Thomas à Kempis and the Daily Self-Examination

Thomas à Kempis and the Daily Self-Examination

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Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love;
according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against thee, thee only, have I sinned
and done that which is evil in thy sight,
so that thou art justified in thy sentence
and blameless in thy judgment.
(Ps. 51:1–4 RSV)

None of us are exempt from the possibility of moral and spiritual failure. A big part of history is the story of the fall of great men. Think of King David, “a man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14). Scripture calls him the hero of Israel, the singer of God’s songs of praise and trust and confidence. But as we see in the beginning verses of Psalm 51, he miserably fails.

None of us are exempt. Our task as Christians is to be vigilant in staying alive to the ongoing presence and power of Christ.

The Imitation of Christ warned us:

There is no worse enemy, nor one more troublesome to the soul, than thou art to thyself, if thou be not in harmony with the Spirit. . . .

So much inclined to outward things, so negligent in things inward and spiritual: So prone to laughter and unbridled mirth, so indisposed to tears and compunction: So prompt to ease and pleasures of the flesh, so dull to strictness of life and zeal: So curious to hear news and to see beautiful sights, so slack to embrace what is humble and low: So covetous of abundance, so niggardly in giving, so fast in keeping: So inconsiderate in speech, so reluctant to keep silence: So uncomposed in manners, so fretful in action: So eager about food, so deaf to the word of God . . .1

He continues with that litany, concluding: “Make thou a firm resolution always to be amending thy life, and to be endeavoring always after a farther progress in holiness.”2

Following Christ, seeking to imitate Him, is everyday business. William Law, to whom we gave attention on days 4 through 6, put it simply and so clearly: “If we are to follow Christ, it must be our common way of spending every day.”

For most of us, outright betrayal in our Christian walk is probably not a part of our experience—but denial is. Hardly a day passes for most of us when we do not deny Christ in one way or another.

Peter could tell us about that. He loved Jesus. He wanted to be faithful, but the pressure was too great. There, in the courtyard, when the heat was on, and the Galilean woman recognized the accent that marked him as a possible follower of Jesus, she confronted him. But Peter denied that he knew Jesus; in fact, he repeated that denial three times. That’s when the rooster crowed, and that’s when a bomb went off in Peter’s mind. Jesus had told him this was going to happen (Matt. 26:69–75; Mark 14:66–72; Luke 22:54–62; John 18:15–17, 25–27).

That kind of dramatic betrayal and denial is probably not a part of our experience—but hardly a day passes, for most of us, when we do not deny in one way or another. In its most common expression, denial comes in our failure to daily live out our discipleship, paying attention to our attitudes, our language, our sensitivity to others, questioning how we are expressing values.

We must make daily examination a regular practice, asking ourselves questions like these at the close of the day: When did I fail in relationship to others—to love, to care, to understand, to listen, to support? Did I stand by when someone maligned the character of another? Did I fail to lend my moral weight to a cause of righteousness? We might also give some time to reflecting on when and how we felt closest to Christ. When did we have the opportunity to share Christ, to witness, but failed to do so?

The Imitation of Christ warns and guides us:

Know that the old enemy doth strive by all means to hinder thy desire to good, and to divert thee from all religious exercises. . . . Many evil thoughts does he suggest to thee, that so he may cause a wearisomeness and horror in thee, to call thee back from prayer and holy reading. . . . Trust him not, nor heed him although he should often set snares of deceit to entrap thee. . . .

No man doth safely appear abroad, but he who can abide at home. No man doth safely speak but he that is glad to hold his peace. . . . No man doth safely rule, but he that hath learned gladly to obey.

Seek a convenient time of leisure for thyself, and meditate often upon God’s loving kindness.

If thou desirest true contrition of heart, enter into thy secret chamber, and shut out the tumults of the world; as it is written, “Commune with your own heart, and in your chamber, and be still.”

The more thou visitest thy chamber, the more thou wilt enjoy it; the less thou comest thereunto, the more thou wilt loathe it.3

Daily self-examination is an essential discipline, and we must make it a habit.

Reflective Moment: In what ways, and how often, do you practice self-examination?

Prayer: Jesus, refresh my longing for intimate fellowship with You, and burn through my coldness with the fire of Your love. Amen.

This is an excerpt from Maxie Dunnam’s, Saints Alive: A Forty-Day Pilgrimmage with Heroes of Our Faith. Get your copy from our store here.

Readers will be drawn into the reflections of well-recognized voices such as Saint Francis of Assisi, John Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas à Kempis, Martin Luther, John Knox, John Calvin, and Søren Kierkegaard.

A perfect companion to your morning spiritual discipline, this book will also serve as an introduction to a vast depository of writers and writings heretofore unknown to many.

1. Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, arr. and ed. Douglas V. Steere (Nashville, TN: The Upper Room, 1950), 16–17.
2. Kempis, Imitation of Christ, 17.
3. Kempis, Imitation of Christ, 23–24.


2 Responses

  1. A kempis died before Martin Luther was born. I am in the process of reading The Imitation of Christ now. He didn’t understand grace. He seemed to believe we had to work for our salvation. I agree with what he says, however it only by grace and the Holy Spirit that I am able to “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

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