Read Luke 14:25-33.

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)

So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. (Luke 14:33)

According to Ruysbroeck, the first thing necessary for a spiritual life, in fact its very foundation, is a heart unencumbered by images. “Images?”, you say. “You mean I have to give up my smartphone?”

Ruysbroeck ignores your snark and elaborates: “He who would have a heart free of images may not possess anything with affection.” “If a man would become spiritual, he must forsake all fleshly lusts and loves and must cleave with longing and love to God alone, and thus possess Him.”

Ruysbroeck seems to use the word “image” for anything that comes between the soul and God. Primarily, these are things you love outside of and separately from God. If you are attached to possessions or reputation or experiences or other people, those attachments compete directly with your attachment to God. You of course love your family, but only because you love God and God loves your family. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Love, is the love with which you love your family. If your family ranks ahead of God in your affections, your family members are idols, or “images,” and that love is sin.

Our spirits are filled with loves, and these loves may be called spiritual possessions. Our spirits may be filled with such possessions—our house and car. Our family and friends. Our reputation. Our virtue. Our spiritual life. Or God. Love for any of these things apart from God fills our spirit and takes away space for love of God. Thus Jesus says, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall see God.” Thus Jesus says, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

It is possible to have and to love family and friends, a house, a spiritual life in such a way that they do not come between you and God. This happens when you love God above all and love other people and things in His Spirit. You thank God for all that you receive. You use possessions in His service. You don’t hold tightly to loved ones but entrust them to God. You live a life of gratitude. You possess things as though not possessing them. The goal of a spiritual life is not the absence of other love, but all love in God and through God.

Consider: is it a sin to read fiction? There is no law against it. It is perfectly fine for a virtuous Christian. But a good book will draw on your affections. You may come to love the characters and be moved by their experiences and interested in what happens to them. Unless you read in a spirit of prayer, the book may draw you away from loving God. It’s like being married to a woman you love and looking at other women. If your affections are healthy it’s not a problem—it’s a normal part of life.

And yet there may come a day when you love God so much that you want nothing at all to block your view of Him, no matter how normal and good and otherwise helpful. You want to see Him, not some image. These images, these obstacles, these barriers, are your attachments. There is a novel blocking your view of God! So you step around it. A good meal fills your senses! But you need to eat, so you eat what you need with thanksgiving and without becoming attached.

What are your attachments? What are the things that separate you from the one you love? Examine yourself: what do you most desire? What do you spend your time and energy pursuing? What do you think about when you fall asleep or when you go for a walk? What do you most fear losing? Now ask yourself whether you love these things more than God. And since the answer appears to be “yes,” ask for more love to God.

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Harry Plantinga

Harry Plantinga is a professor of computer science at Calvin University and the director of and