Provocation #22

We humans have ingeniously turned God into a humbug. We talk about the fact that God is love, that we love God (who does not love God, what “Christian” does not love God, etc.) and even rely on him, and yet we refuse to see that our relationship to him is purely and simply a natural egotism, the kind of love which consists of loving oneself. We try to get this loving God’s assistance, but only to lead a right cozy, enjoyably religious life.

Think of a father. There is something he wishes his child to do (the child knows what it is); so the father has a plan: I will come up with something that will really please my child and give it to him. Then, I am sure, he will love me in return. The father believes that his child will now do what he asks. But the child takes his father’s gift and does not do what he wills. Oh, the child thanks him again and again and exclaims: “He is such an affectionate father”; but he continues to get his own way.

And so it is with us Christians in relationship to God. Because God is love, we turn to him for help but then go our own way. Although we dance before him and clap our hands and blow the horn and with tears in our eyes exclaim, “God is love!” we go on our merry way doing what it is that we want.

Provocations are taken from Provocations: The Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard

Provocation #19

Christianity is not so much related to transforming the intellect – but to transforming the will. But this transformation is the most painful of all operations, comparable to a vivisection. And because it is so appalling, to become a Christian was changed long ago. Now it is only a matter of remodeling the intellect.

Provocations are taken from Provocations: The Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard

Provocation #18

The illusion of a Christian nation, a Christian “people,” masses of Christians, is no doubt due to the power that numbers exercise over the imagination. And yet how many are able to say of their Christian acquaintances that they are truly Christians in the New Testament sense, or that their lives are even close to resembling those of the first disciples. But when there are thousands upon thousands who confess to being Christian, one becomes easily confused. Perhaps we are all Christians after all. Why be so harsh?

This brings to mind a ridiculous story about an innkeeper. It is said that this innkeeper sold his beer by the bottle for a cent less than it cost him. When a certain man said to him, “How does that balance the account? You’re losing money,” he replied, “No, my friend, it’s the big number that counts.”

When you have finished laughing at this story, you would do well to take its lesson to heart, which warns against the power that numbers exercise over the imagination. No doubt this innkeeper knew very well that one bottle of beer at 3 cents meant a loss of 1 cent since it cost him 4 cents. And, no doubt, he realized that selling 10 bottles also meant a loss. But 100,000 bottles! Here the big number stirs the imagination. The innkeeper becomes dazed. It’s a profit, he says, for the big number does it. So also with every calculation that arrives at a Christian nation, and dare I also say at a church, by adding up units which are not Christian, getting impressed with the results by means of the notion that it is the big number that counts!

Numbers are the most dangerous of all illusions. Inasmuch as Christianity is spirit, the honesty of eternity, there is nothing its detective eye is so suspicious of as of Christian states, Christian lands, Christian endeavors, Christian movements, a Christian people, and (how marvelous!) a Christian world. Even if there were something true in this talk about Christian peoples and cultures, everything this world has up to this point seen in the way of criminal affairs is a mere nursery rhyme in comparison with this crime.

Christ requires followers and defines precisely what he means by this. They are to be salt, willing to be sacrificed. But to be salt and to be sacrificed is not something that the thousands naturally go for, still less millions, or (still less!) countries, kingdoms, states, and (absolutely not!) the whole world. On the other hand, if it is a question of size, mediocrity, and of lots of talk, then the possibility of the thing begins; then bring on the thousands, increase them to the millions – no, go forth and make the world Christian.

The New Testament alone, not numbers, settles what Christianity is, leaving it to eternity to pass judgment upon us. It is simply impossible to define faith on the basis of what people in general like best and prefer to call Christianity. As soon as we do this, Christianity is automatically done away with. There are, in the end, only two ways open to us: to honestly and honorably make an admission of how far we are from the Christianity of the New Testament, or to perform skillful tricks to conceal the true situation, tricks to conjure up a forgery whereby Christianity is the prevailing religion in the land.

If the human race would rise in rebellion against God and cast Christianity away from it, it would not be nearly so dangerous as this clever way of making Christians of everybody and giving this activity the appearance of zeal for the truth. This is nothing but a scoffing at God by offering him thanks for bestowing his blessing upon the progress that Christianity was making.

Provocations are taken from Provocations: The Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard

Provocation #17

Scripture says that, “Jesus learned obedience from what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). Now, if obedience directly followed suffering, it would be easy to learn. But learning obedience is not that easy. Humanly viewed, suffering is dangerous. But even more terrible is failing to learn obedience! Yes, suffering is a dangerous schooling, but only if you do not learn obedience – ah, then it is terrible, just as when the most powerful medicine has the wrong reaction. In this danger a person needs God’s help; otherwise he does not learn obedience. And if he does not learn this, then he may learn what is most corrupting: to learn craven despondency, learn to quench the spirit, learn to deaden any noble fervor in it, learn defiance and despair.

Because the schooling of suffering is so dangerous, it is right to say that this school educates for eternity. This danger does not exist in any other school, but then there is not the gain either: the eternal. Of course, a person can learn a great deal without ever coming to know the eternal. He may learn how to cope outwardly, he may achieve amazing things in his suffering, encompass a mass of knowledge, understanding himself or his destiny. If in suffering you do not learn obedience, you will continue to be a riddle to yourself.

Suffering seeks to turn a person inward. If this happens, the school of suffering begins. You will not in despair mount a resistance, or seek to drown yourself and forget the suffering in the world’s distractions, in amazing enterprises or in indifferent knowledge. Admittedly, suffering often comes from the outside, but it is not until you take the suffering into your inner being that the schooling begins. Many sufferings can assault a person, and worldly sagacity knows many remedies in defense. But all these remedies have the dismal quality that they save the body but kill the soul. They invigorate the body but deaden the spirit. Only inwardness, only in surrender can the eternal be gained.

Only when a person suffers and wills to learn from what he suffers does he come to know something about himself and about his relationship to God. This is the sign that he is being educated for eternity. Through suffering a person can come to know a great deal about the world – how deceitful and treacherous it is – but all this knowledge is not the schooling of suffering. No, just as we speak of a child being weaned from his mother’s breast, so also, in the most profound sense, a person must be weaned by suffering, weaned from the things of this world, from loving it and from being embittered by it, in order to learn for eternity. For this reason, the school of suffering consists in a dying to – a dying to the world and to yourself. And in this school the lessons are always quiet. Here the attention is not dispersed by many subjects. No, here only one thing, the essential thing, is needful. Only one thing is learned: obedience.

Without suffering you cannot really learn obedience. Suffering is the very guarantee that obedience is not self-willfulness. Ordinarily we say that we must learn to obey in order to learn to be master, and this is indeed true. But we learn something even more glorious by learning obedience in the school of suffering. When this happens we learn to let God be master, to let God rule. And where else is this to be learned except in the school of suffering, where the child is weaned and self-willfulness dies and we learn the difficult lesson that it is indeed God who still rules, despite the suffering.

This is the key to finding rest in your suffering. There is only one way in which rest is to be found: to let God rule in everything. Whatever else you might come to learn only pertains to how God has willed to rule. But as soon as unrest begins, the cause for it is due to your unwillingness to obey, your unwillingness to surrender yourself to God.

When there is suffering, but also obedience in suffering, then you are being educated for eternity. Then there will be no impatient hankering in your soul, no restlessness, neither of sin nor of sorrow. If you will but let it, suffering is the guardian angel who keeps you from slipping out into the fragmentariness of the world; the fragmentariness that seeks to rip apart the soul. And for this reason, suffering keeps you in school – this dangerous schooling – so that you may be properly educated for eternity.

Provocations are taken from Provocations: The Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard

Provocation #16

It is the Spirit who gives life. The life-giving Spirit is not a direct heightening of our natural powers – what blasphemy! How horrible to understand the Spirit in this way! Christ brings new life! A new life, yes, and this is no platitude such as we use every time something new begins to stir in us. No, it is a new life, literally a new life – because, mark this well, death goes in between life and the new life on the other side of death. Yes, that is a new life.

Christianity teaches that you must die. Your power must be dismantled. And the life-giving Spirit is the very one who slays you. The first thing this Spirit says is that you must enter into death, you must die to yourself. The life-giving Spirit – that is the invitation. Who would not willingly take hold of it? But die first – there’s the rub!

You must first die to every earthly hope, to every merely human confidence. You must die to your selfishness, and to the world, because it is only through your selfishness that the world has power over you. Naturally there is nothing a human being hangs on to so firmly – indeed, with his whole self – as to his selfishness! Ah, the separation of soul and body at the hour of death is not as painful as being forced to be separated from our flesh when we are alive! Yes, we human beings do not hang on to this physical life as firmly as we do to our selfishness!

What, exactly, does it mean to die to yourself? It is more than not seeing your wish fulfilled or to be deprived of the one that is dearest to you. True, this is painful enough, and selfishness is wounded. But it does not follow that you are dying. No, but personally to shatter your own fulfilled desire, personally to deprive yourself of the dearly desired one who is now your own: this is what it means to wound selfishness at the root, as it was with Abraham when God demanded that he sacrifice Isaac. Christianity is not what we are all too eager to make it. It is not a quack doctor who is promptly at your service and immediately applies the remedy but then bungles everything. Christianity waits before it applies its remedy. This is Christianity’s severity. It demands a great sacrifice, one which we often despair of making and can only later see why it was necessary to hold out and wait.

Surely you have experienced, as I have, that when you begin to moan, and say, “I can’t take any more,” that on the next day you discover that you could. Consider a team of horses that groan and pant, feel exhausted, and feel that a handful of oats is just what is needed. However, they also don’t realize that with only a momentary halt the heavily loaded wagon will roll back down the hill and plunge them and driver and everything into the abyss. Is it cruel of the driver that the lashes fall more dreadfully than ever before, especially on this team of horses who are as dear to him as the apple of his eye – is this cruel or is it kind? Is the driver cruel when the lashing is finally the only thing that can save the horses from ruin and help them pull through?

So it is with dying to yourself and to the world. But then, my listener, remember that then comes the life-giving Spirit. When? When you are dead to everything else. When does the Comforter come? Not until you have died to your selfishness and come to the end of your own strength. Not until you in love to God have learned to hate yourself, even your ability, not until then can there be talk of the Spirit, of life, of new life.

Once upon a time there was a rich man. He purchased a team of entirely splendid horses, which he wanted for his own pleasure and the pleasure of driving them himself. A year or two passed by. If anyone who had known these horses earlier now saw him driving them, he would not be able to recognize them. Their eyes were now dull and drowsy, their gait lacked style and precision, they had no staying power, no endurance. Moreover, they had acquired all sorts of bad habits, and though they had plenty of feed, they grew thinner and thinner as each day passed by.

So he called in the royal coachman. The royal coachman drove them for a month. In the whole countryside there was not a team of horses that carried their heads so proudly, whose eyes were so fiery, whose gait was so beautiful. There wasn’t a team that could hold out running as they did, even thirty miles in a stretch without stopping. How did this happen? It is easy to see: the owner, not being a coachman, drove the horses according to the horses’ understanding of what it is to drive. The royal coachman, by contrast, drove the horses according to the coachman’s understanding of what it is to drive.

So it is with us human beings. When I think of myself and the countless people I have come to know, I must confess that here are capacities and talents and qualifications enough, but the coachman is lacking. We humans have been, if I may put it this way (in order to carry on with the metaphor), driven according to the horses’ (i.e., our) understanding of driving. We are governed, educated, and brought up according to the world’s conception of what it means to be human. See, because of this we lack vitality and are unable to endure the sacrifice. We are impatient and impulsively use the means of the moment and, in turn, want instantly to see the reward for our work, which for that very reason is not very good.

Things were different once. There was a time when it pleased the Spirit himself to be the coachman. He drove the horses according to the coachman’s understanding of what it is to drive. Oh, what a human being was capable of then! Ponder this! There sat twelve disciples, all of whom were of but a common social class. Their task, however, was to transform the world, and on the most appalling scale. And when the Spirit descended, the transformation indeed was set in motion.

They carried Christianity through. They were men just like us, but they were driven well! Yes, indeed, that they were! They were like that team of horses when the royal coachman drove them. Never has a human being lifted his head as high as did the first Christians in humility before God! And just as that team of horses could run if need be thirty miles without pausing to catch their wind, so also did they run; they ran seventy years at a stretch without getting out of the harness, without stopping anywhere. No, proud as they were in their humility before God, they exclaimed, “It is not for us to hold back and dawdle along the way. We will not stop – until eternity.” They were driven well, yes, that they were!

Oh Holy Spirit, you who give new life, we pray for ourselves but also for all people. Here there is no want of capabilities, nor of education, nor of sagacity – indeed, there may rather be too much. But what is lacking is that you take away that which is corrupting us, that you take away our power and grant us new life. Certainly a person experiences a shudder like death’s shudder when you, in order to become the power in him, take power away from him. So, help us also to die, to die to ourselves. If even the horses came to realize how good it was for them that the royal coachman took the reins, although it surely made them shudder at first and they at first rebelled, but in vain, should not we who are created in your image quickly come to understand what a blessing it is that you have the power and give life! Oh Holy Spirit, take the reigns of our lives and rule us. May it be you that has the power.

Provocations are taken from Provocations: The Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard

Provocation #15

Jesus says, “Forgive, and you will also be forgiven”. That is to say, forgiveness is forgiveness. Your forgiveness of another is your own forgiveness; the forgiveness you give is the forgiveness you receive. If you wholeheartedly forgive your enemy, you may dare hope for your own forgiveness, for it is one and the same. God forgives you neither more nor less than as you forgive your trespassers.

It is an illusion to imagine that you have forgiveness while you are slack in forgiving others. No, there is not a more exact agreement between the sky above and its reflection in the sea below, than there is between forgiveness and forgiving. Is it not pure conceit to believe in your own forgiveness when you will not forgive others? For how in truth can you believe in forgiveness if your own life is a refutation of the existence of forgiveness?! Yes, to accuse another person before God is to accuse yourself, like-for-like.

People so gladly deceive themselves, so gladly imagine that they can have, as it were, a private relationship with God. But if you complain of your enemies to God, he makes short work of it and opens a case against you, because before God you too are a guilty person. To complain against another is to complain against yourself. You think that God should take your side, that God and you together should turn against your enemy, against him who did you wrong. But this is a complete misunderstanding. God looks without discrimination upon all. Go ahead. If you intend to have God judge someone else, then you have made God your judge as well. God is, like-for-like, simultaneously your judge. If, however, you refuse to accuse someone before God he will be merciful towards you.

Provocations are taken from Provocations: The Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard

Provocation #14

Christianity claims to be the eternal, essential truth that has come into existence in time. It proclaims itself as the paradox and thus requires the inwardness of faith – that which is an offense to the Jews, foolishness to the Greeks, and an absurdity to the understanding. It cannot be expressed more strongly: Objectivity and faith are at complete odds with each other. What does objective faith mean? Doesn’t it amount to nothing more than a sum of tenets?

Christianity is nothing of the kind. On the contrary, it is inwardness, an inwardness of existence that places a person decisively, more decisively than any judge can place the accused, between time and eternity, between heaven and hell in the time of salvation. But objective faith? It is as if Christianity was a little system of sorts, although presumably not as good as the Hegelian system. It is as if Christ – it is not my fault that I say it – had been a professor and as if the apostles had formed a little professional society of thinkers. The passion of inwardness and objective deliberation are at complete odds with each other. There is no way of getting around it. To become objective, to become preoccupied with the “what” of Christianity, instead of with the “how” of being Christian, is nothing but a retrogression.

Provocations are taken from Provocations: The Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard

Provocation #13

Christianity is not to be confused with objective or scientific truth. When Christ came into the world it was difficult to become a Christian, and for this reason one did not become preoccupied with trying to understand it. Now we have almost reached the parody that to become a Christian is nothing at all, but it is a difficult and very involved task to understand it. Everything is reversed. Christianity is transformed into a kind of worldview, a way of thinking about life, and the task of faith consists in understanding and articulating it. But faith essentially relates itself to existence, and becoming a Christian is what is important. Believing in Christ and wanting to “understand” his way by articulating it and elaborating on it is actually a cowardly evasion that wants to shirk the task. To become a Christian is the ultimate, to want to “understand” Christianity, as if it were some doctrine, is open to suspicion.

Provocations are taken from Provocations: The Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard