As Ted Lasso comes to the end of a magnificent three-season run, I thought it would be good to remember four of his (its) best lines.

  • “You know what the happiest animal on earth is? It’s a goldfish. Y’know why? It’s got a 10-second memory. Be a goldfish.”
  • “You beating yourself up is like Woody Allen playing the clarinet. I don’t wanna hear it.”
  • “You two knuckleheads have split our locker room in half. And when it comes to locker rooms, I like ’em just like my mother’s bathing suits. I only wanna see ’em in one piece, you hear?”
  • “Our goal is to go out like Willie Nelson, on a high.”

All of that, to get to this. In episode 9 of season 3, there was a great dialogue between Rebecca (the owner) and the irascible and ill-tempered Roy Kent (former player, now one of the coaches). Rebecca was angry with Roy for failing to lead a press conference as he had been instructed. This was not the first time Roy refused to do as he was told and Rebecca was fed up with Roy’s insolence. Here’s the script:  

Rebecca: “Is that the plan for the rest of your life? You’re just gonna walk away from everything the second it isn’t fun or easy? What do you want, Roy? Hmm? What do you really want?” 

Roy: “I just want to be left alone.” 

Rebecca: “Oh, [hooey], Roy! You want way more than that! You’re just so convinced that you don’t deserve anything good in your life, that you’d rather eat a bowl of [hooey] soup and then complain about the portions. Get out of your own way, man. ‘Cause this whole ‘woe is me’ thing you’ve got going on is just ponderous!”

Here’s the thing. Rebecca was absolutely right. But here’s the other thing: It’s hard to talk about who we are when we don’t even know our own selves, when we don’t really know how we got here, what we want, where we want to go or how we have been shaped by the hurts, losses and brokenness in our lives. In short, like Roy, we are a mess; and we all need a good friend to help us find our way out of our malaise. Thankfully, Kierkegaard is just the friend to do it. We are looking at Mark Tietjen’s excellent book, Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians (IVP Academic, 2016); and today, we want to continue to look at Kierkegaard’s view of the self, but today we want to add a wrinkle. We want to talk about how sin has affected the human self.  

For the last two weeks, we’ve talked about how we are outwardly relational beings because we are created in the image of God. But that is only half of the picture because we are also inwardly relational beings, that is to say, we are also spiritual beings. But our spiritual selves are deeply conflicted. We don’t always do what we want. We do things, but we don’t understand why. We want to be left alone, but we want people around us. In short, we are a mess. Augustine understood this. Augustine, in the Confessions (Ch. 8:16), tells a story of how God worked to bring unity to his soul as he was listening to a friend’s testimony. He wrote: 

But You, O Lord, while he was speaking, turned me towards myself, taking me from behind my own back, where I had put myself so that I could avoid looking at my sin. But you set me face to face with myself, that I might see how foul and crooked and sordid I was. And if I sought to turn my gaze away from myself, you threw me before my own eyes again that I might discover my sin and hate it. Yes, I had known my sin, but I acted as if I didn’t. Instead, I winked at it and quickly forgot it.” 

And all God’s people said, “That’s me!” Or at least, I said, “That’s me,” because I am always winking at my sin and quickly forgetting it. But this self-reflection, this ability to evaluate ourselves and to question our thoughts, feelings and motives, is clearly a distinguishing mark of what it means to be a person. But this self-reflection also reveals (whether we like it or not) that there is something terribly wrong with us. It tells us that we are sinful.  

Kierkegaard defines sin like this: “Sin is: in despair not wanting to be oneself before God.” Now, we will unpack this in a second, but let’s listen to Mark Tietjen first. Tietjen makes four quick statements about this definition that are well worth hearing: 

  • First, sin is a theological position; it is a statement primarily about one’s relation to God rather than an assessment of one’s goodness or badness.
  • Second, sin is not to be identified with bad actions, such as those prohibited in the Ten Commandments; rather, it is a condition of the self.
  • Third, the definition articulates that the root of this condition is the desire for self-rule.
  • Fourth, what makes sin particularly pernicious is its self-destructiveness; the one who sins works against his or her own good, moves away from his or her true self.

Okay, let’s deal with the elephant in the definition: What does Kierkegaard mean by “in despair?” Now, usually when we talk about despair, we think of the emotional state of being hopeless and, to me at least, hopelessness and sin don’t seem to go together. But for Kierkegaard, despair is something different. He will argue that despair is a spiritual state rooted in the freedom of the self to choose. In other words, sin is a failure to be ourselves before God or even to be a self at all.  Specifically, “despair, like sin, pertains to not choosing (or willing) to be the self God created one to be” (Tietjen). We were created to be a specific person, a person made in the image of God for a relationship with God who is called, according to God’s design, to be all that he or she can be. But sin is the refusal to find your identity in God or in God’s call. “Sin is seeking to become oneself, to get an identity, apart from God” (Tim Keller). Again, sin is not found in breaking God’s laws or doing bad things, but in refusing to be who God called and designed us to be. Underline that: Sin is a defiant refusal to be who we truly are, while at the same time, it is a never-ending effort to find our sense of self in something other than God. Here is our despair: We get to choose what will give our lives significance and value. We get to choose what will give our lives ultimate meaning. We get to choose what will justify our existence. We get to choose who the God of our lives will be. And when we refuse to let God have that place, we are guilty of sin.  

But there is another term that Kierkegaard uses that comes into play here: anxiety. Just like despair, anxiety in the Kierkegaardian sense doesn’t mean what we think it means. For Kierkegaard anxiety is not some sort of angst or dread or uneasiness. Instead, it is a universal human phenomenon crucial for personhood. For Kierkegaard, anxiety occurs when one is attracted to and is repulsed by the same thing. If you want something unequivocally and there are no feelings to the contrary, then there is no anxiety. However, if you want something, but want something else equally as much, then your desires are in conflict. And when your desires are in conflict, then you have anxiety. An example may help. I want to lose ten pounds. However, I also want to eat ice cream (and big bowls of it – with jimmies and hot fudge). Both desires are true, and I am equally committed to both of them. But since I can’t have both, I am overcome with anxiety (even if I don’t feel anxious about it) because I am free; and as a result, I am forced to make a choice. And in choosing, I become deeply aware of the significant freedom I have.

Here’s the point: I have the choice to be who God wants me to be (and to live as God wants me to live) or I can choose to ground my identity in something else (for instance, power, money popularity or, my personal favorite, pleasure). But here’s the thing: In my sinfulness as a Christ follower, I want both. I want God, but I equally want what I want. I want God, but I also most definitely want self.  Hence, the Christian life is one that is continually caught in the vice grips of anxiety. And that choice is ours to make. We cannot blame it on Adam or Eve, on total depravity, on the Devil or on circumstances. As Kierkegaard says: “How sin came into the world, each person understands solely by themselves.” We only sin when we choose to sin (although we have inherited sinfulness, but we choose to sin). And I choose to sin whenever I refuse to be who God wants me to be and opt, instead, to build my identity on something else.  

And what is the solution to our sin problem? Kierkegaard would propose two crucial steps. First, we need a deep and personal understanding of our own sin that would lead us to true whole-hearted repentance. And second, we need to rest and trust in Jesus and his sacrifice for our sin. Both of these steps originate in the heart and refuse to make true Christianity a series of external behaviors or ethical actions. See, our only hope is to run to Jesus who invites us, saying (Mt. 11:28): “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”


En Garde with Kierkegaard

At the end of every post in this series, I want to drive home a few points by asking a few questions and giving you at least one great Kierkegaard quote to ponder.  

  1. How do you know you are a spiritual being?
  2. Has God ever “turned you towards yourself” so that you could see the hideousness of your sin?  If so, what happened? If not, what do you think that means? (Please see the Augustine quote above for more context)
  3. What do you think of defining sin, not as what one does (actions), but as one’s response to God? Is it helpful? Meaningful? Insightful? Freeing?
  4. Kierkegaard defines sin as a desire for self-rule. What do you think he means by that? Do you see that in your own life?
  5. In your opinion, how is sin self-destructive? 
  6. How are you “seeking an identity apart from God?”  Who are the gods of your life that are vying for your devotion?
  7. Where do you see your desire for both God and self in your life?

And today (because I like you), here are three Kierkegaard quotes to ponder. . . .

First: “Our life always expresses the result of our dominant thoughts.” 

Second: “If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating, as possibility!”

Third: “Purity of heart is to will one thing.

Blessings to all! More from Kierkegaard (and Ted Lasso) next week.