Many of us are kept back from spiritual progress and amendment of life because we fear the difficulties we are sure to meet and the effort it will cost us to overcome them. Nevertheless, the one who makes progress in the spiritual life is the very one who vigorously and strenuously strives to overcome these seemingly impossible obstacles. Both profit and merit are greater when we overcome ourselves and subject our will to our spirit. -Thomas à Kempis
I’ve been reading The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. I used to have this terrible habit of picking up five different books at once and not finishing any of them, The Imitation of Christ included.
The first section of the book is called, “Helpful Council for the Spiritual Life.” The quote above comes from the last chapter of that section titled, “Earnestness In Amending Our Lives,” the chapter that I’ve read probably four or five times in the last week. I find that Thomas’ words haunt me. They challenge me to my core. I’m challenged because they speak directly to me. There are a lot of things I see in myself that I dislike. I think if we were honest, we would all say that there are things in our lives that we wish weren’t there, but for some reason we don’t know how to shake them. I think Paul summed it up well in Romans 7 when he said something to the effect of “the things that I want to do, I do not do, and those things that I hate, I do.”
So many times in my life, I’ve felt hopeless in my overcoming of things such as procrastination, lust, selfishness, disorganization, forgetfulness, laziness, pride and jealousy.
Have you ever felt hopeless about something you struggle with? It’s kind of like, OK God, I guess I’m going to be this way until I die. That sentence to me sounds hopeless, and yet I’ve said it in prayer on several occasions. Though it sounds hopeless, I’m convinced that it’s the truth. I will struggle with (fill in the blank) until I die.
We’re taught as Christians to take up our cross daily, to “die” to ourselves and become alive to God. One verse in the Bible says that we are to put to death the deeds of the flesh, to master it or have dominion over it. These verses sound powerful and serve to encourage many Christians in their pursuit of holiness and process of rectification with God. For me, they just cause frustration. They cause frustration because what the heck does that even mean? How in the world do I die to myself and put to death the deeds of my flesh? There was a time in my life when I focused so much on these failings in my life that I felt as though there was something wrong with me, something that disqualified me from the transforming and delivering power of God. I used to pray all the time, “God change this part of me. Take this out of my mind. Help me to be (fill in the blank).” When I didn’t miraculously change or have an overwhelming desire to live my life biblically, I figured it was because God was displeased with me. I was somehow inadequate to receive what I so desperately wanted. This of course, led to me not even wanting to try, kind of like, “If God can’t even change me, then there really must be no hope for me.”
He who is diligent and zealous—though he may have many strong passions—is better able to conquer them and achieve spiritual advancement than he who is easygoing and bending in his pursuit of virtue. Tear yourself forcibly from everything toward which human nature blindly and obsessively inclines, and seriously seek the virtues you especially need. -Thomas à Kempis
The quote above is essentially those scriptures I noted earlier. The difference being that this is language I can understand. The fact that I understand it better in this context in no way makes it less challenging or frustrating to me. It has served to more intensely illuminate my shortcomings. I think there is some kind of spiritual accountability system that is in place, some set of rules that says, “Once you understand the truth, you’re responsible for living it.”
I’m a firm believer that God meets us halfway, though I think I’m just learning what this means. The saying, “God meets us halfway,” is something we’ve heard since our early days in youth groups or maybe even Sunday school. I know for me, hearing it doesn’t necessarily mean believing or understanding it. That’s the problem with “Christian clichés” it seems to me that they effectively take complex spiritual truths and break them down into meaningless bite-sized nuggets of mediocrity. I wonder what it would have been like to be a man of faith in the days of Thomas à Kempis, days when your friends wouldn’t look at you with sappy eyes and say, “Hey brother, F.R.O.G., fully rely on God,” but rather they would exhort you with words like, “Tear yourself forcibly from everything toward which human nature blindly and obsessively inclines.“
This is the halfway point. This is where the promise of God to be strong in our weakness actualizes. It is when we have reached the end of our human effort and done everything in our power to overcome. I believe it’s at this point that God provides the grace and strength to persevere and experience redemption and transformation. I question whether or not I’ve experienced this kind of transformation because I, as Mr. Kempis so eloquently puts it, “am kept back from spiritual progress and amendment of life because I fear the difficulties I am sure to meet and the effort it will cost me to overcome them.“
As believers, we must be diligent to pursue God in all that we do, to fight with all that we have to overcome our shortcomings. We must live our lives in “pious discontentment” never settling for the status quo, always pushing ourselves forward, and always seeking higher ground. Anyone who has been told that the Christian life is an easy life has sadly been misled, and if that’s you, I apologize. We must engage ourselves with the living God. We must challenge ourselves to go farther and think deeper rather than settling for mediocrity.
If you do absolutely nothing about your small faults, you will, little by little, fall into greater ones. -Thomas à Kempis