Fear and Trembling: A Line from Kierkegaard Revisited

What no person has a right to is to delude others into the belief that faith is something of no great significance, or that it is an easy matter, wheras it is the greatest and most difficult of all things                                                                                                 ~Soren Kierkegaard

Running across this quote a few weeks ago caused a moment for me.  My thoughts have turned ever since to the polarized routes towards faith I see within myself.  On one hand I see a laziness that wishes to experience life without effort and thought.  On this side, I wish for faith to be measured according to what I have experienced so far.  I want, in the words of Kierkegaard, to have a faith “of no great significance” in that I wish for my faith to be found sufficient as it is.  Miracles, interventions and evidence of God’s present Person are distractions that threaten this sort of unmeasured walk through life.

But then there are also the moments of idealism.  Maybe I have listened to some great visionary, an evangelist has traveled through my subconscious, and I have been awakened to a need for more.  I move into a seasonal burst of energized work seeking to capitalize on my temporarily heightened standards.  I sprint towards a goal line that I imagine is just over the next period in my life if I can just eke out enough spirituality.

But Kierkegaard’s words point to a different path than these two well-worn routes. Kierkegaard knew that our faith is the most kierkegaard-2essential component of our lives.  But he also knew that it is something that does not come easy in the world of today: faith is difficult and those who say otherwise are to be doubted.  It takes work, effort, labor and consistency to see the effects of God in our lives.  What we give defines what we experience. 

I suspect the average reason for our attendance at church is our own self-misgivings.  We look at ourselves and wonder what we have missed, hoping for a greater experience.  For most of us, church is something we do in the polar extreme of idealism.  We attend because we want to believe something new is possible within ourselves.  We imagine that such an enormous conceptual being as “God” (who is apparently to be found in church) must show evidence of himself and that correspondingly we will be changed by his presence.  So we come to church to seek an altered version of who we are.  Definitely an idealistic hope.

I am one of those Christians who believe in healing.  Not that I gravitate towards the large venues where healings are performed but in the quiet calmness of the local church, elders, friends and family gathered, I have witnessed things that are beyond my explaining.  Chronic pain, a broken bone, cancer conquering in its march across a body’s cellular infrastructure… I have seen all of these reversed inexplicably.   And yet I have seen those once healed, praise still ringing from their lips, head out the door to try some new experience that they hope will fulfill them.  I am astounded that the great miracles that I see God still performing are yet not enough to retain us.

In my own soul, looking across a lifetime of evidence that God is truly able and present, I must confess I am not always amazed at what He is doing in the present.  I have seasons where the miracles of last month, no matter how great, seem to fade in my memory to levels that no longer require the loyalty I once thought would be endless.  My heart wanders again seeking for a better version of myself.

Remarkably, physical healing seems somewhat easy for God compared to the slow work of soul transformation.  Those who have lined up at the church’s door (myself included) have wished for our emptiness to be changed as quickly as our cancer.  We wish for our souls to be altered as completely as God provides financial assistance.  But again and again, the effort required to be a soulful believer, someone who is altered from the inside out, is vastly greater than someone who merely experiences the effects of a miracle.  In the words of Eugene Peterson, it requires a long obedience in the same direction.

Gone are the once dearly held lines of grace versus law.  We hopefully know now that earning grace is beyond the possible.  But experiencing it without consistent effort is truly misguided.  Our change comes when we enter parts of ourselves that see no added benefit due to our entrance.  When we give financially, regardless of the moment, when we worship methodically, not waiting for the Spirit but coming ourselves to pray and sing, then we offer ourselves rather than looking for Someone to be offered to us.

It may be a crime of the modern church that we expect God to perform.  We see him as the Divine Empowerer who can do abundantly more and so we expect him to.  But our faith, essential in its value, requires something beyond God’s miracle-in-the-moment power.  It requires our personal entrance, our agreement that we are part of the plan ourselves.  Our money has real value.  Our prayer is listened to and actively engaged.  Our service makes a difference.  Robert Frost famously, in the Gift Outright penned these words:

 Something we were withholding made us weak

Until we found out that it was ourselves

We were withholding from our land of living,

And forthwith found salvation in surrender.

We are looking for more, waiting for the something that we all apparently know we are missing.  Faith, so essential, is a relationship that requires more than a short burst of pious idealism and yet cannot be measured lazily by the short distance our souls have traveled so far.  It must be entered into, like an open-ended covenant, in which we bring all of ourselves and expect that God will do the same.

9 thoughts on “Fear and Trembling: A Line from Kierkegaard Revisited

  1. “When we give financially, regardless of the moment, when we worship methodically, not waiting for the Spirit but coming ourselves to pray and sing, then we offer ourselves rather than looking for Someone to be offered to us.”

    Maybe this isn’t the point you were trying to make, but this got me thinking about the ways that we receive God wrongly, consume Christ wrongly. Jesus does offer Himself, saying “Come and eat, come and drink.” But I think as American Christians/consumers, we have a tendency to hear that as an advertisement for a product that’s supposed to fix instantly all the things we want fixed, rather than as an invitation not only to lose ourselves for His sake, but to take up our cross and follow: that “long obedience in one direction” you quoted. Maybe faith is hard for Americans because patience is hard for Americans.

    • Jacob,
      I have a feeling, like you, that we are fairly good at eating and drinking….consuming. I was motivated to write this from a sense that it’s time for me to look in a different direction for my own personal faith. Daily disciplines, seasonal habit changes, things that often seem extraneous yet put me on a plan. And of course that means that I have a less focused eye on the goal I want to attain and more focus on the plan for how to get there. Thanks for the comment.


  2. This was a fantastic read. There’s a lot of stuff to unpack that speaks explicitly to where I am existentially and what my faith really looks like to God. It’s maddening to me sometimes how simple the ACTION of faith can be, but all the power of emotive and spiritual authority that drives toward said action can sometimes be the most convoluted mess. It feels like my only hope is to, somehow, completely, GENUINELY, remove myself from the equation, and that can feel like an impossible feat.

    Well done.

    • I suppose I mean how the Spirit interacts with our flesh internally. How we wrestle with truth while feeling emotions that can contradict said truth and overwhelm our sense of reality.

  3. Thanks Josh, for this post. Its depth and pattern of thought spoke to me. In just a few minutes, I’ll be teaching the story of Peter walking on the water. Thinking of Jesus call to him, “Come” in response to Peter’s question of who He really was, puts these thoughts into an interesting perspective and context for me.

    This is my favorite piece of writing from you that I’ve engaged. Thanks, bro.

  4. Someone on my FB page just posted a refreence to a sermon that contrasted hypocrisy from sin. The main point was that sometimes we have the desire to do something specific and we claim that desire out loud, but then we end up doing the opposite because we fall short of our goal. This would be an example of sin. Our desire is in the right place until it isn’t.Hypocrisy, on the other hand, is lying without shame, by claiming you are following a certain standard of conduct or adhering to a specific principle, when you know full well that you are not what you claim. This, also is sin, of course. But the difference is that you know what you are doing, and have no intention of changing.I think it’s easy to accuse people of hypocrisy before taking the time to investigate what is really happening in their hearts. For instance, if a pastor begins preaching a series on sexual purity and appears to be overwhelmed with passion regarding this topic, I tend to suspect that perhaps he is under conviction for something that is taking place in the shadows. If it is discovered that he actually is in the middle of an affair, I would not brand him a hypocrite yet. If he acknowledges his sin and is repentant, it is likely that all that talk about sexual purity was the Holy Spirit convicting him through his own sermons. In this case, the man needs grace, rather than condemnation for saying one thing and doing another. If, on the other hand, the pastor caught in an affair, sweeps it under a rug so to speak and then begins judging others in the church for their acts of sexual impropriety without humility or at least acknowledging his own sinfulness in this area, he is playing the hypocrite.An interesting example in the Bible of possible hypocrisy was when Nathan confronted David about his behavior toward Uriah after he found out that Bathsheba was pregnant. The hypocrisy revealed itself when David became judgmental toward the man in Nathan’s story who took his neighbor’s one sheep for a feast rather than using one from his own flock of hundreds. However, the hypocrisy was short-lived, because when David was confronted, he immediately took ownership of his sin, and started the process of repentance. A more blatant example of hypocrisy in the Bible is in the book of Acts, when Ananias and Sapphyra claimed without hesitation that they had sold their property and had given all of their money to the church. Both of them were struck dead when they were confronted by Peter.I think one difference between David and the New Testament couple was that David was wrestling with his conviction, even though he was trying to hide the evidence of his sin. Ananias and Sapphyra were purposefully trying to win approval of others through trickery and were unashamed of their lies. Another difference might be that David had a habit of showing his faults and weaknesses, based on several of the Psalms, but he allowed himself to get caught in a trap of his own making, and saw being confronted by Nathan for his lies as a way of escape. Ananias and Sapphyra had no reason to lie except to win the approval of others so when they were confronted with their lies, they felt no conviction toward the truth. Therefore, they were struck dead by God without mercy. I think another excellent example of hypocrisy was when the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus with the woman caught in adultery. Jesus’ statement he who is without sin, cast the first stone was confronting their judgmental attitudes toward the woman and toward Jesus, himself. Although we cannot know for sure, there might have been one or two of the men who actually slept with the woman at risk of stoning. These men would be considered hypocrites, in my opinion, because they were claiming to stand against the very sin they were committing and they knew without doubt what they were doing.I tend to think that spiritual blindness and hypocrisy are not the same thing. Therefore, the cries for mercy from Jesus on the cross and from Stephen during his stoning, Father, forgive them, because they know not what they do, were both attesting to the fact that the human judgment being poured upon them was still redeemable. And most likely, because of that call for mercy, people like Saul, who became Paul, and Peter and many others began the journey toward repentance. Ananias and Sapphyra did not receive that mercy because their eyes were wide open when they committed their sin.Hope this discussion helps somehow.

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