A classic Christian devotional book that I return to often is “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas a Kempis. Written in the 15th century, it has influenced everyone from Martin Luther to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Here is a thought-provoking passage from the opening chapter of this book, which I have set in verse because it helps me to read it more prayerfully:
The Highest Wisdom
This is the highest wisdom: To see the world as it truly is, fallen and fleeting; to love the world not for its own sake, but for God’s; and to direct all your effort toward achieving the kingdom of heaven. So, it is vanity to seek material wealth that cannot last and to place your trust in it. It is also vanity to seek recognition and status. It is vanity to chase after what the world says you should want and to long for things you should not have, things that you will pay a high price for later on if you get them. It is vanity to wish for a long life and to care little about a good life. Make every effort, then, to shift your affections from the things that you can see to the things you cannot see, for people who live in the world on its terms instead of on God’s stain their conscience and lose God’s grace.
I have been reading this book, and these words, for over thirty years, and they never fail to move me. Whenever I reopen the pages of this book, I am reminded right from the start of what is truly important in life. And what is truly important is not material wealth, or recognition, or status, or even a long life. These are all vanity, “but a chasing after the wind,” in the wise words of Ecclesiastes 1:17. They are all fleeting. The highest wisdom is to realize this, Thomas teaches us. But not just to realize it – the highest wisdom, he teaches us, is to see the world as fallen and fleeting and, at the same time, to love the world. Not for its own sake, he writes, but for God’s. This, to me, is one of the great challenges of the Christian life, and what it means to be “in the world but not of it.” We are challenged to see this world as fallen and fleeting, which it certainly is, and to love it anyway. But to love it on God’s terms and not for its own sake. If God “so loved the world,” then so should we, but we should strive to love the world in the same way that God loves the world. How do we do this? By following the example of Jesus, by imitating Christ.
Thomas goes on in this passage to teach us that we should direct all our effort toward achieving the kingdom of heaven. As Lutherans, we might object to language like “achieving” the kingdom of heaven. After all, we believe that the kingdom of heaven is a gift that Jesus died to give us. And it’s true – I don’t believe that we can achieve the kingdom of heaven; but I do believe that we are called to seek God’s kingdom first, and above all else. As Jesus put it, “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)
As Lutherans, we might also object to the last phrase quoted above – “People who live in the world on its terms instead of on God’s stain their conscience and lose God’s grace.” And again, while I don’t believe that we can lose God’s grace, I see a kernel of truth here, because I do believe that we, like the prodigal son, can waste God’s grace. We can squander it away by chasing the things of this “fallen and fleeting” world. We can, and too often do, waste God’s grace. But we cannot not lose God’s grace, because when we wander away and squander our inheritance, our heavenly Father faithfully waits for our return. Just as the father waited for his prodigal son in Jesus’ famous parable, so God waits for us. The grace and love of God, waiting for us, waiting for the moment we come to our senses, like the prodigal, and head for home. And then? The grace of God running to meet us, ready to throw us a party like no other, a party that nothing in this fallen and fleeting world can ever hope to rival.
It is surely vanity to want anything other than this, isn’t it? And it is the highest wisdom to realize it.