Oswald Chambers: Utmost for His Highest?

Roger W. Lowther

September 1, 2018Tokyo, Japan

“Shut out every other consideration
and keep yourself before God for this one thing only—
My Utmost for His Highest.
I am determined to be absolutely and entirely for Him and for Him alone.”

In a previous blog, I shared about Lilias Trotter (1853-1928), a tremendously talented artist who gave up these gifts and passions to become a missionary in Algeria. I asked the question, "What if someone had encouraged her that it is possible to be a missionary and an artist?"

A similar story can be found in the life of Oswald Chambers. We know him as a writer, but did you know that he was also an artist and a missionary? He studied for a time and was offered a scholarship at what is now the Royal College of Art in London, ranked as the top art school in the world. While in college, he became zealous for Christ and decided to enter a small theological college. As he described it, “My whole being is ablaze and passionately on fire to preach Christ; my art aim is swallowed up in this now.” While there, he met a man from Japan and decided to travel to Japan as a missionary. That did not work out, so he returned to Scotland for a while to teach at another seminary before eventually becoming a chaplain/missionary in Egypt during World War I, where he died of complications from surgery. After his death, Chambers’ wife Biddy edited and published his talks and writings to make him one of the most famous writers of the evangelical movement in the twentieth century.

Looking at Oswald Chambers, I have to wonder what could have been if he had been surrounded by friends who encouraged him in a pursuit of his artistic gifts AND world missions. Myself serving in Japan, an extremely artistic culture, I wonder how his impact there would have been different if he had used his artistic gifts. In his last year of life, he wrote the following words in his journal.

“There comes to me growingly a sense of the ‘externals’ of things. Perhaps the plunging horror and conviction of sin in my early life not only disrupted my art calling and all the tendencies of those years but switched me off by a consequent swing of the pendulum away from external beauties of expression in form and color and rhetoric, and made me react to the rugged and uncouth and unrefined. But now I seem to have the experience Ruskin [the famous art critic who tried to bring Lilias Trotter back to her art] refers to: his grief at realizing the loss of his appreciation of the beauty of an English hedgerow, and his sad wonder if he would ever have the old emotions back again.”

Chambers was heavily influenced by the dominant missionary spirit of a hundred years ago, which tended to eschew the arts, imagination, and creativity. I see lasting effects of that methodology even today in the churches of Japan. If Chambers had lived longer, I believe he would have again found his art, and it would have been to him and all who knew him, not a hindrance, but an encouragement in his missionary endeavors in contemplating and teaching about the kingdom of God. Is it possible for us to give our "utmost for his highest" without using all the gifts that God gave us for his glory?