HEROES IV: THOMAS A KEMPIS
AND THE VIRTUOUS LIFE
July 28, 2002
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Have you wondered from time to time what brings joy to our heavenly Fathers heart? If you were to ask contemporary church-goers that question, how might they respond? Having our theology straight, some would no doubt reply. Regular church attendance, others might chime in. Six hundred years ago, Thomas A Kempis thought about the same question, and he answered it this way:
What good does it do, then, to debate about the Trinity, if by a lack of humility you are displeasing to the Trinity? In truth, lofty words do not make a person holy and just, but a virtuous life makes one dear to God.
What pleases God? A virtuous life, A Kempis responded.
In 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, the Apostle Paul describes a massive hurdle for all of us who seek to live a virtuous life: temptation. Just the sound of the word brings various specific situations and personal weaknesses to mind. Previous failures. Current struggles. Future fears. Temptationwe all know something about it. Paul wants to make certain, however, that we know the right things.
Paul suggests, first of all, that temptation or times of testing are inevitablethey are an anticipated part of life. His comments here in chapter 10 actually continue his thoughts on a subject under consideration since chapter 8. In Corinth, a pressing issue concerned whether or not Christians could rightfully eat the meat of animals that had been sacrificed to idols. Corinthian followers of Jesus in reality faced this issue in two separate contexts. There were, for one thing, frequent social activities in which the served food had been sacrificed to various idols. Must these Christians withdraw from all such functions? Further, the meat that was sold in local markets had often been sacrificed to idols prior to its arrival on the butchers shelves. Must the Christians abstain from purchasing such meat?
What actually concerns us today is not so much this issue itself, but rather the way the Corinthian believers responded to it. Many of them apparently saw themselves as invincible and impregnable. Idols are nonsensepure superstitionand it makes no difference whether we eat such meat or not, you can hear them saying. But Paul takes strong exception to this way of thinking. You are not invincible, he argues. You have vulnerable points, too.
In making his case, Paul provides a brief overview of Israelite history. During the days when the Israelites were pilgrims in the desert, they were guided by a cloud, led through the sea, fed manna when they grew hungry, and drank water that miraculously came from a rock. They were, in other words, privilegedtaken care of by God himselfyet they were tempted repeatedly and failed miserably. They constructed a golden calf, grumbled endlessly, and feared to enter the land at Gods directive. If these people, who had experienced Gods involvement in their lives in such a wide variety of ways, nevertheless encountered tests and temptations all along the way, why would the Corinthians consider themselves any different?
Temptation, Paul concludes, is an inevitable part of life, and it is no respecter of persons. Temptation entices the young and the old, the rich and the poor, celebrities and no-names. Everyone of us, including me, knows firsthand what it feels like to encounter tests and temptations.
The various temptations that we experience, Paul continues, are not unique to ourselves. Not only is temptation a shared experience, but so are the various things that test us and tempt us in the first place. As so many people point out, temptation gains strength when we assume that we are the only ones struggling with whatever it is that attacks us. Either our tests are unique and no one else understands them, or ours are tougher and no one else can grasp the extent of our battle. Paul, however, assures us that, not only are all of us tempted, but the range of temptations that we face is in reality not particularly new.
In clarifying his point, Paul mentions four areas of temptation that everyone experiences to one degree or another. Idolatry, to begin with, is a struggle that we all understand. While we may not consciously pray to carved figures, we often get our priorities way out of whack. How easy it is to put other things and desires ahead of Godpleasure, money, personal security, and so on. Sexual temptation, secondly, runs throughout time and across cultural boundaries. We have heard about the seemingly endless struggles of others, and many of us feel the battle within our own souls. Putting the Lord to the test Paul lists as a third temptation. Like children who are tempted to measure their parents resolve, we ourselves are tempted to test Gods limitswondering if we can cross the line, or believing that, if we do cross the line, he will inevitably forgive us. And fourthly, Paul mentions the temptation to grumble and complain. All of us know what it is like to feel the weight of such temptations. Although the specifics of our struggles may vary, none of us is in the battle alone.
Finally, Paul asserts that the temptations we face are, in reality, escapable. Here is one of what I consider to be the nagging tensions in both Scripture and life itself. What is Gods role in our dealings with temptation, and what is ours? Paul suggests, on the one hand, that God is faithful (and) he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it. But he also writes, on the other hand, that we will not be tempted beyond your strength. There is no word here about immediate deliverance from each and every temptation, no indication of a painless life. Instead, the phrase beyond your strength allows for considerable aggravation and sweatthere is plenty of room here for us to struggle with temptation. All that we are told is that it will not be beyond our strength.
So how do we live in this tension? What do we do to overcome the onslaught of temptation, and what does God do? Here, Thomas A Kempis has a great deal to tell us. God, A Kempis assures us, is with us every step of the way. In the same way that the rescuers dug tunnels to free the entrapped miners in Somerset during the last few days, so God provides unexpected openings and unending resources. A Kempis, however, was quick to stress the absolute importance of our participation in resisting temptation and the need for us to live disciplined lives. He would have had little use for the type of easy, pain-free Christianity we too often hear about today. In pressing this connection between personal discipline and virtuous living, A Kempis would no doubt emphasize the following things.
To begin with, A Kempis would encourage us to reflect upon the ways that temptation comes upon us. In addition to studying the Bible, A Kempis was a keen observer of human behavior. Over and over again, he noticed a recurring cycle in peoples struggles with temptation, a cycle or chain of events that frequently shows up in contemporary books on the subject. The cycle of temptation begins when a thought first enters our minds. At that point, our minds are jolted, if you will, and we have a crucial decision to make: Will we reject and fight off that thought, or will we entertain it? This choice constitutes the second step in A Kempis cycle. If we decide to reject the thought and redirect our minds in another direction, the cycle comes to an end.
If our minds are sufficiently aroused by the thought and we choose not to reject it, however, we enter the third step in which we entertain the thought. We play it over and over again in our minds and even cultivate it. Although we might whisper to ourselves that such a thought is harmful and sinful, we derive enough pleasure out of it that we cling to it and enjoy its increasing effect upon us.
Finally, after entertaining such a thought for a period of time, we consent to its pull and engage in the behavior. We dont begin with step four. Rather, we have gone through a cycleprobably one that is all too familiar to many of usin which we receive a thought, choose to cultivate it, and then act upon it. Recognizing this cycle, A Kempis points out, helps us to know what we are up against and might enable us to better abort the cycle in its early stages.
After explaining this pattern of thinking that, if uninterrupted, eventually leads to our yielding to temptation, A Kempis asks what is among the most pressing questions facing those of us who say that we want to live virtuous and godly livesDo we? That is, are we genuinely committed to resisting temptation and shunning evil? It is one thing to pray, Lord, help me in this time of temptation, but it is quite another to intentionally strengthen our vulnerable points and endure times of testing without caving in. A Kempis draws our attention here to what James calls a double-minded person, a person who says one thing but does another. Again, the crucial question for us is, Do we really want to resist temptation, shun evil, and live a life of virtue?
This question, by the way, should not be answered too quickly. The world around us, particularly here in the United States, offers a wide range of pleasures for all of us. There are any number of opportunities to enjoy the things of the world, and self-denial does not come easily in our culture. We are often fun-loving people who have been led to believe that life is a game to be played, and we have little appreciation for discipline and even less tolerance of pain. In truth, until we abandon our sometimes incessant thirst for pleasure and genuinely fall in love with the things of God, we will remain easy prey for the many temptations that come our way.
Finally, once we recognize the cycle of temptation and decide to live virtuous lives, we need to focus our energies on Jesus Christ and, with Gods ever-present help, reorient our thoughts and affections. We must imitate Christ and his ways, A Kempis reminds us, if we are to be truly enlightened and set free from the darkness of our own hearts. Let it be the most important thing we do, then, to reflect on the life of Jesus Christ. We cannot simply ignore temptations or run away from them in fearif we do that, we will eventually fall. Instead, we must reorient our very thoughts. We must work in cooperation with Godisnt that a wonderful thoughtto root out evil from the very depths of our souls. A Kempis describes our role in this way:
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. It is vanity to focus only on your present life and not to look ahead to your future life. It is vanity to live for the joys of the moment and not to seek eagerly the lasting joys that await you.
Often remember the saying: The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor is the ear filled with hearing. 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 Gods stain their conscience and lose Gods grace
As we faithfully and obediently follow Gods leading in our lives, even when it means resisting evil in all of its forms, he cleanses us, upholds us and strengthens us.
Thomas A Kempis lived some 600 years ago, but his influence continues to this day. Many say that The Imitation of Christ has positively shaped the spiritual lives of more people than any book other than the Bible. You should read itit is a genuine masterpiece. For me personally, A Kempis is a hero of sortshe is worth imitatingfor any number of reasons, but one thing stands out in particular this morning. A Kempis taught and modeled the importance of Christian virtue. He believed that how we live our lives mattersreally matters. Even more remarkably, A Kempis continues to encourage people like you and me that, with Gods help, we can live a virtuous and godly life. We dont have to frighteningly give in to every temptation that comes down the road. We can abandon our quest for worldly pleasures, cooperate with God, and rise to new heights. What an invigorating and liberating thought.