We are talking about what it means to be human; and since our topic is extremely complex, I thought it would be good to begin by gleaning some wisdom from an expert.  Consider these words from Calvin (and one from Hobbes and, I guess, also from Bill Watterson); and unlike a comic strip, each quote here stands alone: 

  • Calvin: “You know, Hobbes, some days even my lucky rocket ship underpants don’t help.”
  • Calvin: “Everybody seeks happiness! Not me, though! That’s the difference between me and the rest of the world. Happiness isn’t good enough for me! I demand euphoria!”
  • Calvin: “Life is full of surprises, but never when you need one.”
  • Hobbes: “So the secret to good self-esteem is to lower your expectations to the point where they’re already met?”
  • Calvin: “In my opinion, we don’t devote nearly enough scientific research to finding a cure for jerks.”
  • Calvin: “God put me on this earth to accomplish a certain number of things. Right now, I am so far behind that I will never die.”

Now, Calvin and Hobbes are always great (and they are also very insightful), but when looking at the topic of what it means to be truly human, I’m still going to go with Kierkegaard. 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.  Last week, we looked at how our creation originated in God’s love, but we didn’t complete our conversation. In fact, we left out one of Kierkegaard’s main points. See, according to Kierkegaard, one of the greatest signs of God’s love for us is the gift of freedom. See, we are not pre-programmed to respond to God in a certain way. Instead, we are free to respond to God according to our own desires. According to Kierkegaard, God’s love in creation is primarily seen in our freedom. (We will talk about total depravity and being a slave to sin so that we can’t choose God when we discuss the parable of infant Ludwig below.)

You may not know this, but Kierkegaard loved parables. In fact, there are books devoted only to the study of Kierkegaard’s parables (in them you can read about the parable of the bowlegged dancing master and continue reading until you come to the parable of the wild geese). But Kierkegaard also loved Jesus’ parables.  In discussing Jesus’ parable of the lily of the field and the birds of the air (Mt. 6), Kierkegaard wrote: 

The poor bird of the air and the humble lily of the field do not serve two masters. Even though the lily does not serve God, it still serves only to God’s honor. . . . The bird does not serve two masters. Even though it does not serve God, it exists only to God’s honor, sings to his praise, does not demand at all to be anything itself. So it is with everything in nature; that is its perfection. But that is also its imperfection, because there is therefore no freedom. The lily standing out there in the open field and the free bird of the air are nevertheless bound in necessity and have no choice.

Think about it. If we were playing Family Feud and the category was “things that are free,” birds would most certainly be the top answer; and no one would smirk if someone answered, “the flowers of the field.” But Kierkegaard turns these answers on their heads. The birds and the flowers are only doing what they were programmed to do. We, however, have been given a greater privilege: we have been given the capacity to choose our response. We can choose to shine to God’s honor (like the lilies of the field) or we can refuse to serve God’s purposes (like the flowers I try to grow that always seem to die).  

Now Kierkegaard’s focus here is not to emphasize the fact that we have free choice, but to see how our choice is an expression of God’s great love for us. God wants us to relate to him freely. But to give us this gift, God first had to condescend to us by renouncing his power (by giving us the ability to respond to him, God must, by definition, place himself, almost as it were, on an equal level with us).  Kierkegaard writes:

Do you know of any more overwhelming and humbling expression for God’s condescension and extravagance towards us human beings than that he places himself, so to say, on the same level of choice with the world, just so that we may be able to choose; that God, if language dare speak thus, woos humankind—that he, the eternally strong one, woos sapless humanity?”  

God condescends to us and gives us, the powerless, the power to choose how we will respond to him. That’s amazing love. And this power to choose is not a one-time decision. The gift of free will is not only seen in our coming to faith, but in every decision we make in our lives because, in every decision we make, there is a choice either to move toward God or away from God. Kierkegaard wants us to see that this gift is at work within us every moment in our lives. We are free to choose God or to turn away from God every single day of our lives, and God gives us this gift because he wants us to relate to him out of a heart of love. This is the gift of God.

And yet, as gifts go, there is something wrong here. Yes, we are free to choose God; but let’s be honest, most of the time, we don’t. Instead of choosing God, we constantly choose to go our own way. And that is a problem with the gift of freedom. Tietjen writes: 

If one has confronted our inner duplicity, one can testify that exercising freedom to choose God over the world is not something one can master this side of heaven. It is a difficult and seemingly endless task, one that speaks to how humans are, in Kierkegaard’s language, always in the process of becoming. Whereas a bird ‘is what it is,’ a human being, through freedom, is a dynamic creature capable of progressing or regressing, of stagnating or evolving.

Here we are again: in every decision, we are choosing (consciously or subconsciously) either “to become a Christian” or to move away from God. Now in conversations like this, we tend to focus on that “one big decision” where we become a Christian, but Kierkegaard wants us to focus on those every-day decisions that show whether or not we are, in fact, becoming a Christian or not because in Kierkegaard’s theology, “the Christian has not yet arrived.” The real Christian is always in a process of becoming.

Now, the ramifications of this are huge. Since a Christian is always becoming, it means that a Christian has never arrived; and if we have never arrived, then there can never be any sense of superiority to others, especially to those who are not Christians. Instead of boasting in our own strength, wisdom or piety, all we can do is boast of God’s goodness, forgiveness and faithfulness. Instead of confessing our great faithfulness, all we can boast about is our hope in God’s forgiveness and grace since we know that our next decision may move us away from God. Instead of boasting in our great godliness and ability to know the mind of God, all we have to cling to is our humility and repentance. And we are right back to Augustine who said (though we have long forgotten): 

If you should ask me what are the ways of God, I would tell you that the first is humility, the second is humility, and the third is humility. Not that there are no other precepts to give, but if humility does not precede all that we do, our efforts are fruitless.” 

Tietjen adds this: 

Christians should be known for their moral and spiritual humility; the term Christian should connote to others a repentant and forgiving spirit. Christian lives are public stories for others to read and discover the work of God. They are not marketing opportunities to show how great one is or how easy things get when you sign on the dotted line or how smart or successful those who are saved are or become.”  

But once again, something is broken. When we readily use our freedom to turn away from God, we sabotage our freedom so that we actually end up with less freedom than we had before. In other words, through the exercise of our freedom, we can choose to put ourselves in spiritual bondage! But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can freely choose to work in conjunction with God’s actions so that we are joyful collaborators with God. Consider Kierkegaard’s parable of infant Ludwig. Ludwig’s mother often takes him out and about in a stroller. And then one day, when Ludwig is old enough, his mother suggests that Ludwig get out of the stroller and push it himself. And Ludwig is delighted to do so. In fact, he loves pushing the pram around the park. Now, we all know that Ludwig can’t push the stroller on his own. He is way too young. It is his mother who is actually standing over Ludwig and doing all the work. But Ludwig loves the exercise of his freedom, even if he is not the real one pushing the stroller. Tietjen writes: 

Later when Ludwig grows up and reflects on the experience, he does not feel deceived but ‘has another joy’ at the expression of love by his mother that she would allow him a measure of self-determination.  Through this anecdote, Kierkegaard suggests that humans are most free when they recognize the loving authority of God, who wills their good and constrains their freedom for the sake of their good.”   

Now, we like to think the opposite, that we become truly free when we choose to do whatever we want and that when we are forced to follow God’s ways, we become slaves who diminish themselves to the point of nothingness. But Kierkegaard tells us just the opposite is true. It is when we do what we want, when we exercise our freedom without any thought of God that we become less human because we become less free, for we become slaves to sin. But when we follow God, we find the exercise of our freedom truly freeing and empowering. It is only when we use our freedom in partnership with God that we truly become human, for we become the self that God created us to be. It is when we use our freedom in alignment with God’s purpose that we can say with Kierkegaard, Now, with God’s help, I shall become myself.”


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 one or two great Kierkegaard quotes to ponder.  

  1. Besides giving us the gift of freedom, what are some other ways we see God condescending to us?
  2. What power do “parables” or stories have in your life?
  3. Kierkegaard believed that, even in our little decisions, we show our commitment to God or to self. How do we choose to turn away from God in one of life’s minor decisions?
  4. What does the statement, “the Christian has not yet arrived,” mean to you? Do you agree with it? Why or why not?
  5. How should humility show itself in our lives as Christ followers?
  6. How do people boast of their Christianity? How does that boasting show itself?
  7. In your opinion, what is true freedom? 
  8. How does Sartre and existentialism differ from Kierkegaard’s view of freedom? (Sartre said: “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. [It is a matter of choice, not chance.] Such is the first principle of existentialism.”)

And last, two Kierkegaard quotes to ponder. First:

“God creates everything out of nothing. And everything which God is to use, he first reduces to nothing.”

And last:

“As I stood alone and forsaken and the power of the sea and the battle of the elements reminded me of my own nothingness, while on the other hand, the sure flight of the birds recalled the words spoken by Christ: Not a sparrow shall fall on the ground without your Father, then, all at once, I felt how great and how small I was; then did those two mighty forces, pride and humility, happily unite in friendship.”

Thanks for reading! More next week.