For some time I have taken to heart C.S.Lewis' comment in his essay On the Reading of Old Books. He argues that old books help you see what is fundamental in the Christian faith and what is a peripheral or even wrong.
"The only safety" he says ...
"... is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity ("mere Christianity" as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books."
So he then went on to say:
"It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones."
Currently there is an encouraging trend for publishers to produce miniature or "pocket" books of the old Christian classics - these contain edited excerpts.
One very famous "old book" that I have not yet seen "excerpted" is the Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. Over the centuries this has had a profound influence on a very wide range of people, from Thomas More to John Wesley to General Gordon. This Coloured Supplement contains, modernized, the first seven "chapters" of this work as a taster.
Thomas à Kempis (so called after his place of birth, Kempen, near Düsseldorf, Germany) was born in 1380 and died in 1471. He spent most of his life in a monastery where he worked as a copyist. It is said he copied out, by hand, the bible four times! His pre-Reformation sacramental teaching has not been acceptable to many Protestants; and so a number may not have read his writings. But his devotion to Christ, his desire for fellowship with him, and his teaching on biblical piety have been an inspiration to many others.
It was the great Protestant Bishop Ryle who taught that we should assume "fallibility" in all Christian ministers. In his essay The Fallibility of Ministers he says this:
"Who does not see, when he reads the history of the Church of Christ, repeated proofs that the best of men can err? The early fathers were zealous according to their knowledge, and ready to die for Christ. But many of them countenanced monkery, and nearly all sowed the seeds of many superstitions. The Reformers were honoured instruments in the hand of God for reviving the cause of truth on earth. Yet hardly one of them can be named who did not make some great mistake ... The Puritans in after times, denounced toleration ... Wesley and Toplady abused each other in most shameful language."
Ryle's thesis is clear - infallibility is not to be found in godly ministers, but in the Bible alone. That is still so important. It means two things. On the one hand, we should never follow respected Christian leaders when they go against the plain meaning of the bible (thus proving that they indeed are fallible). On the other hand, because they are wrong at certain points, we do not have to reject all they say and teach. It is in that spirit we ought to read Thomas à Kempis. He has so much to teach us. What follows, then, are the first seven "chapters" of The Imitation of Christ (modernized).
On the Imitation of Christ
1) Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, says the Lord (Jn 8.12). These are the words of Christ that encourage us to imitate his life and behaviour, if we want to be truly enlightened and delivered from all blindness of heart. May therefore our chief ambition be to meditate on the life of JESUS CHRIST.
The doctrine of Christ surpasses all the doctrines of holy men. The one who has the Spirit will find in it the hidden manna. (Rev 2.17). But it happens that many who often hear the Gospel of Christ feel little desire for it because they do not have the Spirit of Christ (Rom 8.9). But whoever wants to thrill at fully understanding the words of Christ must strive to conform their life wholly to the life of Christ.
2) What does it benefit you to talk profoundly about the Trinity, if you are lacking humility and so are displeasing to the Trinity? Surely profound words do not make a person holy and just. A virtuous life makes them dear to God. I had rather feel contrition than know its definition. If you knew the whole Bible by heart and the sayings of all the philosophers, what would all that profit you without the love of God (1 Cor 13.2) and without his grace?
Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless (Eccles 1.2) except to love God and to serve him alone. This is the highest wisdom - despising the world to press forward towards the heavenly kingdom.
It is therefore folly to seek riches that perish and to trust in them. It is also folly to search for honours and to climb to a high position. It is folly to follow the desires of the flesh and to long for what must later lead to grievous punishment. It is folly to wish to live long and to be careless about living well. It is folly to set your love on what speedily passes away and not to hasten onwards to where everlasting joy abides.
Call often to mind the proverb, The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing (Eccles 1.8). Strive therefore to withdraw your heart from the love of visible things. Turn yourself to things invisible. For those who follow their own sensuality defile their conscience and lose the grace of God.
On personal humility
1) Everyone naturally desires knowledge (Eccles 1.13). But what does knowledge benefit without the fear of God? Better, surely, is a humble labourer who serves God, than a proud philosopher that, neglecting his soul, studies the courses of the stars. Whoever truly knows themself, loses their pride and does not delight in the praises of others. If I understood all things in the world and lacked love (1 Cor 13.2), what would that help me in the sight of God who will judge me according to my deeds?
Cease having an inordinate desire for knowledge, for in that is found a great distraction and deception. The learned are well pleased to be seen as such by others and to be accounted wise. There are many things that if you know them will profit your soul little or nothing. A person is very unwise who is devoted to anything except that which leads to their salvation. Many words do not satisfy the soul. But a good life comforts the mind and a pure conscience gives great confidence towards God.
The more, and the better, is your knowledge, so much the more rigorously will you be judged, unless your life has been the more holy. Do not therefore boast of any art or science, but rather fear for the knowledge you have.
2) If you think that you know many things and understand them very well, know also that there are far more things you do not know. Do not be conceited (Rom 12.16), but rather acknowledge your own ignorance. Why do you put yourself before another, since there are many more learned and more skilful in the Law than your are? If you will know or learn any thing with real profit, love to be unknown and to be reckoned as nothing.
The deepest and most profitable lesson is this, the true knowledge and low estimate of ourselves. It is great wisdom and high perfection to reckon nothing of ourselves and to think always well and highly of others. If you should see another openly sin or commit some serious crime, you ought not to think better of yourself. You do not know how long you will be able to remain in a good state. All of us are frail (Gen 8.21), but you ought to reckon none more frail than yourself.
On the teaching of Truth
1) Happy is the person whom Truth itself teaches (Ps 94.12) not by signs and words that pass away, but as it is in itself. Our own opinions and our own views often deceive us and they tell us little.
What value is a great controversy and dispute about obscure and hidden things (Eccles 3.9-11)? We will not be reproved at the judgement day because we do not understand them. It is a great folly to neglect the things that are profitable and necessary, while giving our minds to things that are interesting but harmful. Do we have eyes, but fail to see (Ps 115.5; Mk 8.18)? What do we have to do with "genus" and "species"? The person to whom the Eternal Word speaks is set free from much speculation. From that one Word are all things, and all things tell of him. The Author of all is the one who speaks to us. No one without him understands or judges rightly. The person to whom all things are one and who relates all things to one and sees all things in one, is able to be steadfast in heart, and remain at peace with God.
O God, who are the truth, make me one with you in continual love. I am weary with much reading and with hearing many things. In you is all that I desire and long for. Let all teachers hold their peace. Let all creatures be silent in your sight. Speak to me, you alone.
2) The more a person is at one within themself and becomes single in heart, so much the more do they understand profound things and without effort. They receive the light of understanding from above ( Mat 11.25; Lk 10. 21). A pure, sincere, and stable spirit is not distracted by a multitude of works, for it works everything for the honour of God; and inwardly it strives to be at rest from all self-seeking. What hinders and troubles you more than the unmortified passions of your own heart? A good and devout person decides within themself beforehand what they are going to do in the world. Nor does this lead them along the lines of the desires of their sinful inclination, but they order them in line with the decision of sound judgment. Who has a harder struggle than the one who strives to conquer himself? This ought to be our aim, to conquer ourselves and daily to grow stronger than ourselves and to make some progress for good.
3) All perfection in this life has some imperfection bound up with it; and no knowledge of ours is without some obscurity. A humble knowledge of yourself is a surer way to God than a deep search after learning. Yet learning is not to be blamed nor the mere knowledge of anything. Knowledge considered by itself is good and ordained by God. But a good conscience and a virtuous life are always to be preferred to it. Since many aim rather to know than to live well, that is why they are often deceived and reap no, or very little, fruit.
O, if people bestowed as much labour in the rooting out of vices and planting of virtues as they do in devising questions, there would neither be so great evils and scandals in the world, nor so much looseness in religious houses.
Truly, when the day of judgment comes, we shall not be examined for what we have read, but for what we have done (Mat 25); not for how well we have spoken, but for how religiously we have lived.
Tell me, where now are all those Masters and Doctors with whom you were well acquainted while they were alive and who were famous for learning? Others have now taken their places and perhaps scarcely ever think of them. In their lifetime they seemed to be famous but now they are not spoken of. O, how quickly the glory of the world (Eccles 2.11) passes away!
O that their lives had been as good as their learning! Then their study and reading would have been to good purpose. How many perish in this world by reason of deceptive learning (Tit 1.10) and take little care of serving God. Because they choose to be great rather than humble, therefore they come to nothing in their thinking (Rom 1.21).
The man is truly great who is great in love. The man is truly great that is humble in himself and does not work for the highest honours (Mat 18.4; 23.11). The man is truly wise who considers all earthly things as rubbish, that he may gain Christ (Phil 3.8). And the man is truly very learned who does the will of God and ignores his own will.
On prudence in action
1) We ought not to believe every utterance or suggestion (1 Jn 4.1), but ought cautiously and patiently ponder words with reference to God. But alas! such is our weakness that we often rather believe and speak evil of others than good. Those who are perfect do not easily give credit to every tale; they know that human weakness is prone to evil (Gen 8.21) and often tempted to deceive (James 3.2).
2) It is great wisdom not to be rash in your actions (Prov 19.2), nor to cling obstinately to your own opinions. It is also part of that same wisdom not to believe every thing that you hear, nor to pour immediately what you have heard or believed into the ears of others (Prov 17.9). Consult a man who is wise and conscientious, and seek to be instructed by someone better than yourself rather than follow your own ideas (Prov 12.15).
A good life makes a man wise according to God's will (Prov 15.33) and gives him wide experience (Eccles 1.16). The more humble a man is in himself and the more submitted to God, the more prudent will he be in everything and the more at peace.
On reading the Bible
1) Truth is to be sought in the Bible, not in clever words. Every part of the Bible ought to be read with the same Spirit by which it was written (Rom 15.4). We should seek spiritual benefit in the Bible rather than elegant writing.
2) We ought to read as readily devout and simple books as the heavy and complicated ones. Let not the reputation of the writer affect you, whether his learning is great or small. But let the love of pure truth draw you to read (1 Cor 2.4). Do not ask "who said this or that?" but mark what is said. Men pass away, but the faithfulness of the Lord endures for ever (Ps 117.2; Lk 21.33). God speaks to us in different ways and is no respecter of persons (Rom 2.11; 10.12; Col 3.11).
3) Our own curiosity often hinders us in reading the Bible. We desire to understand and dispute matters we should simply pass over. If you desire to be profited, read with humility, simplicity, and faith. Do not ever desire a reputation for scholarship. Be willing to ask questions, and hear with silence the teaching of mature Christians. Do not be irritated by the repeated words of older men. They are not recounted without good cause (Prov 1.6; Eccles 12.9).
On control of the desires
1) Whenever a man desires any thing inordinately, he is immediately in turmoil. A proud and covetous person is never at rest. The poor and humble in spirit enjoy great peace (Ps 37.11).
2) The one that is not yet perfectly dead to self, is quickly tempted and is overcome in small and trifling things. The weak in spirit and the one still prey to earthly and sensual passions, can only with difficulty free themself from worldly desires. So they are often sad when they have to give them up; and they easily are angry with any who oppose them. If they gain what they have desired, they are immediately burdened with remorse in their conscience; for they followed their own passion, which in no way helped them obtain the peace they sought.
3) True peace of heart therefore is found by resisting our desires, not by obeying them. So there is no peace in the heart of a sensual person, nor in the one given up to worldly things, but in the one who is fervent and spiritual.
On avoiding vain hope and pride
1) Foolish is the one who sets his hope in man (Jer 17.5) or in any creature. Do not be ashamed to serve others for the love of Jesus Christ, nor to be reckoned poor in this world.
Do not rely on yourself but put your hope in God (Ps 31.1). Do what lies in your power and God will assist your good intention.
Do not trust in your own knowledge nor in the cleverness of any living person. Rather trust in the grace of God, who helps the humble and humbles those that are proud (1 Pet 5.5).
2) Do not glory in wealth if you have it, nor in friends because they are powerful. Glory in God who gives all things and above all desires to give you himself.
Do not extol yourself for your physical prowess or beauty which a little sickness can disfigure and destroy.
Take no pleasure in your natural gifts or talents, lest in doing so you displease God to whom belongs all the good and whatever you have by nature.
Do not reckon yourself better than others (Ex 3.11). Perhaps in the sight of God, who knows what is in man, you are accounted worse. Do not be proud of good works (Job 9.20). The judgments of God are different from the judgments of men and what pleases men often offends him. If you have any good qualities, believe others are better so that you may keep humble. It does you no harm to set yourself lower than all others. But it harms you exceedingly if you set yourself above even one person. Lasting peace is with the humble; but the heart of the proud is full of envy and, often, jealousy.