Kierkegaard on Sin

When I read the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) in the spring of 1976, it opened the doors of myself that eventually lead to Jesus and his Gospel. In this excerpt from Philosophy in Seven Sentences, I explain Kierkegaard’s understanding of sin—a concept that showed me to myself for the first time. 


Kierkegaard on Sin

Kierkegaard is now ready to spring the trap. He says that “despair is sin.” It takes two forms.

Sin is: before God, or with the conception of God, in despair not to will to be oneself, or in despair to be oneself. Thus sin is intensified weakness or intensified defiance: sin is the intensification of despair. The emphasis is on before God, or with a conception of God; it is the conception of God that makes sin dialectically, ethically, and religiously what lawyers call “aggravated” despair.

The self is divided against itself in two ways, which are two sides of the same self. The first state of sin is to give up willing to be oneself. This is “intensified weakness,” which may sound odd but is not. One may shrink back from any task at hand (inward or outward) by hiding in excuses, such as “To err is human” or “Nobody is perfect.” These statements are true, but not the kind of truth the self should be satisfied with. The self is a movement and is not static. We know what an error is, and we do not praise it. We know what imperfection is, and we do not praise it. We embody both error and imperfection regarding moral intensions and actions. Kierkegaard will not let us rest in the popular phrase “mistakes were made.” We wonder how all these mistakes occur by themselves and without agents making them. Weakness is intensified when we play the victim when we are not the victim. I once accidently hurt a young playmate of mine. It was not traumatic to him, until his mother appeared. He then threw a fit over the egregious injury I had so unjustly caused him. His weakness was intensified.

The second state of sin is when we will to be ourselves in despair. We continue in a pattern of life that is less than ideal, with no hope of reform or renewal. People may say, “I’m just a big eater [meaning: glutton]” or “I will never get organized,” but they will to be this way—and without hope. Yet the conscience is not clean; it is not satisfied with chronic tension and disappointment. It is resigned to its condition but still feels guilt. Think of Friedrich Nietzsche’s defiant boast in Thus Spoke Zarathustra where he speaks of a life considered well-lived. This is a life so well-lived that one could bear repeating it eternally. Of the whole life one can affirm “Thus, I willed it.” Nietzsche said yes to the overcoming self, the self which is free from excuses but also free from scrutiny outside the self. For Kierkegaard the Nietzschean self is no self at all. This is because the essential dynamic of despair has been dissipated in the pure, untrammeled will. (The apostle Paul calls this “will worship,” and it is thus a form of idolatry.) But surely the will can go wrong. If so, then the will in itself cannot correct the will.

Nietzsche deftly illustrates Kierkegaard’s idea of “defiance.” To ignore or to repress is not to defy. Defiance pits itself against something. Nietzsche, in the voice of “the Ugliest Man” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, says,

But he had to die: he saw with eyes that saw everything; he saw man’s depths and ultimate grounds, all his concealed disgrace and ugliness. His pity knew no shame: he crawled into my dirtiest nooks. This most curious, over-obtrusive one had to die. He always saw me: on such a witness I wanted to have my revenge or not live myself. The god who saw everything, even man—this god had to die! Man cannot bear it that such a witness should live.

This defiant despair is not just found in Nietzsche and a few others. I know it from the inside out. As I mentioned, I was assigned The Sickness Unto Death in a history of modern philosophy class. When I began to read that book I found that it was exposing the deepest dynamics of my soul. Through my study of atheists—such as Nietzsche, Freud and Marx—I thought I had dispensed with God. However, I could not fully suppress my awareness of God (see Romans 1:18-21). Yet I did not want to submit to this God. Rather, I would will to be myself in my despair. As a rebel against God, I wanted to be a witness against him. Kierkegaard made me distressingly clear to myself, which was the reason for his book. This literary, philosophical, spiritual experience opened a tightly shut door that a few weeks hence led to my confessing myself as a sinner and Christ as Lord (see Romans 10:9; John 1:12-13).

We still hear the word sin quite a bit, and most of the lingo is not very compelling. Augustine has already deepened our understanding, but we will face a daunting challenge to conceive this concept aright. Most references to hell today are glib and unthinking. Some years ago a cartoonist drew a strip called Life in Hell, which had nothing to do with the place Jesus Christ warned about. Why this flippancy? This old, grave word was evicted from its home and is now acting as a vagabond, casting about for some shelter far from its native country. The ghost word sin now alights on notions such as mistake, miscue, false guilt, and needless shame. It finds no grounding in gravitas. According to the oracle of Google, there is a group named “The Sinners” and another called “Sinner.” But Kierkegaard does not discuss it in the way that Billy Graham or Rick Warren does, although all three hold to the historic Christian doctrine of sin. Nor does Kierkegaard resemble the approach of Jonathan Edwards’s much-excerpted (and much-misunderstood) sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Kierkegaard labors to explain and treat sin in existential-psychological categories, but without denying or compromising the church’s historic confession of humans as sinners. (He deals with original sin in The Concept of Anxiety, which is a companion to The Sickness Unto Death.) Kierkegaard sought to look inside the human condition to sound out its often obscured depths: its desires, its despair, and its possibilities. He feared that people could easily lose their selves in a labyrinth of popular dead ends but still receive the applause of the crowds and the money of investors and customers.

Groothuis, Douglas. Philosophy in Seven Sentences: A Small Introduction to a Vast Topic (p. 136-139). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

Suffering Well With Others

Many of my friends are suffering terribly in different ways. Bad news is breaking forth everywhere. This is likely true for you as well, whether you discern it or not. Through this manifold of variegated tragedies it strikes me that many of us fail to minister to our friends who are suffering. We say and do things that hurt more than help. We dispense acid rather than balm. By and large, we do not know how to lament and grieve with others—although some saints excel in this grace. Popular culture teaches us next to nothing in this regard. It has no time for such realities. In the wake of the recent horrors (such as ISIS) and given my many friends, relations, and students who are suffering deeply (from bereavement, marital crisis, cancer, and chronic illness), let us consider briefly a few ways to suffer well with others.

First, we ought to pray for wisdom before speaking or communicating in any form with one under the pressures of loss. Ask God to give you the heart and tongue that heals—or at least doesn’t multiply the pain. Consider a few egregious examples. Someone loses a spouse only to hear someone ask within a few weeks of the spouse’s death, “Are you grieving well?” Is this some kind of test? One should grieve with the sorrowful heart, not ask it for an internal audit. Or consider this. Someone is diagnosed with cancer and is trying to reorient their life to handle this. A member of the person’s church says, “Oh, if I had to have chemotherapy—just shoot me.” The dear person who received this body blow is now preparing for chemotherapy with courage and hope. Remember what The Book of James says about the power of the tongue (James 3:1-12).

Second, one should not over-interpret the dire situations of a fallen world by trying to read God’s mind. This only makes for hollow comfort. Yes, God will bring good out of evil for his people (Romans 8:28), but we don’t quite now how he will do this. As Os Guinness writes in his superb book, Unspeakable, the silver lining of a dark cloud—if we can even find it—does not explain the full meaning of the suffering. In light of this, we must learn to silently stew in our ignorance instead of spewing forth our pious pronouncements on the specifics of divine providence. Job’s friends went wrong only when they broke their silence in his presence and began to speak without knowledge.

Third, learn to lament with people. Study the Psalms of lamentation and the many laments in Scripture, such as those uttered by King David, Paul, Solomon (Ecclesiastes) and supremely Jesus himself, “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” A lament is the cry of the anguished soul before God, which displays puzzlement as well as anger. It expresses disorientation in search of reorientation. However, a lament is directed to God and before the audience of God, “the audit of Eternity,” as Soren Kierkegaard put it. Listen to the stories of the suffering and identify with them. Say un-profound, but appropriate, things like, “I am so sorry” and “That is terrible.” The American South has expression that captures this perfectly: “I hate it for you.” I hate the fact that two marriages are being ripped apart and are may be dying. I hate the fact that my friend’s spouse is going through chemotherapy. I hate it for all of them, and I should show them that I hate it. I hate it because I love them.

We should never try to tell people that losing a spouse or having cancer or facing a divorce isn’t really so bad. It is bad, very bad. This is a fallen world, a world that is still groaning in anticipation of its final redemption (Romans 8:18-26). As Nicholas Wolterstorff writes in his moving and profound meditation, Lament for a Son, we must sit on the mourner’s bench with the suffering and lament with them. This in itself provides a kind of comfort.

I am but babe in this healing skill—suffering well with others. Will you join me in the school of lament? Will you learn to sit on the mourner’s bench before God and with those whom you love?