Spiritual Despair: A Universal Malady

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a peculiar sort of apologist for the spiritual earnestness he believed is demanded by the gospel and necessary to being human. It is not surprising, then, that Kierkegaard had much to say about despair before God (coram Deo) since spiritual despair is, in many ways, the great enemy of spiritual earnestness. The theme of spiritual despair, developed under various terms, runs throughout his literature and takes center stage at the culmination of his pseudonymous corpus in his 1849 masterpiece, Sickness unto Death. Not much later, Kierkegaard muses under his own name on what spiritual despair does to us before God's word (coram Scriptura) in his 1851 discourse, "What Is Required in Order to Look at Oneself with True Blessing in the Mirror of the Word?" Reading the latter in light of the former, as he intended, is instructive: my aim here is to draw out and give voice to his warning about the subversive exegetical danger of spiritual despair to would-be Bible readers.

Since there are many aspects to his analysis of spiritual despair and warning to Bible readers, I intend to develop this line of thought over a several posts, each one capable of standing on its own but better when held together. Along the way I hope to set out something of Kierkegaard's concept of spiritual despair, draw out several dimensions of Spiritual despair, and then observe how this analysis of despair applies to the dynamic of reading and interpreting God's word. Some readers will no doubt recognize similar themes in Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Blaise Pascal, a number of Puritan and Nadere Reformatie (Second Reformation) writers, and perhaps others. The significance of spiritual despair has long been recognized in the Christian tradition and is inescapable among all who aspire to reflect soberly on living before God, few have given it the attention of Kierkegaard.

"What is Required?"

"What Is Required" is the first of the three discourses that make up Kierkegaard's little book, For Self-Examination. Dated the fifth Sunday after Easter, it is in fact a sermon on James 1:22-27:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

The spiritual distance between being a doer of the word who practices true religion before God and a mere hearer of the word is a matter of faith. The mere hearer of the word is just the sort of spiritually confused person who thinks she believes and perhaps claims she believes but whose life shows no evidence of faith apart from certain "counterfeit affections," as Edwards calls them (WJE, 2:379-80). "What good is it," James asks,

If someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?...[F]aith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead...You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe--and shudder!...[F]aith apart from works is useless (James 2:14, 17-20).

The person who has only the faith to hear but not to do does not have saving faith--the sort of earnest faith Westminster says "acts differently upon that which each particular passage [of Scripture] contains; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come" (WCF 14.2). The mere hearer of the word lacks or fails to live by this sort of faith and is therefore in what Kierkegaard calls despair.

Despair is the faithless, hopeless, and in a sense, loveless condition of not living for what is promised, desiring what is given, and doing what is required but rather as one "having no hope and without God in the world" (Eph 2:12). The one who lives by faith hears the promise that the doer who acts "will be blessed in his doing" and rises up in hope and does whatever is commanded in love--and is indeed blessed in the doing; the one who lives in despair, however, may hear the promise and even want to be blessed but fails to do what is written and enter into the joy of the benediction, the blessing that belongs to those who live according to this word. Faith is the difference.

Despair as Universal as Sin

For reasons rooted in Kierkegaard's broadly Augustinian anthropology, he views faith as essential to being human. This is not just a psychological point for him: faith is not just necessary for humans to have a sense of wholeness in life but is actually necessary to being whole. The very structure of being human is such, he argues, that we can only be what we were created and are called to be by resting in the One in whom "we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28).

As such, all humans are absolutely dependent on God not only for our objective existence in the world, as rocks and trees and birds depend on God, but also for our subjectivity--depending on him at the level of self-consciousness and personal identity, for our knowing and willing and desiring and doing in the stream of being and becoming that is our life. In Augustinian terms, only faith is able to settle our otherwise incurably "restless" hearts; in Pascalian terms, only faith is able to bring us into that communion with God that fills the "infinite abyss" in our souls; in Kierkegaardian terms, only faith enables us to be and become a true human self before God:

Every human existence that is not conscious of itself...before God,...every human existence that does not rest transparently in God,...whatever it achieves, be it most amazing, whatever it explains, be it the whole of existence, however intensively it enjoys life esthetically--every such existence is nevertheless despair SUD, 46 (XI 158).

If, he explains, in faith "the [human] self in being itself and in willing to be itself rests transparently in God," then in despair the human self fails to be itself by not resting transparently in God. Every fallen person fails in just this way: fails at life's great "task" of being human before God and is thus in despair. Even those of us who are being delivered out of despair through faith are susceptible to despair and remain in some measure of despair insofar as our faith remains imperfect in this life.

Despair, therefore, is universal, This means none of us are absolutely trustworthy handlers of God's word--none of us are beyond the possibility of taking offense at what is written or being tempted to defend ourselves against the force of it in our lives. Though "no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account," in the weakness of our faith not one of us rests in him with perfect transparency. So Kierkegaard is convinced, at least; and convinced of this, he's also convinced we're all a little too willingly distracted and diverted before God's word even as we (pretend to) hear and read it.