Rest and self-love are part of God’s design for our lives
Of the books I’ve read so far in 2020, three books I’ve read on Christianity stand out the most to me. What makes them stand out so much is the distance between the two extremes they represent. All three are Christian books, but the messages of the first two are incompatible with that of the third one.
Let me introduce these books. The first two are well-known classics of Christian literature from the Middle Ages. Many Christians know of them, but it’s my first time reading these.
Dark Night of the Soul
First is Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross. It’s a long (but not complete) essay explaining the meanings of St. John’s cryptic poem of the same name, a poem he wrote in prison. This poem describes the soul’s journey from sin and imperfection into cleansing and purification, and finally to a divine union with God.
The focus is on mental, emotional, and spiritual pain and suffering as “purgation” for the soul — the soul must go through a lot of pain before it’s been sufficiently cleansed of sin and ready for union with God.
Everyone knows that all humans are imperfect, and even the strongest people fall into sin. But St. John hammers home the message that our souls are covered in filthy sin, and must suffer the most extreme pain before they are “purified in spirit.”
St. John emphasizes forsaking all the things of this world and every consolation. Doing away with all physical consolations and shunning the world allows us to lead spiritual lives completely dedicated to God.
I thought this book was “hardcore.” Forsaking everything, giving up all you have, and shunning the world are painful and difficult to do. Some might say extreme. Could I do these things? I don’t think so, honestly.
And is every Christian called to do these things? That’s a question I wondered. I often think about the passage in 1 John 2 (below) about the importance of not being worldly, and I try to follow it as best I can. But does Christ demand us to go ‘all the way’ on this, to sell everything and wander the world begging for our daily bread?
This was one of the questions on my mind as I opened up the second book, The Imitation of Christ.
Don’t love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in them. Everything that is in the world — the craving for whatever the body feels, the craving for whatever the eyes see and the arrogant pride in one’s possessions — is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world and its cravings are passing away, but the person who does the will of God remains forever. (1 John 2:15–17, CEB)
The Imitation of Christ
The Imitation of Christ is one of the most famous books of Christian philosophy there is. I first learned about it from reading Dorothy Day, who often mentioned it.
This book was probably written by two or three monks from the Brethren of the Common Life, a monk order in the Netherlands in the fourteenth century. At least the translator is known: Thomas à Kempis translated it into Latin around that time.
The message of The Imitation of Christ is very much in line with the previous book, Dark Night of the Soul. I only need to list a few of the chapter titles to illustrate that point.
“To Despise the World and Serve God Is Sweet”
“Self-Love Is the Greatest Hindrance to the Highest Good”
“A Man Ought Not to Consider Himself Worthy of Consolation, But Rather Deserving of Chastisement”
And my favorite title — “Man Has No Good in Himself and Can Glory in Nothing.”
Much to my surprise, The Imitation of Christ took that hardcore tone from Dark Night of the Soul and went even further with it. It exhorts the reader to not only shun all possessions but to shun society too, eliminating all distractions to devote one’s life entirely to God.
It once again drills in the message that humans are sinful, unclean, deserving of nothing but rebukes and so on. But this time there’s an added component warning against self-love. Consider this quote:
My child, you should give all for all, and in no way belong to yourself. You must know that self-love is more harmful to you than anything else in the world. (The Imitation of Christ)
I didn’t sense any context in the book that it was warning against excessive self-love, something we could all agree is harmful (that’s like narcissism). In the context of this book’s call to mortification — crucifying the flesh to conquer it by denying oneself of worldly needs, pleasures, and consolations — I feel The Imitation of Christ considers anything beyond taking care of your most basic physical needs as harmful self-love!
Is that Christ’s message for us? He definitely said we should deny ourselves, but should we despise ourselves too? And should we shun the world to the extent this book calls for? There is a Scriptural basis for that, yes.
The Imitation of Christ was quite a read. I can’t recall any other book I’ve ever read that left me feeling so distraught while I read it. Does Christ call me to be a hermit, eating fruit and insects while wandering the woods? A more important question: Is anything less hardcore than that level of devotion acceptable to Him?
To Hell with the Hustle
Now for the other end of the spectrum. To Hell with the Hustle by Jefferson Bethke represents the other extreme to these ideas, in more ways than one. First of all, it was written in 2019 rather than medieval times, so it’s a book about living as a Christian in our times.
The book’s subtitle is: Reclaiming Your Life in an Overworked, Overspent, and Overconnected World. Much of it deals with checking out of the modern hustle culture that pushes us to produce and work more and more and more and to consume more and more too. It’s a rejection of the way our society pushes us to love the things of this world and how it creates idols out of wealth, status, work, productivity, and so on. It’s a great read, and I highly recommend it.
But wait a minute! If this book talks about checking out from modern hustle culture, the dominant culture in our society, then doesn’t it essentially have the same message as the first two books?
Sure, there’s some similarity between those two and Bethke’s message of shunning the way our world does things and not pursuing worldly things. That’s a Christian message in general. But Bethke doesn’t tell us to forsake everything and everyone, he doesn’t tell us to give everything away, and he doesn’t tell us to be hermit monks subjecting ourselves to a life of the harshest mortification and austerity. And the differences don’t stop there.
In fact, Bethke tells us to rebel against hustle culture so that we can rest and have some comfort, something contrary to Dark Night and Imitation.
So much of To Hell with the Hustle deals with the importance of rest — and the sanctity of it. It talks about the holiness of the Sabbath and the Sabbath year, and how God commanded these things. It makes an interesting point about Adam in the garden, how when he first gained consciousness in paradise, his entire reality was rest. Rest was all he knew.
In other words, it’s part of God’s design for us to rest and recharge.
Hard work is virtuous, but we aren’t God — we can’t keep it up forever with no rest. We’re human and need a break. We need rest. We need comfort.
It’s a very simple truth, but to me, it seems like the complete opposite of Dark Night and Imitation. So is Bethke leading believers astray? Which side is right here?
Balance is divine
Most people understand that when there are two opposite extremes, the ‘truth’ or ‘answer’ for those extremes is usually somewhere in the middle.
Mortification is good. The flesh is opposed to the spirit (Galatians 5:17), so when we mortify our flesh and deny our physical desires, we boost the spirit. Fasting and other physical austerities are great spiritual exercises, and necessary for becoming as spiritually strong as we can. Denying ourselves of our favorite comforts and pleasures is also a very pleasing sacrifice to God, one He gladly accepts.
But like hard work, we can’t keep that up all the time. We need a break from our mortification too, or we wear ourselves down. I’ve given up a lot this season of Lent. But I have some ice cream in the freezer, and when Lent is over I intend to eat it. I have no shame over it, and I doubt Jesus Christ has an opinion on it at all. He knows it’s part of God’s plan that we weak humans should rest.
Ecclesiastes mentions this point many times. I’ll quote from chapter five, but you can find other passages in Ecclesiastes about this as well:
This is the one good thing I’ve seen: it’s appropriate for people to eat, drink, and find enjoyment in all their hard work under the sun during the brief lifetime that God gives them because that’s their lot in life. (Ecclesiastes 5:18, CEB)
Next, it’s good to isolate and shun our society when we can. But unless we’re going to wander the wilderness eating locusts and honey forever (which is a respectable choice), we have to interact with society to work and earn money. God knows this!
Unless you can go 100% off-grid and sustain yourself, it’s near-impossible to shun the world the way The Imitation of Christ wants us to. At the same time, none can deny the spiritual benefits of quiet solitude away from everyone else but Christ.
Most importantly, I know God wants us to feel self-love too. That’s another part of his plan. It’s good to remember that our nature as humans is sinful and that we are utterly imperfect as Dark Night reminds us. But Jesus still loves us; not in spite of that but because of that. Of course, He wants us to view ourselves as He views us — with unconditional love. If He didn’t love us, why would He bother to save anybody? Once He saves us with His love, wouldn’t He want us to feel that way about ourselves too?
Self-love is a virtue and a part of God’s design for us.
Too much self-love is where we go wrong and where the balance lies. Anything we love more than God becomes an idol, whether it’s ourselves or the comforts of this world or whatever.
So who’s right between Jefferson Bethke and these medieval Christian writers? Everyone.
Mortification and austerity are endorsed by Scripture and have great spiritual benefits, but Jesus doesn’t call us to burn ourselves out. Our lives must have balance for us to be most effective at whatever Christ calls us to do. Rest, followed by work (or mortification), followed by rest.
Let’s practice mortification, but remember that we can still be good Christians living lives that honor God without living like medieval monks. Most importantly of all, we can love ourselves as He loves us, there’s nothing sinful about that.
Find the balance. It’s a part of God’s plan.
This story is published in Koinonia — stories by Christians to encourage, entertain, and empower you in your faith, food, fitness, family, and fun.