Exclusive interview with Thomas a Kempis
Welcome to another edition of The Time-Traveling Writer. I’m Jim Watkins, and through the miracle of the printed word, we’re able interview authors in their very own words—long after they’re dead.
So, I’m pleased to have one of Christianity’s favorite authors with us, through his classic book, The Imitation of Christ. Please welcome Thomas à Kempis.
Thank you for joining us. Let me begin by asking, why the “imitation of Christ”?
These are the words of Christ from John 8: “If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness.” They teach us how thoroughly we must imitate his life and character if we desire true understanding and freedom from our own deceptive hearts and minds. And so, may we earnestly study and meditate on the life of Jesus Christ (I.1).
Your amazing book has been a best-seller for over 500 years, and many consider it second only to the Bible on its influence on Christianity. So, why did you write it anonymously?
Do not let the writer’s authority or learning—be it little or great—influence you, but let the love of pure truth attract you to read. Do not ask, “Who said this?” but pay attention to what is said (I.5)
That idea of putting the message ahead of our pride and our need for recognition seems to be a recurring theme in the book.
The Christ teaches, “My friend, the more you let go of your own desires, the more you will become like me. When you have no desire for outward things, only then you will enjoy internal peace. When you stop living for yourself, you will grow into union with me. I want you to learn perfect self-denial” (III.56).
Your writing also seems to directly contradict today’s encouragement to “believe in yourself.”
Because grace and understanding are often lacking in us, we cannot place any confidence in ourselves. There is little light within us, and what we do have we quickly lost by negligence. Often, we don’t recognize how great our inward blindness is. We often do wrong and, worse, excuse it. Sometimes we are moved by human passion and count it as godly zeal. We criticize little faults in others and pass over great faults in ourselves (II.5).
So, you write a lot about self-denial being key to imitating Christ.
It is futile to strive for earthly things and to trust in riches that will perish. It is futile to desire honors and lift up ourselves. It is futile to be ruled by the desires of our physical body, for this will only bring misery in the end. It is futile to desire a long life and to care little for a good life. It is futile to concentrate on the here and now and not look forward to the things which are eternal. It is futile to love temporary things and not strive toward eternal joy (I.1).
This book runs completely counter to much of what we hear and read in Christian media today.
Jesus has many lovers of his heavenly kingdom but few bearers of his cross. He has many seekers of comfort but few willing to face troubles and trial. He finds many companions at his table but few with him in fasting. Many desire to rejoice with him, but few are willing to undergo adversity for his sake. Many love Jesus so long as no troubles happen to them. Many praise him and bless him, so long as they receive comforts from him. But if Jesus hides himself and seems to withdraw from them for even a little while, they immediately begin complaining or feel a great sense of dejection (II.11).
In fact, you make a rather bold statement about those who follow Jesus simply for comfort.
Shouldn’t all those constantly seeking his blessing be called mercenaries? Don’t those who are always seeking their own gain and advantage show themselves to be lovers of themselves more than lovers of Christ? Who can be found who is willing to serve God altogether for no earthly benefit? (II.11)
Uh, that’s a rather harsh assessment!
This seems a hard saying to many: [The Christ taught in Matthew 16,] “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.”
But do not fear, for the cross leads to heaven. In the cross is health, in the cross is life. There is no health of the soul nor hope of eternal life except in the cross. (II.12)
You do seem to focus in your book, not about the blessings of Christ, but bearing the cross of Christ.
If we willingly bear the cross, it will bear us. If we bear it unwillingly, we will greatly increase the weight and make it a burden for ourselves. We must bear it. And if we refuse one cross, there is no doubt we will encounter another cross—far heavier (II.12).
But wouldn’t it be more effective in reaching the world, to talk more about Christ’s comfort than his cross?
It is not in our nature to bear the cross, to love the cross, to bring our bodies into subjection, to flee from honors, to bear criticism meekly, to discipline ourselves, to bear all adversities and losses, and to desire no prosperity in this world. If we look inside ourselves, we will find none of this.
You also write about going beyond simply “bearing” the cross to fully “embracing” the cross, and well as earthly trials and troubles. Can you explain that?!
It is good for us that we sometimes have sorrows and adversities, for they often make us realize we are only strangers and sojourners on this earth and that we can’t put our trust in worldly things. It is good that we sometimes endure opposition and are unfairly judged. When we experience this trouble, it is for our good. For these things help us to be humble and shield us from conceit. For when people speak evil against us falsely and give us no credit for good, then we seek more earnestly the approval of God (I.12).
Okay, but that brings up the question of why some Christians seem to live trouble-free lives and others seem to face one trial after another.
My friend, don’t argue about the hidden workings of God that are beyond your comprehension. Do not ask, why is this person seemingly neglected and this person shown such great favor? Why is this person greatly afflicted and this one so highly exalted? These things are beyond human power of understanding. Divine judgments are beyond earthly reasoning, arguments, or explanations. So, when the enemy of our soul—or curious people—ask such questions, answer with the words of the psalmist: “O Lord, you are righteous, and your regulations are fair.” Also answer: “The laws of the Lord are true; each one is fair” (Psalm 19:9). [God declares,] My judgments are to be feared, not to be disputed, because they are incomprehensible to human understanding (III.56).
You also seem to stress that, as followers of Christ, that we must live for the eternal, rather than the temporary.
We will make great progress if we keep ourselves free from temporary cares. Sadly, we will fall away from God if we set our value on any worldly thing. Let nothing be great, nothing high, nothing pleasing, nothing acceptable to us except for God himself or his things. Consider any comfort absolutely useless if it comes from a created thing. The soul that loves God does not look at anything that is beneath God (II.5).
Okay, let’s move on to something we do hear a lot about today: love.
Blessed are those who understand what it is to love Jesus and humble themselves for his sake. They must give up all that they love for their Beloved, for Jesus will not be loved unless above all things. The love of created things is deceiving and unstable, but the love of Jesus is faithful and lasting. Those who cling to created things will fall on their slippery foundation, but those who embrace Jesus will stand upright forever. Let us love him and cling to him as our closest friend, for he will not forsake us when all others depart from us, nor will he allow us to perish at the last day.
Know that the love of yourself is more hurtful to you than anything in the world (III.27).
Uh, that’s not exactly where I was going with that question.
Love is a great thing: a virtue above all others. Love alone makes every heavy burden light and equalizes every inequality. For it bears heavy weights and creates no burden. It makes every bitter thing sweet and good tasting. The love of Jesus inspires us to do great works and motivates with a continual desire to be more like him. Love desires to be raised up, and not to be held down by any earthly thing. Love desires to be free and liberated from all earthly desires so its power may not be hindered (III.5).
Well, thank you. You have certainly given us some things to think about. Any final words for our listeners?
Seek the true peace which is found only in God in heaven—not on earth or in created things. For the love of God, you must willingly bear all things: labors or sorrows, temptations, frustrations, anxieties, necessities, illnesses, injuries, conflicts, rebukes, humiliation, confusion, corrections, and disrespect. These things build righteous character, prove you are [his] disciple, and fashion your heavenly crown. [Jesus] will give you an everlasting reward for temporary labor, infinite glory for short-lived shame (III.35).
We must not lose our desire to grow and develop spiritually. There is still time; the hour is not past. Let us not put off our resolution. Get up and begin this very moment. Say, “Now is the time to do, to fight, and the right time to change my life” (I.22).
Thank you, for joining us on The Time-Traveling Writer. And if you’d like to hear more from Thomas à Kempis, travel on over to
The Imitation of Christ: Classic Devotions in Today’s Language.
Copyright © 2015 James N. Watkins