Results tagged “experience” from Reformation21 Blog

A piercing observer of the human condition, Søren Kierkegaard argues that despair is the sickness unto death. The very structure of being human is such that we can only be what we were created to be and are called to become by resting transparently in God. This means, among other things, that being rightly related to God is the only way truly to be oneself. If we fail to rest transparently in him--that is, if we fail to have faith in God--then there will be a fundamental misrelation at the center of our existence and this is the condition of being in despair. Since we all fail to rest transparently in God, then we are all in despair, at least to the degree that we lack faith or our faith remains imperfect.

Unconscious Despair

Though all are in despair to some degree, not all people realize they are in despair. Unconscious despair is despair "that is ignorant of being despair." This is the condition of the unreflective person who has no sense of what it is to be human--of the responsibility and eternal significance of bearing the divine image (SUD, 40 and 82; cf. SUD, 14). To be in unconscious despair, therefore, is to be undisturbed by the inconvenient truth of one's humanity and fallen condition and standing before God.

From the perspective of the unrepentant sinner, this lack of consciousness is exceedingly desirable: it is the holy grail to suppressors of divine revelation, the cold comfort of agnosticism, and the secular dream. The secular man has no solution to the problems of sin in our world not only because he's spiritually bankrupt but also because he's well studied and practiced in stamping out the very consciousness of sin and therefore of being human--a spiritual being--and in despair before God.

Perhaps surprisingly, Kierkegaard believes "this form of despair...is the most common in the world" and adds that "what Christianity calls the world" is "despair [that] is ignorant of the fact" (SUD, 45). Even among those who seem least despairing in the world,

Deep, deep within the most secret hiding place of [their] happiness there dwells also anxiety, which is despair; it very much wishes to be allowed to remain there, because for despair the most cherished and desirable place to live is in the heart of happiness (SUD, 25).

I suspect we know all too well what Kierkegaard is talking about here and have observed even in ourselves how quickly we seek refuge from anxious and hopeless thoughts in mirth and how easily laughter can turn to tears.

The idea that one can be unconscious of being in despair underlines his insistence that spiritual despair is not a sense of hopelessness that sometimes surfaces in a person's self-consciousness but a universal spiritual malady. In this sense, he explains, despair is like a physical sickness and requires a physician's skill:

The physician has a defined and developed conception of what it is to be healthy and ascertains a man's condition accordingly. The physician knows that just as there is merely imaginary sickness there is also merely imaginary health, and in the latter case he first takes measures to disclose the sickness. Generally speaking, the physician, precisely because he is a physician (well informed), does not have complete confidence in what a person says about his condition. If everyone's statement about his condition, that he is healthy or sick, were completely reliable, to be a physician would be a delusion. A physician's task is not only to prescribe remedies but also, first and foremost, to identify the sickness, and consequently his first task is to ascertain whether the supposedly sick person is actually sick or whether the supposedly healthy person is perhaps actually sick. Such is also the relation of the physician of the soul to despair (SUD, 23).

If you were to ask your neighbor whether she believes herself to be in despair, chances are she would deny it. For some this denial is a cover-up, a lie; but for many others it testifies to their lack of consciousness of being in despair--of "having no hope and [living] without God in the world." This is a kind of perfection of despair and an indication of how adept we can become in suppressing the knowledge of God and ourselves, whether by refusing to hear the truth at all or by the hardened callousness of hearing it without effect (SUD, 46).

Conscious Despair

Unconscious despair in its ideal or perfect form, however, is exceedingly rare. People may be so lost they don't even know they are lost but it is doubtful whether anyone can successfully pass through their whole life without ever becoming conscious, at least at certain "intervals" and to some degree somewhere along the way, of being lost or in despair or at least of despairing.

The natural reaction of the despairing person is to dismiss any surfacing consciousness of despair as a mere episode of some sort to be escaped and forgotten as quickly as it arose. Kierkegaard, however, insists such episodes are symptomatic of our actual "sickness unto death" that can only be cured through faith in the living and forgiving God who has come to us in Jesus Christ (see John 11). As such, moments of conscious despair are signs, first, that we are spiritual beings who ever exist and have our being before God and, second, that we are indeed in despair.

Consciousness of being in despair, however, ranges across a sliding scale of intensity from a minimal consciousness, which hardly merits the label "conscious of being in despair," to a maximally intense, demonic consciousness, which knows itself to be in despair before God, and shudders, but nevertheless defies him. Much of this spectrum of consciousness consists in the kind of despair that we commonly recognize and call despair. The common perception is superficial, however, because we fail to recognize the depth of spiritual despair within us. A person may "be quite correct," Kierkegaard writes,

According to his own idea of despair, to say that he is in despair...but that does not mean that he has the true conception of despair. If his life is considered according to the true conception of despair, it is possible that one must say: You are basically deeper in despair than you know, your despair is on an even profounder level.

The depth dimension to conscious despair, in other words, runs just as deep as it does in unconscious despair. So, it is likely that people conscious of being in despair nevertheless fail to be conscious of the cause of their despair and the depth of their despair because they may only be conscious of certain symptoms without discerning the underlying terminal condition of being in sin, "having no hope and [living] without God in the world."


*This is the second post in a series on "Spiritual Despair." You can find the first post in the series here.  

Effective personal evangelism: experience

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As we move toward the end of this series, the marks of effective personal evangelism we have surveyed so far are love, tenacity, boldness, consistency, understanding, prayer and faith.

The eighth mark of the effective personal evangelist is experience. If we engage in this kind of gospel work, over time we should become more adept at it, humanly speaking. We ought to become more effective. Many of those engaged in such work on the streets, for example, find that, if for some reason there is an extended period in which they are not involved, the first time we go back again we get tongue-tied pretty quickly. I find that, if I let some sphere of this work go cold, I almost feel as if I am starting all over again when I take it up once more. If we become accustomed to these things, our understanding will increase. I am not speaking of some pat routine, as if you can thoughtlessly roll off certain phrases. You begin to gauge how certain people are likely to respond, to recall that there are certain ways to answer certain questions (that you have learned from others or developed yourself) which will enable you to make certain points or bring certain Scriptures to bear. Perhaps you have had an opportunity to go away and study some topic or read up on some issue, and you are better equipped to expose error and promote truth. You learn to spot the red herrings that swim through so many conversations with unbelieving people, you begin to anticipate the evasions that some will introduce when the gospel paints them into a corner, you learn how to prevent that conversation wandering away from what the sinner really needs to hear and the questions the sinner really needs to face. When people are trying to throw up all kinds of smokescreens, we will learn to press the question: "Will you please tell me how you intend to deal with your sin in anticipation of coming before God the righteous Judge?" There is a delightful and encouraging phrase in Acts 9, speaking of the early experience of Saul of Tarsus:
Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God. Then all who heard were amazed, and said, "Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and has come here for that purpose, so that he might bring them bound to the chief priests?" But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ. (Acts 9.20-22)
Paul got better! The apostle began as a recently converted Jew, a Pharisee of the Pharisees, his brain stocked to the brim with all the wealth of the Old Testament. Very quickly Paul began to understand how these things fitted together, as the Holy Spirit gave him increasing light and understanding. Paul began to explain what he was learning, and his erstwhile co-belligerents began to argue back, and Paul perhaps went away, and opened his scrolls once more, and read through them, and learned more and better of how Christ was revealed in the Old Testament, and how Jesus was the fulfilment of all those promises. Jesus is the Christ, and all these Scriptures speak of him, and there are answers to the denials and diversions of the unbelieving heart, answers that will - by the Spirit's gracious working - bring a repenting faith to birth. Paul, perhaps, would leave the synagogue one day with his head buzzing, and return the next to pick things up where he left off. Paul got better at proving that Jesus is the Christ. You may think that are not a very competent personal evangelist. You may be right. But, honestly, if you start, you will get better, God helping you. Engaging in the work will enhance your capacity for the work, if you go about it with a diligent and dependent spirit.