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Sean Lucas:

For what it is, namely a life narrative, A Passion for God was a worthwhile read.

And yet, Dorsett exposes a fundamental contradiction in Tozer’s character that raises all sorts of questions about holy zeal and its effect on the whole of life. The contradiction could be summed up: how did Tozer reconcile his passionate longing for communion with the Triune God with his failure to love passionately his wife and children? Perhaps the most damning statement in the book was from his wife, after she remarried subsequent to his death: “I have never been happier in my life,” Ada Ceclia Tozer Odam observed, “Aiden [Tozer] loved Jesus Christ, but Leonard Odam loves me” (160).

Now, certainly all human beings have flaws; that is not the point here. Rather, the point that Dorsett failed to explore adequately is how Tozer reconciled his pursuit of God with his failure to pursue his wife. This reconciliation–or failure to reconcile–should have raised questions about Tozer’s mystic approach and prophetic denunciation of the church and nuanced the value of his teaching on the Christian life. After all, if his piety could spend several hours in prayer and also rationalize his failure at home, then it should raise questions about his approach to piety.

Then again, we all live divided lives. And thankfully, God used his Word as proclaimed through Tozer to bring Leonard Odam himself and hundreds of others to a saving knowledge of Christ. When God promises that his Word will not return to him empty (Isaiah 55:11), it gives all of his servants hope that the working is from God, not from ourselves (Col. 1:28-29). After all, God is able to use clay pots (2 Cor 4:7): he used A. W. Tozer with this glaring personal contradiction and he can use you and me.

John Piper writes in with a helpful caution:

Sean Lucas seems to say that Tozer's wife's greater happiness with her second husband implies Tozer's "failure to love passionately his wife." When she remarried after his death she said, "”I have never been happier in my life. . . “Aiden [A. W. Tozer] loved Jesus Christ, but Leonard Odam loves me." Lucas may be right to infer from this sentence that Tozer loved his wife poorly. But Tozer's wife's statement does not prove it.

We would need to be as penetrating in our analysis of her spiritual condition as we are of A. W. Tozer's. Not feeling loved and not being loved are not the same. Jesus loved all people well. And many did not like the way he loved them. Was David's zeal for the Lord imbalanced because his wife Michal despised him for it? Was Job's devotion to the Lord inordinate because his wife urged him to curse God and die? Would Gomer be a reliable witness to Hosea's devotion? I know nothing about Tozer's wife. She may have been far more godly than he. Or maybe not. It would be helpful to know.

Again I admit Lucas may be totally right. Tozer may have blown it at home. Lucas' lessons from this possibility are wise. But I have seen so much emotional blackmail in my ministry I am jealous to raise a warning against it. Emotional blackmail happens when a person equates his or her emotional pain with another person's failure to love. They aren't the same. A person may love well and the beloved still feel hurt, and use the hurt to blackmail the lover into admitting guilt he or she does not have. Emotional blackmail says, "If I feel hurt by you, you are guilty." There is no defense. The hurt person has become God. His emotion has become judge and jury. Truth does not matter. All that matters is the sovereign suffering of the aggrieved. It is above question. This emotional device is a great evil. I have seen it often in my three decades of ministry and I am eager to defend people who are being wrongly indicted by it.

I am not saying Tozer's wife did this. I am saying that the assumption that her feeling unloved equals her being unloved creates the atmosphere where emotional blackmail flourishes.

Maybe Tozer loved his wife poorly. But his wife's superior happiness with another man does not show it. Perhaps Lyle Dorsett's new biography of Tozer, A Passion for God, penetrates to the bottom of this relationship.

Update: From Tim Challies’s review on Friday:

During the 1930s Tozer read voraciously, and he also developed a magnificent obsession to be in Christ's presence- just to worship Him and to be with Him." Yet he was a man who was emotionally and spiritually distant from his own wife. "By early 1928 the Tozers had a routine. Aiden found his fulfillment in reading, preparing sermons, preaching, and weaving travel into his demanding and exciting schedule, while Ada learned to cope. She dutifully washed, ironed, cooked, and cared for the little ones, and developed the art of shoving her pain deep down inside. Most of the time she pretended there was no hurt, but when it erupted, she usually blamed herself for not being godly enough to conquer her longing for intimacy from an emotionally aloof husband."

These strange inconsistencies abound. Tozer saw his wife's gifts for hospitality and encouraged her in them; yet he disliked having visitors in his own home. He preached about the necessity of Christian fellowship within the family of Christ; yet he refused to allow his family or his wife's family to visit their home. For every laudable area of his life there seemed to exist an equal and opposite error. This study in opposites leaves for a fascinating picture of a man who was used so greatly by God, even while his life had such obvious sin.

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21 thoughts on “Tozer’s Contradiction and His Approach to Piety”

  1. says:

    I agree with John Piper. I find it hard to believe that Tozer loved his family poorly.

    1) In Snyder’s “In Pursuit of God” (a biography on Tozer), there is a quote from a Tozer sermon regarding his daughter: “We dedicated her formally in the church service, but she was still mine. Then the day came when I had to die to my Becky, my little Rebecca. I had to give her up and turn her over to God to take if He wanted her at any time… When I made that awful, terrible dedication I didn’t know but God would take her from me. But He didn’t… She was safer after I gave her up than she had ever been before.” (p187-188) Chapter 2 of The Pursuit of God “The Blessedness of Possessing Nothing” is believed to be how Tozer came biblically to believe he must surrender his daughter to God. A father who struggles so deeply with this, it seems to me, is likely to love his daughter deeply.

    2)From a website, “Tozer’s love for words also pervaded his family life. He quizzed his children on what they read and made up bedtime stories for them. “The thing I remember most about my father,” reflects his daughter Rebecca, “was those marvelous stories he would tell.”” She appears to have positive memories of her father.

    3) From a website, “At the funeral his daughter Becky said something typical of what Tozer himself would have said. “I can’t feel sad; I know Dad’s happy; he’s lived for this all his life.”” This does not sound like someone who did not feel loved by her father.

  2. dave bish says:

    Whatever the case with Tozer, I take it as a useful warning not to be unspiritually spiritual. My passion for God should be evident in my love for my wife. That’s a helpful word to me.

  3. Coty says:

    I’d like to follow up on Piper’s discussion of emotional blackmail. What’s the pastorally sensitive and pastorally wise way to respond to the emotional blackmailer?

  4. DJP says:

    Piper’s point is a very good one. No doubt it is ungodly to use love for God as an excuse for not loving wife or children, a sort of “Korban” used on wife and children instead of parents.

    But on the same time, this single, contextless sentence is troubling. “{X} loved Jesus, but {Y} loves me, so I’m happy.” So X loved Jesus and not you, and Y loves you, and not Jesus, and you’re happy about that? Or X loved Jesus in a way that, in disobedience to Jesus, moved him not to love you, but Y loves Jesus in a way that enables him to obey Jesus in also loving you?

    By itself it’s troublesomely ambiguous, and I’m glad for Piper’s counter-thoughts.

  5. TPC,Sr says:

    Maybe some of the young turks should withold too much judgment on Tozer until they are in their 60’s. Cautious humility. It is easy to view life and ministry from the prism of youthful theological idealism.

    Life is hard. Life in the ministry is sometimes harder. People dissapoint. People let you down. We let ourselves down.

    Our own lives sometimes fasil to live up to the picture we create for ourselves.

    I found the biography refreshing and yet convicting as I saw a little of my own selfishness in these pages.

    I was reminded of Murray’s bio on A. W. Pink — now there is an odd duck if there ever was one. But, could he have written the material he did (which we all benefit by today) had he not been “wired” in this way?

    Not all of us are models for the next Gary Chapman/Dennis Reiney/Les Parrot book on marriage. We struggle in this clay to match the reality of our heavenly righteousness — struggle every day.

    Yet, grace abounds.

  6. tozer55 says:

    I will admit a bit of biasness here (thus my ID’ing namesake) but can we seriously consider our own sin when overly pious remarks like:
    “For every laudable area of his life there seemed to exist an equal and opposite error. This study in opposites leaves for a fascinating picture of a man who was used so greatly by God, even while his life had such obvious sin.”
    do not reflect the author’s sense of his own sin? This is borderline arrogant and unwise, as we know God strikes down (eventually) those who fail to be humble…including myself and every human being i have ever met. Perhaps we all need to grow more careful in judging others, but I for one will stand quickly beside the overall testimony of Tozer’s great life. I think Piper speaks to the “suppossed” inconsistencies with the best sense of tact and wisdom. I applaud him for not acting too quickly in condemnation, because he stepped back and looked at the bigger picture.

  7. pduggie says:

    I’m always confused as to how Paul’s advice to the married gets overlooked. He seems to me anyway to explicitly say that married people will NOT be as concerned with things of the Lord, and to do so is a distortion of the worldy call of marriage

    “The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband.”

  8. Daryl says:


    I hope I’m wrong, but it sounds like you’re condemning the act of calling sin, sin.

    Yes, we all have sin in our lives, no, that doesn’t disqualify us from identifying it in others. Particularly in those held up as heroes in the church.
    Certainly heroes and teachers are necessarily held to a higher standard, if only to keep the rest of us non-hero types from idolizing them instead of Christ.

  9. Kyle says:

    I’m not sure what you’re getting at pduggie.

    “He seems to me anyway to explicitly say that married people will NOT be as concerned with things of the Lord, and to do so is a distortion of the worldy call of marriage”

    For my understanding, are you saying that married people, because they are married, are not to be as concerned with the things of the Lord as opposed to a single person, who should be more concerned with the things of the Lord? If that is the case, then please consider this:

    Right before the text you quoted, Paul says “I want you to be free from anxieties.” He then goes on to talk about what makes us anxious, for the married, its how to please his wife, and for the single, it’s about how to please the Lord. What’s in view here isn’t the things that we’re anxious about in either situation, it’s the fact that we’re anxious about them in the first place.

    So, Paul does want us (married or unmarried) to be about the things of the Lord. I think he wants us to not be anxious about it. (Do not be anxious about anything)… So I’m not sure I’d interpret it the way I’m reading what you’re saying.

  10. tozer55 says:

    daryl… no I’m not, however there is a right way and a wrong way to do it…not seeing the bigger picture is the wrong way to do it. Not humbly acknowledging our own sin is the wrong way to do it. The right way looks and sounds much more balanced in light of who and what Tozer was all about.

  11. mozart says:

    Tozer was a sinner–as are we all; a justified sinner, but a sinner nevertheless. Why is it we have such a hard time understanding this concept? I expect Tozer’s “second blessing” theology may have led him not to recognize the fact that we all remain in Romans 7 until we see the Lord in His glory. Maybe it’s revealing that another theologian, John Wesley, sinned in this area as well.

  12. wwdunc says:

    tpc, sr wrote,

    “We struggle in this clay to match the reality of our heavenly righteousness — struggle every day.

    Yet, grace abounds.”

    So true.

    Thanks for this good word.

  13. canonglenn says:

    A. W. Tozer’s *Pursuit of God* and *Man: The Dwelling Place of God* are two books that draw me into the secret place of God. This secret place is the resting place of enjoying the Holy Trinity’s constant, conscious presence. I do not abide in Christ continually like I should, but Tozer’s writings assist me in getting there. I am most grateful for A. W. Tozer’s writing and preaching ministry for his words lead me to love my Lord more deeply and intimately.

    Tozer’s family struggles are not new information. James A. Snyder’s *In Pursuit of God* biography noted that inconsistency some time ago (1991).

    *As a family man, Tozer had his share of contradictions and incongruities.
    Tozer was the product of his rural upbringing and its division of labor. His mother had major responsibility for the household and the children, himself included. His father devoted his attention to the farm work. Although urban church ministry was very different from the farm, Tozer saw his wife’s role as essentially similar to his mother’s.
    Tozer’s goal was God. His pursuit of God demanded that all else be secondary. After all, Jesus said, “Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). He also said, “Any one who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). In a sense, Tozer saw his family as a distraction from his supreme goal of knowing God. (pg. 179).*

    Tozer behaved like many men of “the greatest generation ever” who placed work and career ahead of family nurture and personal availability. This is no excuse, but Tozer’s lack of response to his wife’s needs was very typical of the fathers/husbands of that time. I live near what was once a great steel producing town. I remember as a child, the workers coming out of those factories and driving straight to the closest bar, Elk’s lodge, or labor union hall. From five p.m. to ten p.m., they would smoke, drink, shoot billiards, and neglect their families. As long as these men were materially providing for their families, all was considered right by them in the world. To my knowledge, Tozer neither smoke nor drank, but he did give his all to the task of seeking God. By being completely involved in his work to the neglect of his family, Tozer may have taken on the mentality of that age.

    *Between Two Worlds* is a Reformed blog. Sean Lucas is a professor at Covenant, so I assume he holds to the same Reformed convictions. Therefore, it concerns me when Sean Lucas states: “This reconciliation–or failure to reconcile–should have raised questions about Tozer’s mystic approach and prophetic denunciation of the church and nuanced the value of his teaching on the Christian life.”

    It appears that Sean is using Tozer’s shortcomings as an opportunity to question Tozer’s theological convictions. A. W. Tozer was a pastor in the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination, that denomination is Wesleyan by conviction with a Keswick/Deeper Life emphasis. In Western theology, Tozer’s convictions are the opposite of a Reformed commitment.

    I pray that this blog, or any other, would not use take Tozer’s shortcomings as an opportunity to criticize an opposing theological view. The personal failures of an individual like Tozer, who belongs to a different theological camp, should not be used to prove that “we are right and they are wrong.” Calvinists feel that Arminians are perfectionists. Arminians believe that Calvinists are antinomian. Reform folks target Keswick/Deeper life proponents as quietists. Holiness people believe that Calvinists are members of the “frozen chosen.” Using the moral failures of individuals in an opposing theological camp to prove our particular theological conviction is unbecoming of gracious Christian behavior. None of us, whether Calvinist or Wesleyan, should use the failings of another member of the Body of Christ to advance our own particular convictions. We must remember, “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it . . . .”

    Warren Wiersbe relates this story in one of his preaching books about Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and A. W. Tozer. They both were invited to speak at the same Bible conference. (I wish I could have been there.) At dinner one evening, Tozer turned to Lloyd-Jones and said, “We are both trying to get to the same place—intimacy with God. You are doing it through the Puritans and me through the Mystics.” After a brief pause, the good Doctor responded, “I agree.”

    Calvinist or Wesleyan—we have far more in common than we realize.

  14. mozart says:

    Canonglenn is right–Tozer I am sure was a product of his time in his hard work devotion; and we should not use his sins to bash other theological views when we have our own sins to deal with. I will say, though, the Lutheran/Reformed view of vocation which sees our sanctification, not primarily in private mystical experiences, but in carrying out faithfully our callings as father, husbands, wives, workers, as well as members of churches, is a good guard rail against some of the sins in those areas which plagued, say, John Wesley. I recommend Gene Veith’s book, “God at Work,” for a helpful intro on this subject.

  15. Dylan says:


    Thank you for your thoughtful contribution to the conversation. As a Calvinist pastor serving in the Christian & Missionary Alliance, I’d slightly qualify a one of your statements about the C&MA:

    “the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination…is Wesleyan by conviction”

    The C&MA does not take an official stand on the issues of Calvinism/Arminianism. People of both perspectives are welcome as long as they do not become divisive about it.

    That said, in my experience, Calvinists are the minority (though growing) and overall, I think the denomination feels more Arminian or Wesleyan.

  16. Stephen Walton says:

    I owe great deal to Tozer. I came out of “Christian” mysticism, to biblical, Reformed faith, and Tozer proved the perfect bridge- he pointed me in the right direction, without attacking the stuff I’d been reading. “The Knowledge of the Holy” was especially important. For years I’d devoured books on “techniques” of prayer and meditation. But when I read Tozer it hit me like a lightening bolt that all my methods were worthless; what really mattered in prayer was who I thought God was. So I have Tozer (along with Francis Schaeffer) to thank for rescuing me from mystticism!

    Sean Lucas’ and John Piper’s posts pint us to an important issue in biography. We tend to assume that those closest to a subject (husband/wife, children) are best positioned to understand them; so a comment from someone like this reveals the “real” person. Witness the reaction to Franky Schaeffer’s writings about his parents. But is this actually the case? Can’t the very closeness give an emotional colouring to reactions that (inadvertantly) distorts the truth? I’m not saying that the remark from Tozer’s wife should be dismissed. But we should be careful about basing too much on it- there may be some exagerration. What we shouldn’t do is assume that the private Tozer who (maybe) neglected his wife is the “real” Tozer, and the public Tozer who preached and pastored and loved Jesus was a fake. I think this would be a familiar caution to historians working with, eg, family letters or diaries.

    Now, off to buy that biography!

    Steve Walton,
    Marbury, Cheshire, UK

  17. Francisco says:

    All this discussion makes me think that if we read biographies of whoever great man of God we chose and THEN we don’t revel in the person and work of Jesus Christ, we´d better stop reading biographies all together. Moreover, our neglect of getting THAT may be a sign that we need to come back quickly to God´s word.

    Lord, help us all in our weaknesses!

  18. debt says:

    This is my first real blog comment, so I am chiming in as DebT (my wife’s code name); but this is RickT.

    Unfortunately, Mrs. Tozer Odam used 2 words (happier and loved) that have very broad meanings; and she is not here to give further explanation to what she really meant. I wonder if the commentaries and blog comments would continue to question Mrs. Tozer Odam’s new found marital joy had she been quoted using more biblical words? What if she were quoted saying something like this? “I never fully understood what it was like to be cherished, nurtured, understood, and unconditionally loved until I became Leonard Odam’s wife.” Though I can’t prove it, I have a strong sense that this is what she meant.

    Personally, if I were to die and my wife were to remarry, and she was happier and more loved (more nourished, cherished, understood, and loved) by another husband, (yes, I know in heaven this would not take place) I would feel like I did not fulfill my marital commands and obligations. Wouldn’t I be held accountable before God for my lack of obedience in these areas? And, regardless of how much fruit I may have produced inside and outside the church, isnt’ it the home where pastor’s begin their
    training to become pastors?

    I am not questioning anything Tozer wrote. But as many have already said, he failed in the most basic area of the Christian life. And if a wife (current or former) can’t stand up and say it, who can?

    It is sad that she had to live with a godly man who neglected her. And it was sin.

    If you have a chance, take a look at some of the letters that Dr. Jones wrote to Bethan. She was cherished, nurtured, understood, loved and she was happy, too!

  19. Phyllis says:

    May I submit, as a Pastor’s wife, that when a wife cares more about her husband loving her more than he loves God, no godly man can live up to those expectations, nor should he.

  20. Deb says:

    I really liked what Tim Challies wrote and slso canonglenn’s comment.

    What is interesting to me is that while John Piper wrote, “I am not saying Tozer’s wife did this,” many folks are jumping on that idea and running with it.

    I think I would challenge Piper’s comment on so-called emotional blackmail where he writes: “I am saying that the assumption that her feeling unloved equals her being unloved creates the atmosphere where emotional blackmail flourishes.”

    How does this “emotional blackmail” assumption square with what Jesus commanded of us:
    Matthew 5:23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” ??

    Canonglenn’s great point about many men of “the greatest generation ever” who placed work and career ahead of family nurture and personal availability is a relevent one. Interestingly, John Piper wrote an article on April 16, 2007 about his experience growing up with a father who was gone 2/3 of the year and his faithful mother. I found it an interesting comparison.

  21. Sean Michael Lucas says:

    I just got back into town from the PCA General Assembly and am a bit surprised by the reaction to what was, in essence, a three paragraph book note.

    Suffice it to say that I certainly didn’t say everything that Dorsett wrote about Tozer. I was simply offering my strongest reaction to the book, one that related to my own struggles as a biographer: when I wrote about Robert Lewis Dabney, the 19th century Presbyterian theologian and agressive defender of slavery and segregation, I had to reconcile this massive, sinful blind spot with his theological stance (with which I agreed). Such blind spots led me to look for a more subtle and nuanced approach to Dabney, one that I wished Dorsett had tried.

    It is interesting to me that Dr. Piper picked up on my blogspot, simply because he was in my mind when I wrote the post–unlike Tozer (apparently, from Dorsett’s biography), Piper honestly admitted his own struggles as a husband and parent while desiring to delight and love God (as I heard him do a few weeks ago at the Gospel Coalition meeting). In my own mind, Piper serves as a better model of a biblical pursuit of and passion for God in this regard than Tozer himself.

    In the end, all historical figures–and living ones as well–are only useful as they point us to Christ; all are flawed because of their innate and continuing depravity; and this is because there is only one true hero, Jesus himself.

    Sean Lucas

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Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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