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“When a man desires a thing too much, he at once becomes ill at ease.”
Thomas Á Kempis[i]

This simple line from one of the Middle Age’s greatest devotional writers rang recently like a clarion bell in my soul. In this time of fear and uncertainty, when the labels “essential” and “non-essential” are often in our headlines, the words of Á Kempis are especially important to consider.

Have you stopped to think about what is essential and non-essential in your personal life?

This is an important thing to consider, mainly because it’s so very easy to get caught up in a tornado of worry about things which aren’t necessarily essential. What Á Kempis reminds us is that wanting makes worry. When we yearn for stuff too much (whether pleasure itself or one of its many, many accouterments) we make ourselves miserable. James wrote something similar in the Bible.

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.” – James 4:1-2

It would follow that wanting less (either in the sense of wanting less stuff or wanting stuff with less intensity) would simplify our lives and make us happier people.

This is a common idea in Eastern philosophy (found systems of thought like Taoism or Zen Buddhism), though it is often (in my humble Westerner’s opinion) taken to unneeded extremes in those contexts. I certainly agree with the thought behind the ascetic teachings of thinkers like Lao Tzu. Stress, anxiety, frenetic busyness, strife, arguments, even wars, all tend to start with inordinately strong desires for things we don’t have to have.

Now is a good time to take stock of what we really need and par down our cravings. That doesn’t mean wanting more is wrong, but it does mean we should prioritize. I want lots of things, but only some are actually essential to my life. I ought to be able to identify non-essentials and be OK with letting them go.

This is a spiritual exercise. It is debriding away those extravagant trappings that have become so integral to my experience. It is time to remember the basics again. What do I actually need to live, thrive, be happy, and fulfill the job in life God has given me? It’s a shorter list than most of us would expect.

Q. “What is man’s chief end?” [Why did God make you in the first place?]
A. “To glorify and to enjoy Him forever.”
(Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 1.)

Maybe it would be good to start with a list of things not essential to our lives.

  • Toys and doodads are the first to come to mind, of course. I don’t actually need more fun stuff, however much I may want it.
  • Entertainment (like movies or video games) is non-essential to a degree. I do think some relaxation and entertainment are necessary to be a happy, mentally healthy human being. But in my own experience, I crave way more than absolutely necessary.
  • Wealth is a non-essential. (Speaking of beyond the money needed for truly essential items, of course. This is the focus on and drive for money for money’s sake, or to just have a big account of untouched money.) It’s smart to have savings, but not everyone has the luxury right now to put money aside that they need to use for important stuff like food.
  • Speaking of food, restaurants are not essential. Fancy homemade food is not essential, actually. My current diet would change drastically if I objectively formulated it based on actual nutritional requirements, like a nutritionist at a feedlot.
  • I have to admit that even transportation is a non-essential when I’m talking about what I actually need to live and be happy and please God.
  • People’s approval is a less obvious life “non-essential” that I would do well to consider craving less.
  • Here’s a crazy thought, health is not necessarily essential.
  • In fact, when I really consider ultimate meaning (i.e. why I am here and what I was made to do) even life itself is not essential.

God made me to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever, not to merely enjoy life now. I know I’ll have eternity to do that when I die. I’m on this earth for the express purpose of glorifying and enjoying Him as much as I can for as long as He gives me to. But like Paul said, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23b). In the words of Á Kempis, “It is vanity to wish for a long life and to care little about a well-spent life.”[ii]

So what is essential? The Bible can help us with that too.

“He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?”

Micah 6:8 (ESV)

Godliness is essential. I was made to please the Lord and “walk humbly” with Him. That’s what makes sin so tragic. I should care about personal holiness, personal devotion (I should be reading Scripture and praying more regularly), and living in a Christ-magnifying way in front of the watching world, and actively doing what God has told me to do.

How about church? Here’s one commandment to Christians that each one of us will have to wrestle with at some point in this time of quarantine.

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
-Hebrews 10:24-25

I don’t think this absolutely precludes the idea of the virtual assembling of God’s people temporarily, but it absolutely does mean God’s people ought to make getting together for worship a long-term way of life. Certainly, the church ought to be more essential to us than the movies or steak dinners or video games we so often think we need.

Food, clothing, and shelter are essential parts of living. In Matthew 6:25-34 Christ implies that basic food and clothing are essential. He also teaches in this passage that we ought not to worry about these essentials, but trust God to provide them as we focus on the mission He’s given us in life. That’s a powerful blow to my “first-world” stresses! If Jesus said not to worry about even the essential stuff in life, how much less should I worry about the non-essential stuff!

Justice and kindness should be considered essentials (Micah 6:8). I should be doing all I can to promote justice and be kind to others whenever the chance arises. But in addition, I think God gave us each specific ways to promote justice and kindness, outlined by the set of talents we’re born with and the skills we develop. Most people call that our “mission” and it’s the “glorifying God” part of our chief end. Every Christian has the general mission to spread the gospel as much as they can, both directly through personal witness and indirectly through supporting mission work. I can identify several other missions God has placed specifically in my life, but when I’m really honest there’s one that gets top priority. Providing for and protecting my family, both physically and spiritually (as much as I’m able to). Writing in ways that brings Christ honor and edifies my readers is another one, but it becomes a “non-essential” compared to providing for my family. That’s why I’m not a full-time writer. The list of legitimate cares in life gets more complicated for us who have a spouse and kids dependent on us. It is essential to my mission given by God as a husband and father that I provide the essentials for my wife and kids.

“But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
-1 Timothy 5:8 (ESV)

What’s important in life?

I’m noticing the terms “essential” and “non-essential” really aren’t adequate when paring away my anxieties to focus on what’s important in life. It’s more complicated than that because some essentials are more essential than others. And things that may be essential to us are not essential to others. There are degrees of importance to all aspects of our lives. Some of them are intrinsic and some are artificially created by how much we value them.

It gets back down to the words of Thomas Á Kempis we considered in the first place. The secret to contentment, to a happy life, is to not desire anything “too much.” Instead, let’s actively evaluate the things we want and strive for, and desire them all just the right amount. That’s going to take supernatural wisdom and deliberation.

Spend some time considering what is truly essential and non-essential for you, and put what you’ve learned into practice. Pairing away excessive desires will certainly lead us to less anxiety and more fulfilled and useful lives!

[i] Á Kempis, Thomas. The Imitation of Christ. Chapter 6. 
[ii] Á Kempis, Thomas. The Imitation of Christ. Chapter 1.

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