The Sickness Unto Death, Part I


Get ready folks, a new series is coming!  In the coming weeks / months, I’ll be working through Søren Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death.  So, get your copy now!

Of those books that “changed my life,” this one always tops the list.  I remember being assigned a type of book-review assignment of it for a class in Existentialism while in graduate school.  I started reading the book, pencil in hand, taking copious notes for my paper.  After about 15 minutes, I put my pencil down and read through the book in awe.  As is often the case when reading Kierkegaard, you start out investigating some topic, and end up confronting yourself.  As Jean Paul Sartre said of him,

“Reading Kierkegaard, I climb back as far as myself. I want to catch hold of him, and it is myself I catch.”

Kierkegaard’s explanation of sin connected with the individual’s struggle to know who they are changed the way I understand both sin and myself.

In order to orient ourselves to this particular text (and why you should read it with me), let’s begin by looking briefly at Kierkegaard’s short Preface to the book.  There are two basic themes laid out here.  First the relationship between what we might call “books of scholarship” and “works of spirituality.” Kierkegaard says that some people might complain that this book is too “scholarly” or “rigorous” given his subtitle: “A Christian Psychologial Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening.” Here, “upbuilding” is a literal translation of the Danish, “edifying” may also be a close English equivalence.

Kierkegaard’s response is simply that this book is not for everybody.  The scope and concepts contained in TSUD may go beyond what some people can understand.  One must first have the character of “upbuilding” (i.e., Christian).  And if you are looking for a Hallmark-esque feel-goodery devotional, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

While the content of this book might be difficult, it’s goal is, in fact, “to upbuild” and “to awaken” the reader.  Awaken the reader to what?  To what is means to be human.  Who am I am? What is my purpose? And to analyze these answers with regard to what Kierkegaard considers the quintessential fact of human experience: despair.  “Despair” is the sickness of humanity and this text is a diagnoses of that sickness.  The cure, while hinted at in this text (i.e., “to die unto the world”) is explored in greater detail in his book, Practice in Christianity.

Do you want to “be yourself”? To discover what you truly “are”?  That is the central topic of TSUD.  As Kierkegaard puts it,

“to venture wholly to become oneself, an individual human being, this specific individual human being, alone before God, alone in this prodigious strenuousness and this prodigious responsibility” (5)

I hope you will join me on this journey through a truly “upbuilding” text.

Santa v. God

Many people understand God the same way they understand Santa. He is a jolly old man who wants nothing more than to make me happy; he is all-knowing and all-seeing, yet he only intervenes to bestow blessings on those who please him. If I am good enough, he will give me presents, he will love me. If I am bad, he will simply ignore me. That’s the most we expect of God. If we’re good enough He will love us—if we’re not, He’ll overlook our sin and let us go in peace.

Such a view is childish and simplistic at best, degenerated and reductionist at worst. It denigrates our Humanity, the nature of evil, and God’s Love. Sin is not merely the violation of some law, like driving 60mph in a 55mph zone, it is the corruption of our Humanity. It is an undoing of what we are—what we were created to be. It is an affront to the Creator.

On this view, evil is really not so evil. It is a childish prank, something we can laugh at or gloss over as youthful indiscretion. It is not the perversion of the Good. It is not the raising up of the self over and above the Creator. It is not the destruction of anything that isn’t finally ME. When understood properly, it can be seen just how evil demands justice. Demands for things that are twisted be straightened, things that are polluted be filtered, things that are stained be washed. Sin cannot merely be forgiven, it must be purged.

On this view, God will only love us if we are good enough. But with the corruption we bring upon ourselves, the vileness of our existence in the face of perfection—I can never do enough to be “good enough”. It is natural for us to think this way, for when someone is good to us, our affection grows for that person. This only shows the shallowness of our goodness. We tend to love people who are good to us and think God must be like us. So, if I’m good enough, God will love me (or worse yet—because I am blessed financially, in relationships, or in health this shows that God loves me and approves of me). How then, could I ever do enough good to appease the Being that I have sought to undo with my every act, word and thought? It is only once we come to the realization that our deeds are worthless in earning God’s love that we are ready to understand ourselves and God. C.S. Lewis wrote that, “God will not love us because we are good, but rather God will make us good because He loves us”.

God is not a Santa Claus in the sky. It is high time we stop thinking of Him as such. Maybe we should stop equating the visitation of a jolly old man who practices a strict works-salvation with the birth of the One who came to be the work for us that we may be saved.

Jerusalem, My Happy Home

When I meet together with others in worship, confessing our sin, receiving absolution, and partaking in the elements of grace, I am overcome with a sense of peace, rest, and joy. I know this is true, why then am I reluctant to worship? My first response is that I’m just plain stupid—but then I am reminded I am not stupid, I am sinful. I covet my sin and love the disorder it brings. This is our defect—we both love and hate the disorder and suffering our sin brings us. We hate it and long for release, and yet we desire it and fear its absence.

Lord, give me your rest.


Jerusalem, My Happy Home

Jerusalem, my happy home,
When shall I come to thee?
When shall my sorrow have an end?
Thy joys when shall I see?

O happy harbor of the saints,
O sweet and pleasant soil!
In thee no sorrow may be found,
No grief, no care, no toil.

Thy gardens and thy gallant walks
Continually are green;
There grow such sweet and pleasant flow’rs
As nowhere else are seen.

There trees forevermore bear fruit
And evermore do spring;
There evermore the angels dwell
And evermore do sing.

Apostles, martyrs, prophets, there
Around my Savior stand;
And soon my friends in Christ below
Will join the glorious band.

O Christ, do Thou my soul prepare
For that bright home of love
That I may see Thee and adore
With all Thy saints above.

(F.B.P., c. 1580)