up of external things. I have some practical advice which I have sometimes followed and often violated:
- Hold, don’t clutch. I once heard a pastor say that we must live life openhanded. Things come our way at times, and other times they don’t. Regardless, when I find myself becoming protective of a possession, am worrying about it, or are unwilling to share it, I need to question what I am pursuing.
- Don’t buy on impulse. Whenever I buy on impulse, I’m generally giving in to emotion, often because I think or am persuaded that what I buy will make me happier, make my life easier, or will keep me up to date. It’s easier to see the lie of that emotional pull with some distance.
- Give on impulse. Though most of my giving is prayerfully considered, sometimes I hear of an immediate need and realize that I need to give. . . right then! Give as the Spirit leads, habitually and prayerfully, and sometimes impulsively. It helps root out that sense of possessing and makes you free.
- Focus on God. When I pursue God, I realize the riches I have: eternal life, a meaningful existence, the fruit of the spirit, and the beauty of family, friendship, and creation. Everything in the world tells me I need something else to make me happy. I don’t. I can’t escape that lie, but its voice is muted by regularly denying it.
- Be aware of the poor, but enjoy what God gives. You can’t alleviate world hunger or poverty, no matter what you do. You can, however, be aware of needs at home and in the world at large and respond to a need at a specific place or to a specific person. What you have, enjoy. If you don’t enjoy it, give it away.
And that’s about enough for now. If I could do these things, I might go far toward what Tozer suggests. I need to realize that I have everything I need and truly want, and yet possess nothing. I’m working on making my aim true.