Thomas a Kempis was a 15th century German monk who wrote The Imitation of Christ, a classic devotional book that was tremendously influential to John Wesley, the founder of United Methodism. I’ve flipped through this book many times, but I thought it would do both me and my readers good to go back to it and proceed more slowly through it to meditate upon the wisdom Thomas has to share with us. So I’m starting with the first chapter. I won’t necessarily cover every chapter since there are over a hundred, but I want to share my thoughts on the passages that really grab me.
So here is Thomas in his opening chapter talking about why a virtuous life is better than esoteric words:
Esoteric words neither make us holy nor righteous; only a virtuous life makes us beloved of God. I would rather experience repentance in my soul than know how to define it. If you knew the entire Bible inside out and all the maxims of the philosophers, what good would it do you if you were, at the same time, without God’s love and grace?
This is a tough one for me as a blogger who traffics in esoteric words, but it’s important to remember what this is all about. I think it’s particularly important for those of us who are Protestants to be challenged by this Catholic claim that “only a virtuous life makes us beloved of God.” My first instinct is to protest that we’re justified by faith alone, that God’s love for us is unconditional, and that no one really lives a virtuous life because we’re all sinners. How can someone say that God only loves us if we do good deeds? That’s the vain pursuit of “religion,” not Jesus.
The problem that the doctrine of “justification by faith” correctly recognizes is that living a virtuous life isn’t something that we can just willpower ourselves into doing. It is the organic byproduct of our posture of faith. If we do good deeds as a means of justifying ourselves instead of receiving our justification from Christ without merit, then our good deeds become the toxic source of narcissism and arrogance. They don’t bring us into deeper belovedness, but make us entitled and presumptuous in our attitude towards God.
God makes us genuinely virtuous the more we trust in God. A healthy desire to do good comes from a foundation of spiritual security in God’s love rather than an anxiety about whether or not God will accept us. What we believe about God matters, because it shapes how much we trust God. The more that we trust God, the more that we experience God’s love as we live a virtuous life. You can do good deeds without trusting God, but those good deeds will not do you any spiritual good unless you recognize their origin in God’s love. Whenever we do good, it is really God loving other people through us. That’s why Jesus says, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” God is always finding ways to make love happen through people whether or not they know him. But it’s only when they know and trust him that they become “beloved” through channeling his love.
So it matters what we believe, but not because God is accepting or rejecting us on the basis of whether or not we have the correct doctrine. What we believe either interferes with or enhances our trust of God which is the foundation of our virtue. At the same time, many Christians whose articulated beliefs are partly heretical still manage to live virtuous lives in which they trust God and experience his awesome loving presence. And many Christians whose doctrine is supposedly pristine still manage to be ugly and unloving to others. Our heart-doctrine matters more than our head-doctrine. The head-doctrine is relevant to the degree that it impacts the heart-doctrine. As Thomas writes, what matters is that we have personally experienced repentance even if we don’t say all the right things in our definition of it.
Many Protestant Christians in particular have gotten detoured in our arguments over doctrine. Some of us obsess over the need to be absolutely correct. Some of us get overly scandalized by the ugly parts of the Bible’s presentation of God and let that derail the beauty that so much of the Bible has to offer us. The bottom line is God loves us and wants us to use our lives to share that love with other people. Every piece of doctrine we put into our heads has that basic transmission of love as its goal. That’s what a virtuous life is.
I agree with Thomas a Kempis that God is a pragmatist who wants his people to live virtuous lives even if they can’t articulate perfectly pristine doctrine about him. I also think that God is creative enough to work with us amidst our confused, tainted beliefs and carve out alternative paths for us to gain a right heart and a virtuous life, which is what ultimately matters. The question we should be asking about our beliefs is whether they are helping us to live like Jesus. If not, then we need to ask God to show us the way of thinking about him that can help us best imitate Christ with our lives. We don’t “earn” God’s love by imitating Jesus with our lives. God’s love is always there before we’ve done anything. Our problem is that we’re alienated from it. But when we live like Jesus, we become God’s beloved.