As part of the D.Min program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, I am taking a Spiritual Formation class. One assigned reading is Thomas à Kempis’ classic book The Imitation of Christ.
According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, " With the exception of the Bible, it is perhaps the most widely read spiritual book in the world."
However, one surprising theme in the book is what I would consider to be self-loathing. For instance, à Kempis writes:
I praise you, my God, and I will exalt you forever. I despise myself and cast myself down before you in the depths of my own unworthiness.
Lest you think this is only part of the Catholic tradition, here’s part of a prayer from The Valley of Vision. (This is a popular collection of Puritan prayers).
Lowest abasement is my due place, for I am less than nothing before thee.
To my mind, these statements take a strand of Biblical truth (e.g., “God is greater than us”), but then exaggerate it to the point that it becomes aberrant.
These teachings need the correction of a broader Biblical vision. For instance, that God calls us his beloved. That Jesus saw fit to be Incarnate as a human being. That the Holy Spirit dwells within us. That God gives us a new identity as his royal children. And so on.
At the same time, perhaps if we read these as rhetorical flourishes, but do not take them literally, they can serve as a corrective to a cultural moment that is unrelenting in its self-affirmation?
I welcome your thoughts on the ways in which self-loathing is woven into significant parts of Christian formational practices.