Recently, I came across a reference to a letter written by John Wesley to a fellow preacher named John Trembath. I searched out and read the letter, finding Wesley’s words to be quite insightful. Trembath was a young preacher who showed promise early in his preaching career. He traveled with Wesley for a time, with Wesley encouraging and mentoring him as a preacher.
Though Trembath was a gifted and powerful preacher, he also had a tendency toward vanity, pride, stubbornness, and spiritual shallowness, which eventually led to his downfall as a preacher and a man of God. In a letter dated September 21, 1755, Wesley describes Trembath as “not patient of reproof,” falling prey to his “natural vanity,” having a tendency “frequently to speak what was not strictly true,” and growing “more and more dead to God.” Wesley concludes by urging Trembath to “repent, and . . . recover the life of God in your own soul.”
Five years later, in a letter dated August 17, 1760, Wesley responds to a recent conversation with Trembath, who appears to have taken Wesley’s advice and repented. Yet Wesley again cautions Trembath about the shallowness of his preaching: “It is lively, but not deep; there is little variety; there is no compass of thought.”
Wesley suggests that the reason for this is that Trembath neglects spending time alone with God, reading, meditating, and praying. He exhorts Trembath to “do justice to your own soul, . . . do not starve yourself,” else “you will be a trifler all your days, and a pretty, superficial preacher.”
Of all Wesley’s comments, I found the possibility of being a trifler to be most unsettling. Now that I am into the second half of life, the thought of spending time on trifles and of knowing God in only a superficial manner strikes me as being—as the writer of Ecclesiastes says—vanity of vanities and striving after the wind. I grow more and more reluctant to waste the time I have left.
Ephesians 5:15-16 identifies the wise person as the one who makes the most of her time because the days are evil. In the context of Ephesians 5:1-17, such a person is characterized as one who is an imitator of God, walking as a child of Light, trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord, and understanding his will.
One cannot imitate and please the Lord without intimate knowledge of him. And knowing God is not a passive enterprise, nor is it a glamorous one. Such knowledge must be pursued with great passion. Lukewarm spirituality is anathema to God (Rev 3:15-16).
It is when we seek God with all our heart and soul that we will find him (Deut 4:49; Jer 29:13). A half-hearted, trifling effort to pursue God will not work. Rather, a fervent, zealous striving after knowledge and understanding of him is required: “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for you, O God” (Ps 42:1).
At times, however, such a pursuit is neither glamorous nor exciting. Sometimes, it requires a dogged pursuit in the absence of feelings of exhilaration or pleasure. It requires commitment and hope. Wesley forewarns Trembath that spending private time alone with God may be “tedious” at times, but “whether you like it or no, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way.”
Devoting ourselves to the pursuit of trifles is a tragedy. Whether such a pursuit be after pleasure, accolades, power, or success—even pursuing such things in the name of God—the end result will be a life characterized by superficiality and triviality.
When our days on earth come to an end, the only thing worth boasting about will be that we understand and know God (Jer 9:23-24). And that is a life-long pursuit, to which our energies should be steadfastly and unerringly devoted. Anything less is vanity of vanities.