“If thou wilt learn anything profitably, desire to be unknown, and to be little esteemed by man.”
What? Be unknown and little esteemed? I assumed that the goal in this age of selfies and self-promotion was to be well known and much esteemed.
Not according to Thomas à Kempis, the 15th-century German priest who authored the classic The Imitation of Christ. This simple admonition–written more than five centuries ago–runs counter to much of what we hear in our culture today: trending, viral, follows, friends, likes, etc.
I can think of a few reasons why this lesson is an important one for us to learn.
First, when we’re consumed with self, we’re not focused on advancing Christ. John the Baptist said, “[Christ] must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). He didn’t say, “When you think about it, try to put Christ before yourself.” Christ must become greater. I must become less. This is no less than a lifestyle transformation.
Second, we are called to “humble [ourselves]…under God’s mighty hand, that He may lift [us] up in due time” (1 Peter 5:7). The Lord has treasures to bestow upon us, treasures that can remain ungiven when we elevate ourselves in place of Him. The ministry opportunities that have been most meaningful in my life have been the ones I “stumbled” into. I could not doubt it was God who was leading me at these times–which gave me deep confidence and great freedom!
Third, when we elevate ourselves over others, we miss the satisfaction of increasing others’ joy and decreasing our own recognition anxieties. I’ve talked to friends who have abandoned social media, and they speak of the liberation they experience of being unencumbered by the felt need to be known, recognized, liked. My eternal purpose is to participate with Christ in His redemptive plan by introducing Him to others. What better way is there to do that than to speak of Him more, speak of myself less, and put others first?
We were created to be known, but it’s easy for us to misplace that longing onto a fickle and unfaithful partner: the world. It is Jesus who is, in the words of Charles Wesley, the lover of our souls. Being unknown by the world and known by Jesus is our lives’ greatest purpose. So “endeavor therefore to withdraw thy heart from the love of visible things,” continues Thomas, “and to turn thyself to the invisible.”