“The greatest danger, that of losing one’s own self, may pass off quietly as if it were nothing; every other loss, that of an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc., is sure to be noticed.”
The title of Soren Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death (Princeton Univ. Press, 1983) is taken from Jesus’ words to Mary and Martha upon hearing news that their brother Lazarus was dying. Jesus said, “This sickness is not unto death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” (John 11:4) Kierkegaard explains that the sickness that is unto death is despair. His book is about diagnosing and curing this spiritual plague. This review will focus on three major points: 1) Despair is the inability to live with oneself. 2) The antidote for despair is faith. 3.) Identifying stumbling blocks to the cure for despair.
At the outset, it must be said that this book is so profound. As I related to a friend, its depth and breadth are frightening. Moreoever, it is not lost on this reviewer that Kierkegaard had many intellectual bastard children including Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and other atheist existentialists. Despite these concerns, this book is incredibly beneficial for those who suffer from depression, disappointment, or anxiety. It has been a great balsam to my own soul as I pray this review will show.
1.) Despair is the inability to live with oneself.
“Despair is the misrelation in the relation of a synthesis that relates itself to itself.” (p.15) The fact that the word or forms of the word ‘relationship’ appears three times in Kierkegaard’s enigmatic definition of despair gives a clue to its cause and cure.
For Kierkegaard’s core principle is that man was made to be in relationship with God. But because man strives to establish his being in relationship with a non-God, Kierkegaard concludes, the consequence of this adulterous relationship is despair. Man tries “to tear his self away from the power that established it.” But because “that power is the stronger and forces him to be the self he does not want to be,” he despairs. (p.20)
Before elaborating on this fundamental truth, two equally important premises are worth mentioning. First, a person’s worth is determined by the measure used. Second, what measure is used determines a person’s life goals. In Kierkegaard’s words: “[E]verything is qualitatively that by which it is measured, and that which is its qualitative criterion is ethically its goal.” (p.79)
For example, a person strives to be what his parents want him to be, or to be what society esteems, in order to be somebody. His goal is never to be what he was meant to be, that is, his criterion for success is never based on his relationship with God. Success is always based on his relationship with his family, society, or friends: what will they think of him; how much approval will he gain from them. That is what he lives for. But so long as these are the measures of the worth of his soul, man robs his spirit of its infinite and eternal glory just as one would diminish God if a person were to measure His worth in terms of dollars or by a resume. This was the sin of Judas Iscariot whose criterion of worth was money and power rather than God’s glory.
Taking all this into account, people find themselves in the greatest existential predicament. That is, they are made to be what they do not want to be (i.e., married to God: a spiritual being that prays, contemplates eternity, and worships God in His limitless possibilities), and want to be what they were not meant to be (an animal driven by earthly desires). (p.105)
Stated differently, a person’s despair derives from the gap between what he wants to be:
* society’s professional who measures his worth by worldly prestige;
* someone’s lover who measures his worth by earthly affection;
* or a good son who measures his worth by how sucessful he is in meeting his parents’ expectations;
and what he is meant to be:
* God’s adopted child who measures his worth solely by Christ’s imputed beauty.
A person’s struggle to widen this gap by exchanging his criterion of worth is despair. His attempt to divorce God and marry a substitute (his parents, his job, his friends, his lover) results in despair because such a radical change from a perfect spouse – patient, forgiving, accepting – to an imperfect one – not as patient, not as merciful, not as accepting – inevitably results in anxiety, disappointment, and resentment.
Since we were made for relationship with God, our expectations for unconditional love, acceptance, and approval remain infinite even though our finite idols cannot possibly meet them. Thus we experience despair. The main character in A Death of a Salesman, who offers his whole life to his company which then mercilessly rejects him as he gets older, illustrates this powerfully. A person cannot trade Christ for thirty pieces of silver without wanting to hang himself sooner or later. Imperfect people in need of the perfect forgiveness, patience, and love of God cannot live free of despair with imperfect idols.
To summarize using Kierkegaard’s typology, despair manifests itself in three kinds of people. The loser, whose criterion of worth is freedom, envies the successful for obtaining what he could not achieve, that is, more options in life. He is constantly depressed over how his life has turned out. The achiever, on the other hand, whose criterion of worth is worldly approval, is self-conscious about maintaining his esteemed status in society, always looking over his shoulder, reassuring himself that he is enjoying all that life has to offer. The middle class person, whose criterion of worth is security, is anxious about not failing so he never takes risks or dreams beyond what is certain. His despair is the least obvious because he is so content with mediocrity. In all three cases, it is important to recognize that there would be no resentment, anxiety, or disappointment if the person had remained in his relationship with God and measured the worth of his soul according to that relationship and not by his relationships with family, friends, or society. I elaborate on this point next.
2) The antidote for despair is faith
The antidote that Kierkegaard offers for despair is Christianity, that is, to be the beloved of God – His adopted child, His bride – which is what every human being made in the image of God is meant to become. (p.85) “That the self in being itself and in willing to be itself rests transparently in God.” (p.83) This was famously confessed by St. Augustine centuries earlier: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, oh Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.”
So when the achiever believes he can be a child of God, he never has to worry about proving his worth to society, his family, or his friends ever again. Anxieties over keeping his esteemed position are swallowed up by his security in the highest position possible. His being is no longer tied with his status, his job, his car, or his wife’s looks or background. His worth comes solely from being a child of God, a position that he does not have to earn, or ever have to worry about losing. Consequently, he has the confidence and freedom to do what others look down on. Moreover, he no longer feels like boasting about infinitely lesser achievements. For unlike non-God relationships, the achiever’s worth is measured not by what he does or has but by what God alone has done for him in Christ. Therefore the achiever can just be because his value is no longer determined by what he does or owns. He can do his best without having to be the best. He can take into account criticism of his work or rebuke of his behavior without taking it personally. He can just work without the oppressive feeling that his life depends on it. Suicide is no longer a real option when he has lost his job or his loved one. For Christ is his life.
When the loser believes he can be a child of God, disappointments over not achieving his dreams or meeting others’ expectations, anxieties over needing to be a respected professional, or resentment over others looking down on his economic or academic status become overshadowed by a new criterion for his worth, that is, those based on his relationship with God. Thus the temptation to lie, cheat, or steal is no longer as strong because everything else pales in comparison to what he already is in Christ. Expectations no longer have a stranglehold on him because his being is no longer established by meeting them. He can be content with doing his best even if the world considers his efforts to be of little value. For he can never be too incapable, too disrespectable, or too low to lose his infinitely high position as God’s adopted child. The parable of the prodigal son illustrates this truth beautifully. (Luke 15:11-31)
When the middle class person believes he can be a child of God, he no longer has to be afraid of dreaming big, of taking risks with his status, or of being seen as a loser. He is already somebody beyond one’s wildest dreams. Thus any lesser goal he fails to achieve no more diminishes his status as a child of God than did Abraham Lincoln’s failure to win eight elective offices diminish his status as the greatest president in U.S. history. One can be the biggest failure, most looked down upon outcast, and still be the envy of the world as a child of God.
3.) Identifying stumbling blocks to the cure for despair
Kierkegaard gives a number of explanations for why people do not come to faith in Christ. This is where he is particularly insightful and offers help to those who want to understand better what stumbling blocks they must overcome in sharing the gospel with people, or in accepting the gospel themselves.
When offered the antidote for despair, man becomes offended. Kierkegaard states that man becomes offended either due to cowardice (he “does not dare to believe”) or by defiance (he “will not believe”). (p.83). Kierkegaard explains, “[T]he real reason that men are offended by Christianity is that it is too high, because its goal is not man’s goal, because it wants to make man into something so extraordinary that he cannot grasp the thought.” (p.83)
Kierkegaard illustrates the offense of Christianity with a parable about a mighty emperor who offers his daughter’s hand in marriage to a poor day laborer. (p.84) In response, the laborer would want some proof of the emperor’s offer before going to his court lest he become the laughingstock of the whole city. If the emperor’s offer were “a little favor – that would make sense to the laborer. It would be understood in the market town by the esteemed, cultured public . . . But this, this plan for him to become a son-in-law, well, that was far too much.” (p.85) The extraordinariness of the offer is the chief stumbling block for the day laborer to accept. Kierkegaard continues:
“And now, what of Christianity! Christianity teaches that . . . every single individual human being . . . exists before God, this individual human being who perhaps would be proud of having spoken with the king once in his life, this human being who does not have the slightest illusion of being on intimate terms with this one or that one, this human being exists before God, may speak with God any time he wants to, assured of being heard by him – in short, this person is invited to live on the most intimate terms with God! Furthermore, for this person’s sake, . . . God comes to the world, allows himself to be born, to suffer, to die, and this suffering God – he almost implores and beseeches this person to accept the help that is offered to him! Truly, if there is anything to lose one’s mind over, this is it! Everyone lacking the humble courage to dare to believe this is offended. But why is he offended? Because it is too high for him, because his mind cannot grasp it, because he cannot attain bold confidence in the face of it and therefore must get rid of it, pass it off as a bagatelle, nonsense, and folly, for it seems as if it would choke him.” (p.85)
Take our three representative persons. The loser does not dare to believe the gospel because he lacks the values. He scoffs at being asked to measure his worth by Christ’s imputed righteousness over worldly privileges. The achiever does not want to believe the gospel because he lacks the humility. He cannot prize a position that he did not earn. The middle class person does not believe the gospel because he lacks the vision. Religion that goes beyond public morality he views as extremism. In any case, the unbeliever cannot get over the hurdle that the gospel only heightens, whether it be his lusts, pride, or moderation.
Kierkegaard elaborates on how each man stumbles over and expresses his offense to the gospel by distinguishing between admiration and envy. He writes:
“Envy is secret admiration. An admirer who feels that he cannot become happy by abandoning himself to it chooses to be envious of that which he admires. So he speaks another language wherein that which he actually admires is a trifle, a rather stupid, insipid, peculiar, and exaggerated thing. Admiration is happy self-surrender; envy is unhappy self-assertion.” (p.86)
Thus the loser may praise Mother Theresa for her sacrificial life but he does not view her life as worthy of being followed by him personally. His actions speak “another language.” He is willing to sacrifice time, money, effort to become like an achiever, but he is unwilling to do so to be a saint. The achiever condescendingly compliments the “do-gooders” of the world, but in the end, the prospect of lifting others up rather than beating or looking down on them makes such a life unworthy of pursuit. The middle class person may lavish praises on the saints but he relegates that life to the “radical” or “super-Christian,” not for the normal religious person.
Since the gospel is too good to be true for the reasonable man, it cannot be communicated as true through reason. Kierkegaard rails against the notion of apologetics and says “the idea of defending Christianity in Christendom is de facto a Judas No. 2 . . . to defend something is always to disparage it.” (p.87) He believes that the Church erred in buying into modern man’s demands for rationalistic proof of the gospel’s truth. He remarks:
“Do you believe that a lover would ever think of conducting a defense of his being in love, that is, admit that to him it was not the absolute, unconditionally the absolute, but that the thought of it as being in a class with arguments against it and on that basis developed a defense. . . do you not think he would suspect that the person suggesting this to him had never known what love is or wanted him to betray and deny his love – by defending it? – Is it not obvious that the person who is really in love would never dream of wanting to prove it by three reasons or to defend it, for he is something that is more than all reasons and any defense: he is in love.” (p.103-4)
Reasons for prayer, being in love, or believing in Christianity are so self-evident that justifying them would only demean them. What daughter’s love would not be demeaned if her father were asked to prove it rationally? Kierkegaard’s emphasis here on faith over reason, on revelation over understanding, reflects Pascal’s insight that “it is the heart which perceives God and not the reason.” Due to the extraordinary nature of the gospel that is both counter-intuitive, absurd, and above all, relational, man cannot believe the gospel by his reason alone.
Kierkegaard observes that some people refuse to believe in God but nevertheless refuse to stop talking about God as a rejected theory because of their desire for self-esteem. Kierkegaard states:
“On the whole, it is unbelievable what confusion has entered the sphere of religion since the time when ‘thou shalt’ was abolished as the sole regulative aspect of man’s relationship to God. This ‘thou shalt’ must be present in any determination of the religious; in its place, the God-idea or the concept of God has been used as an ingredient in human importance, in becoming self-important directly before God.” (p.115)
Their motivation somewhat parallels the reason Milton’s Satan rebelled, i.e., it is better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven. Kierkegaard analogizes, “Just as one becomes self-important in politics by belonging to the opposition and eventually comes to prefer to have an administration just to have something to oppose, so also there is eventually a reluctance to do away with God – just to become even more self-important by being the opposition. . . . If not one word about Christianity were heard, men would not be so conceited.” (p.115) See Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, et al.
Relatedly, a person who fails to believe in forgiveness but refuses to stop talking of his inability to forgive himself is likewise mimicking Milton’s Satan. The person who complains that he cannot forgive himself has made himself a god from whom he needs to seek forgiveness. Since a human being has not the capacity to show the grace of an infinite God, seeking mercy from a finite god, namely himself, obviously results in failure. Nevertheless, this does not prevent the person from continually groaning over his self-made predicament of being a less merciful idol. The alternative would be to admit his subservience to God, and this would be worse for him than being a self-appointed god, albeit an imperfect god who cannot grant complete forgiveness.
Kierkegaard notes that another hindrance for people (especially for the middle class) in taking the antidote for despair is the universal acceptance of moderation:
“‘Too little and too much spoil everything.’ This is bandied about among men as wisdom, is honored with admiration; its exchange rate never fluctuates, and all mankind guarantees its worth. Now and then there is a genius who goes a little way beyond this, and he is called crazy – by sensible people. But Christianity makes an enormous giant stride beyond this ‘nothing too much’ into the absurd; that is where Christianity begins – and offense.” (p.86-7)
People do not believe the gospel for fear of being labelled a “fanatic” or “extremist.” For Kierkegaard this is a necessary reaction because the true gospel requires extraordinary devotion, the willingness to sacrifice one’s ambitions, dreams, and coveted identity for the sake of fidelity to God.
Despair is the inability to live with oneself. We all experience depression, disappointment, and anxiety rooted in the identities we strive to establish apart from the one we were meant to have in God. Therefore, there is no greater truth to eradicate despair than this: that God has made us for relationship with Himself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Him. Only when a person relies on his perfect relationship with God, and not his imperfect relationship with his parents, his society, his friends, as the sole criterion for the worth of his soul will he find rest from despair.