The Christian Never Multi-Tasks

It is a not uncommon notion in our busy lives that we are told we need to “prioritize,” or “put our lives in order” so as to avoid the burn-out of our busy lives. We have many packed schedules, commitments of friends, family and work, and duties and responsibilities that burden us day and night. If we would only reflect on what matters most and rank all other things in order of importance, we would be able to get a grip and manage our lives. Just do a cursory search for “time management” techniques to find many such strategies.

Such advice, however, does nothing to minimize our busyness, it only attempts to manage it. We remain busy and divided in our lives, and consequently the burdens of our lives are not relieved, they are just hidden. Let there be just one thing to trip up our techniques and schedules and the thin veil will be pulled away.

This is because the problem is not that we have failed to properly manage our time, the problem is that we have divided ourselves.

The Christian need not “prioritize.” The Christian does not have “many commitments.” Says Kierkegaard,

[Christian love] is no busyness, least of all a worldly busyness, and worldliness and busyness are inseparable ideas. For what is it to be busy? One ordinarily thinks that the manner in which a man is occupied determines whether he should be called busy or not. But this is not so. It is only within a narrower aspect of the definition that the manner is the determining factor—and this only after the object is first defined. He who occupies himself only with the eternal, unceasingly every moment—if this were possible—is not busy. Consequently he who really occupies himself with the eternal is never busy. To be busy means, divided and scattered (depending upon the object which occupies one), to occupy oneself with all the manifold things in which it is practically impossible for a man to be whole, whole entirely or whole in any single part, something only a lunatic can successfully do. To be busy means, divided and scattered, to occupy oneself with what makes a man divided and scattered. But Christian love, which is the fullfilling of the law, is whole and collected in its every expression, and yet it is sheer action. (Kierkegaard, Works of Love)

kierkegaard2This is how Kierkegaard understands both Christ’s beatitude: “The pure in heart shall see God” (Matt. 5:8) and James command: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” (James 4:8). To be “pure” in heart is to be unmixed in will and desire, as James contrasts it with the “double-minded.”

Only the pure in heart are able to see God and consequently keep near to him and preserve this purity through his keeping near to them; and the person who in truth wills only one thing can will only the good, and the person who wills only one thing when he wills the good can will only the good in truth. (Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing)

The Christian, therefore, has only one task: to will the good. All the Christian’s actions are related to loving God. As Kierkegaard defines Christian love: “For to love God is to love oneself in truth; to help another human being to love God is to love another man; to be helped by another human being to love God is to be loved.” (Kierkegaard, Works of Love) This guides every Christian action, it is the only thing the Christian has to do. The Christian does not have a busy schedule—the Christian has a single task: love.

Or, as Christ commanded: “Seek first the Kingdom of God.”

Misconceptions Concerning Kierkegaard

First Things has a nice article on Kierkegaard up today:

The two biggest misconceptions about Kierkegaard have to do with his attitude toward the Church, and his general disposition. Because he rebuked the Church so sternly, some people think he was trying to subvert it. On the contrary, says scholar Howard Johnson, Kierkegaard was a “loyal son of the Church,” who “like St. Thomas Aquinas,” or any other theologian until recent times, was “so living in the sacramental, ecclesiological reality” of Christianity that it would never have occurred to him to try to “topple altars.” His critique was constructive, not destructive. …

The second misconception is that Kierkegaard was a perpetual malcontent, the “gloomy Dane,” who could only protest and never find peace and solace. In fact, the moment he committed himself to Christ, unreservedly, Kierkegaard found that peace which was the source and strength of his whole life.

You can read the rest here.

The Sickness Unto Death, Part I.A.b

This is the fourth post in a series on The Sickness Unto Death.  For other posts in the series, see here.


Part I.A: Despair Is the Sickness unto Death

  • Section B. The Possibiilty and the Actuality of Despair

Kierkegaard begins this section by asking (more or less), “Is despair a good thing or a bad thing?”  His answer is: both.  It is good in that the possibility of despair shows man’s excellence, his superiority over animality, and that he is spirit.  That is, only people can despair – animals cannot. It is bad in that despair is the worst possible sate for man to be in, it is “ruination”.

“The possibility of this sickness is man’s superiority over the animal; to be aware of this sickness is the Christian’s superiority over the natural man; to be cured of this sickness is the Christian blessedness.” (15)

Normally things do not relate in this way.  Normally the actuality of something is greater than the mere possibility.  “To be” is greater that “to be able to be”. Unlike other sickness, to “not be in despair” means that there cannot be the possibility of despair, because of its inverse relation of possibility to actuality.  One must constantly destroy the possibility of despair in order to not be in despair.

“Not to be in despair must signify the destroyed possibility of being able to be in despair; if a person is truly not to be in despair, he must at every moment destroy the possibility.” (15)

At this point, Kierkegaard gives us a first preliminary definition of “despair”:

“Despair is the misrelation in the relation of a synthesis that relates itself to itself.  But the synthesis is not the misrelation; it is merely the possibility, or in the synthesis lies the possibility of the misrelation.” (15)

So, despair is the misrelation of the synthesis mentioned in the previous section (of the possible / necessary and of the infinite / finite).  It is in the synthesis that lies the possibility for the misrelation. It is not the synthesis itself, otherwise it would be something that happens to man (nature).  The responsibility for the synthesis is the self in relating itself to itself.  In this sense, man is responsible for his despair. Unlike other sickness, every moment of despair, is traced back to the person, to the possibility.  Every moment the individual is bringing it upon himself.

The basic idea here is that despair is the condition of misunderstanding (or misrelating) what you are to yourself.  That is, of not willing to be what we were created to be, or of willing to be something other than what we were created to be.

Kierkegaard likens this condition to “dizziness”:

“Because the relation is spirit, is the self, upon it rests the responsibility for all despair at every moment of its existence, however much the despairing person speaks of his despair as a misfortune and however ingeniously he deceives himself and other, confusing it with that previously mentioned case of dizziness, with which despair, although qualitatively different, has much in common, since dizziness correctly, in the category of the psychical, to what despair is in the category of the spirit, and lends itself to numerous analogies to despair.” (16)

Feeling dizzy now? Doesn’t make sense? Keep reading!

The Sickness Unto Death, Part I.A.

This is the third post in a series on The Sickness Unto Death.  For other posts in the series, see here.


Part I: Despair Is the Sickness unto Death

  • Section A. Despair Is a Sickness of the Spirit, of the Self, and Accordingly Can Take Three Forms: In Despair Not to Be Conscious of Having a Self (Not Despair in the Strict Sense); In Despair Not to Will to Be Oneself; In Despair to Will to Be Oneself

Kierkegaard mentioned in the Preface that this book runs the risk of being too scholarly to be “upbuilding” and the very first section reveals that risk.  The subtitle alone is dizzying, it would fail every basic principle of outlining that I know.  If a student turned in an outline with that subtitle to me, I’d hand it right back to them and tell them to simplify.  Not only is the subtitle dizzying, but the content itself is enough to make you take two Tylenol.  Take, for example, Kierkegaard’s definition of the “self”:

“A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relations but is the relation’s relating itself to itself.” (13)

Say what? Some scholars have posited that Kierkegaard is being ironic here, mocking the Hegelian logic fashionable during his time.  But we need not be experts in Hegel nor concern ourselves with the possible “irony” here to understand how Kierkegaard understands the human person.

The basic idea here is that the “self” is not yet fully formed.  That is, we are not yet fully “ourselves”.  Jean-Paul Sartre picked up this theme with his mantra, “Existence precedes essence.”  For Sartre, the fact that we are not fully defined before our creation (in the way an inventor has an idea of an invention prior to making it, hence, in that case, “essence precedes existence), we must define ourselves.  But such a solution is not what Kierkegaard has in mind.  While it is true that we are not fully what we are intended to be, it does not follow that this is no “way to be”.  That is, that there is no definition of what it means to be human.  It is this struggle between willing to be what we want to be instead of what we were created to be that will lead to despair.

Kierkegaard, as is quite typical, does not yet define “despair”.  He is not an analytic philosopher, setting down the definitions of his terms and then arguing from there. Instead, Kierkegaard will use a word and then circle back to it again and again, getting closer to the definition and involving the reader in the struggle to define it.  This has the advantage of pulling the reader in and forcing a participation.  Even when you know this is what Kierkegaard is doing, it does not diminish its effectiveness.  So, when people come to me confused about a part in Kierkegaard, my advice is always, just keep reading – and then reread and reread – you’ll come to it eventually.

What Kierkegaard does offer in this section is an introduction to the tensions persons have within them. A person, says Kierkegaard, is made up of seemingly conflicting parts: (a) the Possible and the Necessary; (b) the Infinite and the Finite. It is in attempting to “live in” one of these extremes more than another that a person will despair.  Doesn’t make sense?  Keep reading.

The main ideas that one needs to come out of this section with is the notion that we are not fully ourselves, that we despair when we try to be something other than what we were created to be, and the solution is in a “resting” in the Creator.

“The formula that describes the state of the self when despair is completely rooted out is this: in relating itself to itself and in willing to be itself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it.” (14)

One cannot help but being reminded of Augustine’s famous description of humanity in the Confessions, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”

The Sickness Unto Death: Introduction

This is the second post in a series on The Sickness Unto Death.  For other posts in the series, see here.


Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. (It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.) Therefore his sisters sent unto him, saying, “Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick.” When Jesus heard that, he said, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.” (John 11:1-4, KJV)

The title of Kierkegaard’s text is taken from John 11:4 and the story of Lazarus. By this story Kierkegaard makes a distinction between physical death and spiritual death.  Quite characteristically, Kierkegaard will refer to both as simply “death” and it is up to the reader to distinguish which he means at any given time.  This may lead to confusion, but forces the reader to engage and participate in the text.

Humanly speaking, death is the end; it is the “sickness unto death.”  But for the Christian death “is only a minor event within that which is all, an eternal life” (8).  Every earthly suffering one can imagine, the horrors of war, plagues, destruction, are not the “sicknesses unto death.”  The Christian, by coming to Christ, has learned both the best of all things and the worst of all things.  The best, of course, is eternal life.  But in coming to learn of eternal life, the Christian is also made aware of the thing which surpasses all earthly suffering and torment, and that thing is the “sickness unto death.”  The non-Christian does not fear the “sickness unto death” because he does not know what it is.  By fearing physical death, the non-Christian is like a child who runs or cowers from things that are not really horrifying.  It is only the Christian that fears what is truly horrifying, and that is the sickness unto death; Kierkegaard calls the sickness unto death the “most appalling danger that the Christian has learned” (9).

Kierkegaard identifies “the sickness unto death” as “despair,” and defining and explaining this “despair” is subject of the book.

Though he does not do so, Kierkegaard could have just as easily made the same point from Mathew 10:28:

And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

Stay tuned as we turn next to just what the “sickness unto death” (i.e., despair) is.

The Smell of Existence

One sticks one’s finger into the soil to tell by the smell in what land one is: I stick my finger into existence—it smells of nothing. Where am I? Who am I? How came I here? What is this thing called the world? … How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted, why was I not informed of the rules and regulations but was thrust into the ranks as if I had been bought by a peddling shanghaier of human beings? … How did I obtain an interest in this big enterprise they call reality? Why should I have an interest in it? Isn’t it a matter of choice? And if I am compelled to take part in it, where is the director? I have something to say about this. Is there no manager? To whom shall I make my complaint?”  ~Søren Kierkegaard