I recently read A.W. Tozer’s classic The Pursuit of God (WLC) as part of a book club at our church. It wasn’t my first time through the book, but like many classic devotional works, there’s plenty to learn on second (and third and fourth…) readings. But while it’s wise to learn from those who have gone before us, I think it’s also wise to read their work critically.
I love the big message of the book, that there’s more to the Christian life than memorizing certain core beliefs — the Christian life is to be lived! Even more, God is to be known, not just known about. These are important and timeless reminders for church people.
This time I was especially struck by the book’s final chapter, “The Sacrament of Living.” In it he challenges the all-too-pervasive, unfounded and unhelpful sacred-secular divide many of us live with. It’s been challenged by others in recent years, but that Tozer was calling the church out on it in the 1940s is impressive:
One of the greatest hindrances to internal peace which the Christian encounters is the common habit of dividing our lives into two areas — the sacred and the secular.
I find most of the chapter (and the book as a whole) very encouraging and challenging. Here’s where he suggests that all of life can be a sacrament:
Every act of [the Christian’s] life is or can be as truly sacred as prayer or baptism or the Lord’s Supper. To say this is not to bring all acts down to one dead level; it is rather to lift every act up into a living kingdom and turn the whole life into a sacrament. If a sacrament is an external expression of an inward grace, then we need not hesitate to accept the above thesis.
I like this idea of viewing all of life as a sacrament, or at least having that potential. But I’m not sure about some of his conclusions in the chapter. Though he couches his critique by saying he has “no desire to reflect unkindly upon any Christian, however misled,” he argues that “the Roman Catholic church represents today the sacred-secular heresy carried to its logical conclusion” by driving a wedge completely between religion and life. I’m not convinced by what he chooses to focus on: sacraments and the church year.
While urging us to consider “the sacramental quality of everyday living,” he takes issue with the number of sacraments the Catholic church recognizes; he prefers the Protestant two to the Catholic seven. It’s a bit puzzling, in my mind, to insist that all of life is to be a sacrament, but then to make a big deal about the fact that to him, the Catholics have too many. But my bigger beef is with his dismissal of the value of celebrating or observing the church year. He laments the Protestant return to what he calls “spiritual slavery,” saying,
The observation of days and times is becoming more and more prominent among us. “Lent” and “holy week” and “good” Friday are words heard more and more frequently upon the lips of gospel Christians. We do not know when we are well off.
Celebrating or observing the events of Holy Week, in my view, doesn’t constitute spiritual slavery, and ignoring them doesn’t make us any more “well off.” Now, if he’s worried that by observing “days and times and seasons” and considering some more holy than others, we’d be in danger of further reinforcing the sacred-secular divide, I’m at least sympathetic. But I don’t think that’s the biggest danger we’re facing in this regard. There’s so much that could be said about this, but I’ll make just one point.
All of us live lives according to certain rhythms, whether those rhythms have anything to do with our faith or not. By opting to refrain from observing Lent or Advent or the rest of the Christian calendar, we’re not simply leveling out the year into 365 equally holy and “sacramental” days. For one thing, we set Sundays apart as a day of worship and rest. But more than that, in the absence of “Christian” rhythms, our lives are shaped by the “secular” rhythms of our world — the school year, or sports seasons, or perhaps by the opportunities and limitations of fall, winter, spring and summer, respectively.
To put it starkly, if we refrain from observing Good Friday, do we likewise refrain from observing Black Friday? Or are we content to live with that sort of sacred-secular dualism?
Our lives will be shaped by rhythms of one kind or another; my contention is simply that I think we’d do well to shape them primarily according to the rhythms of our faith, rather than merely marching along, unthinkingly, in parades of consumerism, materialism, nationalism, or any of the other isms that are constantly competing for our allegiance. But moving on…
It is not what a man does that determines whether his work is sacred or secular, it is why he does it. The motive is everything. Let a man sanctify the Lord God in his heart and he can thereafter do no common act.
As Tozer says, our motive for our work has a lot more to do with whether it’s sacred or secular than whether it’s formally considered a ministry, or business, or education, or politics, or science or art. Our motive really matters, but I think that beyond motives, the bigger question is whether our work is contributing to the common good. Consider these big questions for business leaders — and for all of us — to better think through how our work can serve the common good. Yes, motive matters. And yes, there is sacred work to be done in every sphere of society. But good motives aren’t sufficient to guarantee good results.
Once again, I love that Tozer challenges the sacred-secular divide, and this theme of the integration of faith and work is a big one. I plan to explore it a bit more soon, in conversation with a couple of more recent books.
If you’ve read any of Tozer’s work, what did you most appreciate? What do you think of my affirmations and critiques?