Everyone wants to be known and loved, and no one wishes to live and die in obscurity. The “good morning” we receive from a passing hiker, a conversation with a good friend, or the most intimate expressions of love…we need acknowledgement, affirmation and love from others. How else could we feel confident in our own worth and sure of our significance and place in this world? Apart from a sense of belonging we lose our love of life and energy for work. Clearly, desire to know and be known is part of our created nature. But like all other aspects of our created nature this desire can be misdirected and abused.
Jesus warns of the dangers of seeking applause from the public:
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (Lk 6:26)
But I want to be well thought of, and I like it when everyone speaks well of me! It feels good. And it feels good because it makes me think well of myself. However, Jesus reminds us that other people are in no position and have no authority to pronounce us worthy of praise. Quite the opposite, the world rarely finds truth praiseworthy, but it loves beautiful lies.
Thomas à Kempis in The Imitation of Christ warns against inordinately seeking knowledge lest we look down on others for knowing less or become obsessed with seeking praise for our intellectual accomplishments. He advises seeking something else:
If you wish to learn and appreciate something worthwhile, then love to be unknown and considered as nothing (1.2).
In another translation the words “love to be unknown” are rendered “crave obscurity.” Those words cut me to the heart. I don’t “crave obscurity,” and I don’t “love to be unknown.” I fear it. Living in obscurity seems like not existing at all, and dying unknown and unremembered seems like being erased from existence or worse, never having existed. And yet the words “crave obscurity” haunt me because of the falsehood they expose and truth to which they bear witness. Thomas à Kempis is not urging us to “love to be unknown” in the absolute sense. Nor does Jesus allow us to dismiss all knowledge of ourselves that comes from outside ourselves. This is not possible. Instead, both urge us to learn to be satisfied with knowing and being known by God. To know God is to know truth, and to be known by God is to be known truly. If I know the One who knows me truly, I am in touch with truth about myself. And knowing the truth about myself frees me from the endless quest to make myself pleasing to others.
Now I want to apply the principle of “crave obscurity” to the church. Just as individuals need to learn to be satisfied with knowing and being known by God, so does the church. Just as desire for recognition, legitimation, acknowledgement, influence and honor blinds and corrupts individuals, so do such desires blind and corrupt churches. One could write a history of the church from the First Century to today by tracing the church’s efforts to become accepted, honored, respected, visible and influential in the political and social orders of the world.
As soon as a few believers begin meeting in homes or a local rented hall, they begin to dream of “greater” things: greater visibility, greater numbers, greater influence, a bigger staff, a bigger meeting venue, and a larger budget. Their obscurity to the world troubles them. They feel incomplete and insignificant. They crave the things that have come to be associated in the public mind with the legitimacy and permanency of institutions: legal incorporation, property ownership, wealth, visibility in public space and employees.
My question today is this: what would the church look like if it “loved to be unknown and considered as nothing”? What if it “craved obscurity”? What if it put all its energy into a quest to know and be known by God? What if it became invisible to the world? Would it lose anything essential to its existence? Or, would the truth set the church free, free to be the church in truth.