Throwback Theology: Thomas à Kempis on Humility

Thomas-a-KempisThomas à Kempis (1380-1471) was a Medieval theologian from Germany. Thomas was most well known for his piece The Imitation of Christ. This piece was written to be a type of Christian devotional broken up into four books, consisting of Book One: Thoughts Helpful in The Life of the Soul, Book Two: The Interior Life, Book Three: Internal Consolation, and Book Four: An Invitation to Holy Communion. These key insights to the Christian life are regarded as one of the most popular devotionals written. This excerpt is entitled Having a Humble Opinion of Self.

Every man naturally desires knowledge; but what good is knowledge without fear of God? Indeed a humble rustic who serves God is better than a proud intellectual who neglects his soul to study the course of the stars, He who knows himself well becomes mean in his own eyes and is not happy when praised by men.

If I knew all things in the world and had not charity, what would it profit me before God, Who will judge me by my deeds?

Shun too great a desire for knowledge, for in it there is much fretting and delusion. Intellectuals like to appear learned and to be called wise. Yet there are many things the knowledge of which does little or no good to the soul, and he who concerns himself about other things than those which lead to salvation is very unwise.

Many words do not satisfy the soul; but a good life eases the mind, and a clean conscience inspires great trust in God.

The more you know and the better you understand, the more severely will you be judged, unless your life is also the more holy. do not be proud therefore, because of your learning or skill. Rather, fear because of the talent given you. If you think you know many things and understand them well enough, realize at the same time that there is much you do not know. Hence, do not affect wisdom, but admit your ignorance. Why prefer yourself to anyone else when many are more learned, more cultured than you?

If you wish to learn and appreciate something worth while, the love to be unknown and considered as nothing. Truly to know and despise self is the best and most perfect counsel. To think of oneself as nothing and always to think well and highly of others is the best and most perfect wisdom. Wherefore, if you see another sin openly or commit a serious crime, do not consider yourself better, for you do not know how long you can remain in good estate. All men are frail, but you must admit that none is more frail than yourself.

I believe if we are reading this passage honestly and carefully, we will be left on a pile of rubble, a ruin of self. Kempis pulls apart a dignified, magnified, and glorified view of one’s self. Today we are often told that we must find ourselves in order to help ourselves, or the greatest achievable goal is to find our true identity. Contrary to our culture, Kempis gives a resounding “NO!” No we do not need to find ourselves, and God does not help those who help themselves. God bestows grace upon grace! God gives merit and favor to unworthy creatures. This is where a heart of gratitude and a life of service stem from. It is this reason and this end that we live. The great catholic theologian Thomas à Kempis recalibrates for us a proper view of self and humility.


Throwback Theology is a blogging segment of classic sermons, books and articles by some of Christianity’s greatest thinkers. I hope this will encourage you and challenge you to think more deeply about our great God.

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