Obedience and the mastery of the heart (Tozer on religious affections)

Throughout his several books, A. W. Tozer is occupied by the cultural assimilation in contemporary evangelicalism, especially as afforded by the rise of the “leisure class” in middle class, post-war America. Enraptured by consumerism and the amusements which occupy our interests, the churches have appropriated an anthropology where the arousal of the affections is the means for action and commitment. Thus, it is believed, the heart governs the will; the latter is contingent upon the former. The delights of the Lord will make for better Christians, a healthy church, and a just society.

The problem here is that the emotions are ungovernable, at least insofar as they are made the chief faculty of the intellect and, thereby, the chief cause of influence for the obedience of faith. The emotions are not capable of bearing this weight. Instead, our acts of volition, in accordance with the obedience of faith, is the fountain from which our emotions are the spring. Obedience is the source of a more secure and stable emotional life. As such, the heightening of our affections can never be the object of faith, that for which we obey Christ. Once the affections are made the object of faith, man himself is made the object of faith — man is in service to himself. (By the way, here we have the foundations for the proliferation of the prosperity gospel in mainstream evangelicalism by the end of the 20th century.) Here is Tozer’s estimation of the dilemma:

To find our way out of the shadows and into the cheerful sunlight, we need only to know that there are two kinds of love: the love of feeling, and the love of willing. The one lies in the emotions, the other in the will. Over the one, we have little control. It comes and goes, rises and falls, flares up and disappears as it chooses, and changes from hot to warm to cool and back to warm again very much as does the weather. Such love was not in the mind of Christ when He told His people to love God and each other. We could as well command a butterfly to light on our shoulder as to attempt to command this whimsical kind of affection to visit our hearts.

The love the Bible enjoins is not the love of feeling; it is the love of willing, the willed tendency of the heart. (For these two happy phrases I am indebted to another, a master of the inner life whose pen was only a short time ago stilled by death.) …

Someone may infer from the above that we are ruling out the joy of the Lord as a valid part of the Christian life. To avoid that erroneous conclusion I offer this further word of explanation.

To love God with all our heart we must first of all will to do so. We should repent our lack of love and determine from this moment on to make God the object of our devotion. We should set our affections on things above and aim our hearts toward Christ and heavenly things. We should obey them, always firmly willing to love God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourself.

If we do these things we may be sure that we shall experience a wonderful change in our whole inward life. We shall soon find to our great delight that our feelings are becoming less erratic and are beginning to move in the direction of the “willed tendency of the heart.” Our emotions will become disciplined and directed. We shall begin to taste “piercing sweetness” of the love of Christ. Our religious affection will begin to mount evenly on steady wings in stead of flitting about idly without purpose or intelligent direction. The whole life, like a delicate instrument, will be tuned to sing the praises of Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood.

But first of all we must will, for the will is master of the heart.

[The Best of A. W. Tozer, Book One, pp. 174-176.]



  1. I’ve never seen any reference to Kant in Tozer’s writings. He was not an academic, so that’s not surprising. I think he would like Kant, since they both held that the will, not ratiocination, is the means for affirming metaphysical truths.

    • Of course, Tozer would vehemently dislike Kant’s denial of God’s intervention in the world, since this would not only entail a denial of covenant and Incarnation but also a denial of prayer.

      • Interesting. The passage from Tozer seems reminiscent to me of the distinction of practical from pathological love.

        Have you read John Hare? He’s done a lot to persuade evangelicals that Kant has a good side.

    • Yep, that’s the sort of common sense wisdom we need. But, of course, I would add the Reformed emphasis that, “We can will it because God first wills it.”

  2. About Kant I would say that there is an increasing danger of associating positions with their well known advocates – well known of course being totally relative to a community, individual, point in history – and then conflating those advocates with the originators of the position. This happens not only on scholarship (I could cite examples) but also in everyday conversation.

    Hare, whom Iohannes mentions, does a good job on locating Kant historically, and Hare points on in his classes (and I think in the Moral Gap) that Kant’s position on the will goes back at least to Scotus, and arguably much earlier. Thus I think it’s much more helpful, and historically accurate, to ask about Tozer: what kind of relationship did he have to eudaimonism? Then all of his reading in the mystical tradition, Puritans, etc. becomes very relevant and helpful.

    The above was just an historical aside.

    Tozer is wonderful and your post, Kevin, is a great reminder of his continuing importance.

  3. It’d be interesting to hear what Tozer thinks (thought!) about the relationship within the Trinity. Does the Father will to love His Son? And, the Son loves the Father because He wills it? The problematic piece is motive. If the will has primacy over the affections, why does the Son love the Father? What is the will’s motive? When the affections have primacy over the will, the motive is love.

    Seems to me Tozer wasn’t familiar with Augustine or Luther. 😉

    • Thanks, Derek, for the thoughts. I’ll have to give this more reflection, but it seems that the question of “primacy” in regard to the faculties of the mind (reason, will, affections) is only applicable to humans. Assuming that the doctrine of divine simplicity is sound, we have to say that the will and affections (and reason) are wholly united and harmonious in God; the will and affections (and reason) work in perfect concert in God, so neither have the priority, neither are subordinate.

  4. I always thought I should do my works out of sense of love for God. Anything not done out of appreciation or love for him was wrong.

    I cant say I’ve become a great saint with this thinking!

    Yet i find myself reluctant to let go of it. Tozer’s piece here has given me reason to think that i was qualifing as “love” only that which i felt. Which would explain the vast swings in my attitudes towards doing works. But as i said im reluctant about accepting this as i cant think how willing myself to obedience would lead to anything other than pride. Any ideas??

    • Sorry I didn’t catch your comment earlier, Richard. I think Tozer is utilizing the category of “willing” as a way to actually escape pride — by focusing on something outside of ourselves. An over-attention to subjective moods and dispositions is the true harbinger of pride. A selfless (and even mindless, in a sense) attention toward works of obedience — even mundane works — is necessary.

  5. Father in heaven, Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will be done. When our will align’s with the father’s Obedience is forged.

  6. I have this post of Tozers printed and put on my wall. I come back to it frequently. Not because It has helped but because I don’t understand it and yet I am left after reading it a sense that there is something here I need to grasp. (as an aside does that ever happen to anyone else but me? I’m sure it does.) I was wondering today if Tozer’s critique here also applies to those who would see our motivation towards holiness coming from an ever increasing sense of gratitude for our justification. The latest reformosphere tussles over the doctrine of sanctification put me thinking on this.

    • That is a good observation. I think Tozer’s critique would apply to all “motivations” that are overly dependent upon one’s affections, including gratitude. As I see it, Tozer is saying that we should will/act in obedience regardless of our feelings, but as a result, the right feelings will follow.

      This does not mean that we cannot act from a sense of gratitude, but, rather, that we cannot make this gratitude (or any affection) the reason for our action. Otherwise, we will cease to act once our affections turn elsewhere, as they invariably do.

      I think Tullian Tchividjian would probably like Tozer’s point, even though Tchividjian has been advocating a spirituality that follows from justification and a joy in one’s justification. The overall emphasis in Tchividjian’s preaching, that I have seen, is to turn people’s attention away from themselves and toward Christ. Once again, joy and gratitude are not the problem — they are gifts from God and proper motivations toward holiness. The problem is when joy and gratitude become the basis for our obedience at every moment, because we will quickly realize how joyless and ungrateful we feel at times.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s