Thomas Adams, The Sinners Mourning Habit, Repentance


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Adams now comes to repentance. The purpose of this discussion of repentance was not give a definition of it but to persuade one to repent. 

He begins in an interesting manner for one who seeks to persuade:

Repentance hath much acquaintance in the world, and few friends; it is better known than practiced.

He says that it is “every man’s medicine, a universal antidote.” But, perhaps because of its efficacy, it strangely can be seen an as encouragement to sin, “They make bold to sin, as if they were sure to repent.” And, “There is no such inducement to sin as the presumption that of ready repentance, as if God had no special riches of his own, and every sinner might command them at his pleasure.”

We suck in sin, the poison of that old serpent, and presume to drive it out again with repentance; but how if this herb of grace be not found in our gardens….However for soever we have run out, we hope to make all reckonings even when repentance comes; but what if repentance never comes.

Repentance is not something we can demand or command. Adams uses the language of riches and wealth of a king, which had dispense as he wishes. 

Since Thomas Brooks makes the same point, we can consider:

“Device (6). By persuading the soul that the work of repentance is an easy work, and that therefore the soul need not make such a matter of sin. Why! Suppose you do sin, saith Satan, it is no such difficult thing to return, and confess, and be sorrowful, and beg pardon, and cry, ‘Lord, have mercy upon me;’ and if you do but this, God will cut the score,1 and pardon your sins, and save your souls, &c. By this device Satan draws many a soul to sin, and makes many millions of souls servants or rather slaves to sin, &c.”

Thomas Brooks, The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 1 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; G. Herbert, 1866), 31. In Precious Remedies Brooks gives this device and then a number of remedies to cure one of the falsehood. Taking the point that repentance is not something which can demand – it is a gift of grace, a treasure of God’s as Adams puts it:

“Remedy (5). The fifth remedy against this device of Satan is seriously to consider, That to repent of sin is as great a work of grace as not to sin.1 By our sinful falls the powers of the soul are weakened, the strength of grace is decayed, our evidences for heaven are blotted, fears and doubts in the soul are raised (will God once more pardon this scarlet sin, and shew mercy to this wretched soul?), and corruptions in the heart are more advantaged and confirmed; and the conscience of a man after falls is the more enraged or the more benumbed. Now for a soul, notwithstanding all this, to repent of his falls, this shews that it is as great a work of grace to repent of sin as it is not to sin. Repentance is the vomit of the soul; and of all physic, none so difficult and hard as it is to vomit. The same means that tends to preserve the soul from sin, the same means works the soul to rise by repentance when it is fallen into sin.”

Another point made by Adams is that repentance is not merely a magic recitation of words, 

Nor yet must we think with this one short word, “I repent,” to answer for the multitue of our offenses; as if we, that had sinned in parcels should be forgiven in gross…No let us reckon up our sins ot God in confession, that our hearts may find a plenary absolution. Nor is it enough to recount them, but we must recant them. 

Brooks makes a similar point, “Some ignorant deluded souls vainly conceit that these five words, ‘Lord! have mercy upon me,’ are efficacious to send them to heaven; but as many are undone by buying a counterfeit jewel, so many are in hell by mistake of their repentance. Many rest in their repentance, though it be but the shadow of repentance, which caused one to say, ‘Repentance damneth more than sin.’”

Adams makes another point about repentance, 

Wheresoever repentance is, she doth not deliberate, tarries not to ask questions and examine circumstances, but bestirs her joints, calls her wits and sense together; summons her tongue to praying, her feet to walking, her hand to working, her eyes to weeping, her heart to groaning. There is no need to bid her go, for she runs to the word for direction, to her own heart for remorse and compunction, to God for grace and pardon; and wheresoever she findeth Christ, she layeth faster hold on him than the Shunamite did on the feet of Elisha.

Repentance does not tarry, because there is no other defense from judgment:

We know there is no other fortification against the judgments of God but repentance. His forces be invisible, invincible; not repelled with sword and target; neither portcullis nor fortress can keep them out; there is nothing in the world that can encounter them but repentance.

Why then do we not repent if it is of such good? We fail to see our own sin aright. We lack humility because we do not understand God correctly. We lack repentance, because we see ourselves in too favorable a light and we see God’s judgment as too unlikely:

If we could truly weigh our iniquities, we must needs find a necessity either of repenting or of perishing. Shall we make God ot frown upon us in heaven, arm all his creatures against us on earth? [Edwards makes a similar point in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.] shall we force his curses upon us and ours; take his rod and teach it to scourge us with all temporal plagues and not repent?

Shall we would our own consciences with sin, that they may wound us with eternal torments; make a hell in our bosoms here, and open the gates of that lower hell to devour us hereafter and not repent?

He then makes this interesting psychological point

If we could see the farewell of sin, we would abhor it, and ourselves for it.

There is a strange about sin where it makes itself welcome by distorting our true view of ourselves, of sin, and of God.

Thomas Adams, The Sinner’s Mourning Habit.2 (God will honor us)


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Adams then turns to the phrase in Job, “I abhor myself.” (The ESV has “despise.”) This is a turn in the verse and the sermon which might seem most unwise to us. Adams recognizes that

It is a deep degree of mortification for a man to abhor himself. To abhor others is easy, to deny others more easy, to despise others most easy. But it is hard to despise a man’s self, to deny himself harder, hardest to abhor himself. Every one is apt to think well of himself. Not only charity, a spiritual virtue, but also lust, a carnal vice, begins at home. There is no direct commandment in the Bible for a carnal man to love himself, because we are all so naturally prone to it.

This is considered madness and bad policy. A PhD psychologist writes (I am not going to link to the man, because I am not interested in causing conflict; rather I merely want to raise what is considered a truism), “We know it’s important to love ourselves. But what does it really mean to love and care for yourself?”

What then is meant by abhorring oneself? This is admittedly a strange idea. And in what way could Adams be advocating this is a spiritual good? He admits this is strange, “for a man to abhor himself, this is a wonder.”

But then he phrases the matter differently, and in a manner which may sound more comprehensible:

He that doth not admire himself is a man to be admired.

Adams begins to pick apart self-admiration,

It is against reason, indeed, that metals should make a difference of men; against religion that it should make a difference of Christian men. Yet commonly reputation is measured by the acre, and the altitude of countenance is taken by the pole of advancement. And as the servant values himself higher or lower according as his master esteems himself greater or less according as his master is, that, as his money or estate. 

The basis for the status is not in the man himself; it is in something outside of him. That is a curious thing: I am great because I have X.  But Adams takes the problem in a different direction: if we are going to be judged by our master, who then is that?

But the children of grace have learned another lesson—to think well of other men, and to abhor themselves. 

That seems odd, but it stems from the fact that we actually know ourselves:

And indeed, if we consider what master we have served, what wages we have deserved, we have just cause to abhor ourselves. What part of us hath not sinned, that it should not merit to be despised. Run all over this little Isle of Man [a human being] and find me one member that should not merit to be despised….Where is the innocency which desires not to stand only in the sight of mercy? There is our worst works wickedness, in our best weakness, error in all. What time, what place, are not witnesses against us?

Some of the language here has its basis in Romans 6:13, “Do not present your members [parts of your body] to sin as instruments of unrighteousness.” And, “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience which leads to righteousness.” (6:16)

In addition, one might balk at the standard for everything being sin: surely it is not that bad. It is not the case that everyone is always as bad as they could be. But rather that nothing is perfect and perfection is the standard. If we are to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength; and to love our neighbor as ourselves; and to judge all actions against that standard, we see that we fail. 

The trouble is ontological, not just behavioral. The point is not that we don’t live up; it is even worse: we cannot live up to the standard.  “For by the works of the law no human being will justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” That everyone falls short is the point: it is that God may justify by grace as an act of mercy. 

When we look at ourselves, we have much to loath: we are our own worst enemies. Who would seek to justify the irrationality of humanity. Think of your life and be honest. Think of the causal unkindness; the selfishness and thoughtlessness; not mention worse acts of cruelty. 

Adams draws out the thought of the irrationality of sin. And then addresses another tact, “I do love God.”

That we love God far better than ourselves is soon said, but to prove it is not so easily done. He must deny himself, that will be Christ’s servant ….Many have denied hteir friends, many have denied their kindred, not a few have denied their brotehrs, some have denied their parents, but to deny themselves is a hard task. To deny their profits, to deny their lusts, to deny their reasons, to deny themselves? No, to do all this they utterly deny.

He then ends with this paradoxical promise which is at the heart of repentance and the Gospel:


If we despise ourselves

            God will honor us

If we abhor ourselves,

            God will accept us

If we hate ourselves

            God will love us

If we condemn ourselves

            God will acquit us

If we punish ourselves

            God will spare us

Yea thus

If we seem lost to ourselves

            We shall be found on the Day of Jesus Christ.

Thomas Adams, The Sinner’s Mourning Habit.1 Contemplating God


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The verse for the sermon is Job 42:6, “Wherefore, I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” It is a curious verse coming at the end of Job. Just Job having been afflicted ends up repenting.  

Adams begins with the observation of the effect of affliction

Affliction is a winged chariot, that mounts up the soul toward heaven; or do we ever so rightly understand God’s majesty as when are not able to stand under our own misery.

There are many ways which God can use to get one’s attention, but affliction is most effective

But among them all, none despatcheth the business surer or sooner than affliction; if that fail to bring a man home, nothing can do it….Do we complain of incessant blows? Alas! He doth but his office, he waits for our repentance. Let us give him the messenger his errand, and he will begone. Let him take the proud man in hand, he will humble him; he can make the drunkard sober, the lascivious chaste, the angry patient, the covetous charitable; fetch the unthrift son back again to his father, whom a full purse had put into an itch of traveling. (Luke 15:17)

Having established that affliction should leave us to repentance, Adams considers three “degrees of mortification” of sin: the sickness, the death, and the burial of sin. 

The humility of Job which brings about this repentance comes from a knowledge of God:

To study God is the way to make a humble man; and a humble man is in the way to come unto God.

(Again, this is consonant with Kierkegaard’s contention that one finds God in confession of sin: the wonder of being confronted with the eternal God brings about this humility, a knowledge of one’s sinfulness. This a sort of confession and humiliation which cannot be brought about by the skill of some preacher; it is a humility which flows from knowing God.)

Job’s humility flowed from two aspect of God’s nature: majesty and mercy. First majesty,

Of his majesty, which being so infinite, and beyond the comprehension of man, he considered by way or comparison, or relation to creatures [Since God’s majesty cannot be understood directly, God compares his strength to creatures which Job could know.]…Mathematicians wonder at the sun that, being so much bigger than the earth, doth not set it on fire and burn it to ashes; but here is the wonder that God being so infinitely great, and we so infinitely evil, we are not consumed.

And then mercy. If it were not for this mercy, we could not come to God. 

This meditation on his mercy, than which nothing more humbles a heart of flesh

We can understand a more powerful being withstanding us. But for one who has just cause against us, to show mercy in the midst of our knowledge of his power; that brings humility. 

It is a certain conclusion; no proud man knows God.

How humility makes this possible:

Humility is not only a virtue itself; but a vessel to contain other virtures: like embers, which keep the fire alive that is hidden under it. It emptieth itself by a modest estimation of its own worth, that Christ may fill it. It wrestleth with God, like Jacob, and wins by yielding; and the lower it stoops to the gound the more advantage it gets to obtain the blessing. All our pride, O Lord, is from the want of knowing thee.

This knowledge of God in turn brings about the repentance for and mortification of sin. 

At this point, it perhaps best to consider something which so often is missing in contemporary Christian life: the contemplation of God for his own sake. Americans (I cannot speak for others) want always to know what this information does; but is the practical application. 

Now application is a great thing. But one sort of application which is noticeably absent is the application of contemplation: Just steadily thinking one, mediating, considering the thought that God is ….

It is nature of persons, that we can know one another only through some attention. We may gain a very superficial knowledge of a word or a sight; but actual appreciation for another person requires time and attention. 

Perhaps our trouble with sin stems from too little knowledge of God. God is an abstraction; not personal. But a true knowledge of God would work humility and humility repentance. 

Here is a thought. God is Father. Even before creation (if it makes any sense to say “before” when it comes to God), God is Father. The creation is an overflow of the joy and love of the Father. Our redemption flows from the love of God for us. Our glorification flows from the headwaters of God’s love as Father. 

Sit alone with those thoughts. Consider that one truth and see what it brings about in you.

Kierkegaard, What it means to seek God.8


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This brings us to the conclusion of Kierkegaard’s discourse. There are a few related concepts here, all which revolve around the central idea of meeting God:

“God is near enough, but no one can see God without purity, and sin is impurity, and therefore no one can take cognizance of God without becoming a sinner.”

This matter of seeing oneself as a sinner is not a matter of being made to feel guilty by a skillful orator. “A fear and trembling inspired by abomination of religious debauch is not true fear and trembling.” A true sense of sin, as Kierkegaard will explain concerns one actual coming to be before God, “If he learns to know that he is a sinner, then it happens that he learns it, just he, by being alone with the Holy One….Whoever is alone with the consciousness of sin, will indeed feel himself, yet not by comparison with others, to the greatest sinner, for he will be conscious of himself as an individual, and he will feel himself the essential magnitude of his sin in the presence of the Holy One.”

In this place of being confronted with God, one comes to the place of true worship, “Learn first to be alone, thus you will true worship which is to think highly of God, and humbly of yourself.” 

What really strikes in this discussion is the reality of the meeting of God. This is not a meeting in a crowd; it is a meeting of the individual with God. And while the Church is not a collection of bare individuals, there is a striking element of being an individual when it comes to confession. 

In this element of confession, Kierkegaard seems to have something of this passage in mind:

Zechariah 12:10–14 (ESV) 

10 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn. 11 On that day the mourning in Jerusalem will be as great as the mourning for Hadad-rimmon in the plain of Megiddo. 12 The land shall mourn, each family by itself: the family of the house of David by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the house of Nathan by itself, and their wives by themselves; 13 the family of the house of Levi by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the Shimeites by itself, and their wives by themselves; 14 and all the families that are left, each by itself, and their wives by themselves. 

An emphasis on reality of this confrontation is underscored by a parable used by Kierkegaard. He speaks of a ship’s pilot who has studied in books how to rightly handle a ship in a storm, who the confronts an actual storm at sea. It is the reality of the experience, not the speculation of the knowledge which matters. It is a matter of appropriation, “a mature person learns only by appropriation, and he appropriates essentially only that which is essential to living.”

In his comparison of the false fear and trembling brought about by the “thundering” of a skillful preacher and true conviction brought about a confrontation with the living God, Kierkegaard reminds me of the Puritan distinction between legal and evangelical conviction.  Legal conviction brings a kind of despair without hope; it is the condemnation of the law without rescue:

Despair is the result of strong legal convictions, urging the sentence of the law against us, without any consideration of gospel-grace for our relief and succour. This works great consternation, fills the soul with amazing fears, shuts it up in a dark dungeon, claps it in irons, binds it hand and foot, and so leaves it under a fearful expectation of fiery indignation to devour it. 

James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Richard Owen Roberts, Publishers, 1981), 515. Stephen Charnock explains the difference between the two: 

A legal conviction ariseth from a consideration of God’s justice chiefly, an evangelical from a sense of God’s goodness. A legally convinced person cries out, I have exasperated a power that is as the roaring of a lion, a justice that is as the voice of thunder; I have provoked one that is the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth, whose word can tear up the foundations of the world with as much ease as he established them. This is the legal conviction. But an evangelically convinced person cries, I have incensed a goodness that is like the dropping of the dew; I have offended a God that had the deportment of a friend, rather than that of a sovereign. I have incurred the anger of a judge, saith a legalist; I have abused the tenderness of a father, saith an evangelically convinced person. Oh my marble, my iron heart, against a patient, wooing God, a God of bowels! It makes every review of acts of kindness to be a sting in the conscience; it makes such a person miserable by mercy, and scorches him with the beams of goodness; turns the honey into a bitter pill, and useth a branch of the balsam tree as a rod wherewith to lash him. O wretch, to run from so sweet a fountain to rake in puddles! to rush into a river of brimstone, through a sea of goodness! What a cut is it, when ingenuity is awakened, to reject a natural goodness, much more an infinite goodness; to reject the goodness of a man, much more that of a God; the goodness of a friend never provoked, much more the goodness of a God that had been so highly incensed! There is a torture of hell in both, kindled by the breath of the Lord; in the one by the breath of his wrath, in the other by the breath of his goodness. One is inflamed by justice to a sense of rebellion, the other by goodness to a sense of his own vileness. This is that which was promised should be in gospel times, that in the latter days men should fear the Lord and his goodness, Hos. 3:5. That is a true evangelical conviction, that springs from a thorough sense of God’s goodness, when the goodness of God excites ingenuity, as well as the majesty of God strikes a terror.

Stephen Charnock, The Complete Works of Stephen Charnock, vol. 4 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; W. Robertson; G. Herbert, 1864–1866), 199. 

Kierkegaard seems to address the same topic but from the experience of the one confronted by God. The discussion is not doctrinal but existential. 

By comparing the two explanations of the same events gives us a fuller understanding. 

Kierkegaard, What it means to seek God.7 The existential crisis


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This brings us to the existential crisis which lies so importantly at the crux of Kierkegaard’s thought. (Now those who have much greater expertise may identify a different controlling idea in the Dane’s thinking, and will defer to their greater knowledge. But from what I have read, this seems to be the motivating conceit).

The one who, by reason, no longer experiences Romantic Wordsworthian Wonder at a flower or shadowy forrest, finds himself in a strange place. At this point, we know that there things which could inspire a lesser wonder and a lesser fear: a fear of an angel or devil; or a fear of some terror in the world. But all such fears can at most lead to superstition.

But there is a true and wonder and a true fear which can be experienced when the false fears are cleared away.

“True wonder and fear first appear only when he, just he, whether greatest or humblest, is alone with the omnipresent God.”

True wonder and fear fear appear only when he, just he, whether greatest or humblest, is alone with the omnipresent God

It matters nothing who the human being is when confronted with this God. All things in the creature matter nothing: that confrontation with God is a confrontation of pure fear and wonder. This fear and wonder are secure from an assault of reason: reason can merely clear away the creaturely wonders and fears.

“The experience here described was once the lot of every man in the moment of decision, when the sickness of the spirit struck in, and he felt himself imprisioned in existence, everlasting imprisoned.” What he means by this everlasting imprisonment I think must be mean the apparent inability to move past this confrontation.

The thought becomes particularly opaque (at least to me), but the sense seems to be unless one is changed at this confrontation, there is an imprisonment. This is the confrontation of “fear and trembling” and movement to the stage of faith (the “leap”).

Here is the salient passage, “Therefore the thing sought exists, the seeker himself was the place [because we find God in faith in the confession of sin — as will be explained later], but he is change, changed from having once been the place whether the thing sought was [this is the movement in the thought which I find confusing]. Oh, now there is no wonder, no ambiguity! When the soul apprehends this, its condition is fear and trembling in the consciousness of guilt, passion in the sorrow following remembrance, love in the repentance of the prodigal.”

I am not quite sure about that clause of the seeker having once been the place. But the remainder makes sense: this existential confrontation of the living God is the confrontation of a realization that of my guilt and of knowing that I am loved in the confession of and repentance from sin. It is the paradoxical moment of grace: that I am received precisely in the moment I realize I am bound to be cast-off.

God justifies the ungodly; God shows love for the unlovely. Indeed, it is precisely when one realizes one’s complete unworthiness that the Father welcomes in the prodigal and gives him the robe and the ring and fattened calf. If that moment is achieved, there is nothing in human existence which can equal it for importance.

There is one final note which to make about this section of the discourse concerning apologetics. It is a brief section, but it is worth considering. Someone may “wish” to say, “it is so hard to find Him [God] that some men even prove that He exists, and find evidence necessary.” At this point, one could accuse Kierkegaard of pure fideism: he merely asserts God exists. But he continues on at this point in a way which I think is helpful when we consider apologetics. “Let the work of proving it be hard and especially troublesome for him who tries to understand that it proves anything; for the author of the proof, it is easy because he has place himself outside, he does not deal with God, but considers something about God.”

God is personal — absolutely so. Yet, so often in our theology of God, and particularly in apologetics, we can reduce God to an object of our consideration. We speak about God and reduce God to an inference. But for the one who knows God, we do not merely know about God. Indeed, we cannot now the most critical elements of Christianity by deduction from historical evidence. We could prove up the death and burial of Jesus. We can make a quite cogent argument for the Resurrection. All those facts could be unquestionably true, but they cannot lead us to understand that Jesus died for me. I cannot know God in Jesus Christ except by knowing in experience.

It is that experience which is the most critical event in the life of a human being. If our apologetics is to be greatest use it must be more than winning an argument over historical deduction. And we must be careful that we do not merely “something about God” rather than God.

Kierkegaard, What it means to seek God.6 The valley of vision


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What effect does the despair of the loss of wonder bring upon the searcher? He can no longer wander about, see something he cannot explain, and think, Ah, I have come upon the divinity in this place. This realization leads one to despair. And this despair, as it intensifies, leads one to a very different conclusion. 

The trajectory which he describes here seems to follow along a very particular path: There is the Romanticism of a modern who is searching for God in nature. I cannot really understand his explanation as being applicable to a true animist pagan. For such a one, the spirits are not beautiful but rather frightening. Virgil’s Tityrus in the first eclogue is quite pleased with his local god – but Virgil was an extremely sophisticated Roman.

The wonder expressed by Kierkegaard seems to sound more like Wordsworth or Coleridge. Perhaps he is speaking of himself. 

The Romantic posture is quite appealing to one on this side of the Enlightenment who still can’t bring himself to banish the spiritual and God. Perhaps there is a way around the world as machine. And so in this sermon, Kierkegaard seems to be speaking to a particular type of person. The one is who is a dull-headed materialist by default is not his target.

This would be the “spiritual but not religious” young adult: You are finding some evidence for the divine in this or that “wonder.” But I must tell you something, this will fail. 

One solution is mocking, but not realizing, “mockery [is] a two-edged sword!” If this is you, you know of what I am speaking. You understand the “jumble of confused memories.” This person, I would presume, retreats to an aesthetic position. 

Or, there is the one who cynically abides by the rules, and – in Christian parlance – seeks to fulfill the Law (however misguided the sense of the Law may be. I believe that we can understand a great deal of modern political discourse among professedly “secular” people as an intense desire to fulfill the Law).

But there is another way through this: The despair is intensified and brought to a new sense of “wonder.” Something has happened here, something unexpected: “The wondering individual is changed.”

The despair wrought by learning that one’s first Romanticism has failed gives rises to something more profound: You are now different. He also has realized something new about God. 

He no longer looks for the place where the thing sought is concealed, for this exactly within him; nor does he look for the place where God is, he does not strive therefore, for God is with him, very near him, near him everywhere, omnipresent in every moment, but he shall be changed so that he may in truth become the place where God dwells.

This language is very striking, because Kierkegaard has restated something which has become domesticated in Christian discourse. But this is precisely what is at the heart of the Christian message. 

The proximity of God is a truly terrifying and awe-inspiring aspect of Christianity which seems so often completely absent. Our familiarity with the concepts domesticates them. Then when Kierkegaard expresses the idea in an unfamiliar way, it sounds dangerous.

But consider these passages:

Romans 10:5–13 (ESV) 

For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” 

1 Corinthians 6:19–20 (ESV) 

19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. 

Luke 10:9 (ESV) 

Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 

Kierkegaard then describes the limitation on modernity, “ Was it not a blessed thing that superior power could shut you up in the darkest prison, but could not shut out God?”

Then this final line reminds me of a prayer, which I will quote below

“Was it not blessed , was it not indeed blessed that you could fall into the deepest pit, where you could not see the sun or the stars, and still could see God?”

The Valley of Vision:

Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly,

Thou has brought me to the valley of vision,

where I live in the depths but see thee in the heights;

hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold

Thy glory.

Let me learn by paradox

that the way down is the way up,

that to be low is to be high,

that the broken heart is the healed heart,

that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,

that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,

that to have nothing is to possess all,

that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,

that to give is to receive,

that the valley is the place of vision.

Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells,

deepest wells,

and the deeper the wells the brighter

Thy stars shine;

Let me find Thy light in my darkness,

Thy life in my death,

Thy joy in my sorrow,

Thy grace in my sin,

Thy riches in my poverty

Thy glory in my valley.

Kierkegaard, What it means to seek God.5 Disillusion


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At this point, the argument begins to shift from “wonder” to “striving.” The movement is not completely clear, and the emphasis is upon the distinction between the two aspect of seeking after God. 

As I have been considering the schema of this sermon, it seems to me that Kierkegaard is working through his three-tiered understanding of human existence as Aesthetic, Ethical, and Religious stages. In this sermon, he writes of wonder, striving, and confession. This is a tentative understanding and I will have to consider it at some more length. 

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes the aesthetic stage as, “characterized by the following: immersion in sensuous experience; valorization of possibility over actuality; egotism; fragmentation of the subject of experience; nihilistic wielding of irony and scepticism; and flight from boredom.” This seems to match with the discussion of wonder.

To return to the sermon, Kierkegaard considers what happens to the one who realizes that wonder may be founded on a deception, “Now wonder and wish are about to undergo a test.” The original relationship between the subject and the unknown was an “immediate relationship.” It was direct, and apparently naïve. 

But at this point, he cannot seek as he did before, “blindly.” He knows that he cannot just meander and then fasten upon that which is esthetically pleasing and incomprehensible, the “unknown” which gives rise to “wonder.”

He has an interesting metaphor to describe this movement of the one who no longer moves by chance but now must strive: the change from the flight of birds to the crouching of four-footed beasts. Even more painful is the movement from the one who “dash[es] recklessly into the unknown” to the only who has “gained the security of a pedestrian on the highway of mediocrity.” This second stage reminds me of a back-hand to Judge Wilhelm of Either/Or.

The seeker who has moved past wonder is one for whom “enchantment” is over. Here he then makes an interesting statement concerning ethics or bare morality – if that is indeed what he is critiquing here. If we assume Kierkegaard is looking at bare moralism from the paradoxical perspective of one who has comes to know God in faith (and confession), that is a state of grace as opposed to an earned state of moral merit before God, then his words are jarring and damning:

And then in the next moment the thing sought is nothing, and that is why he is able to do everything himself.

The critique of moralism from the perspective of faith, is that the moralist believes he can do “everything.” The pre-conversion Paul was perfect as to the law. That is not the jarring observation. If is the first clause of the sentence, “the thing sought is nothing.” Moralism becomes a degrading of God: if God can be reached by my direct moral effort, then what is God? What sort of “infinite” can be scaled with mediocre sobriety? 

This is the content of life which returns with each generation. 

At this point, Kierkegaard comes to consider the life which simply gives way to this morality, “a security possessed which also deceives, a remoteness from all decision where one may be lost without even dreaming of such a possibility. Let the terrible in life take its prey, oh, this illusory security is a more terrible monster!”

This reminds of Thoreau’s dictum, I did not want to come to die to find that I had never lived. 

Here Kierkegaard is useful, because avoidance of this trap is most often merely a retreat into the aesthetic: it is posture which cannot be sustained for long because it is either self-destructive or purely deception. Kierkegaard will contend that the solution is a movement toward God. But he has not come to that solution yet in the sermon. 

Kierkegaard, What it means to seek God.4 — Wonder


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At this point, Kierkegaard examines the nature of wonder – which is perhaps an initial step in seeking after God. The argument will move from pagan wonder to a more deliberate striving to find God. 

He explains wonder as the result of one coming upon something “unknown, and thus wholly undetermined, or rather infinitely determinable.” When we come upon some-thing whose nature we cannot readily understand or explain, we may assign any number of explanations to account for the sight. He considers a number examples of the pagan being confronted in nature with some event he cannot readily explain. That event, being unexplained causes the pagan to wonder. 

            He then makes this observation: the greatest wonder one could experience would be to encounter God: for what would be more inexplicable in terms of something else than God. Kierkegaard then writes this about God, God “is the inexplicable whole of existence.” 

            What this phrase means is itself a wonder, because I am not quite sure how to take it. The language seems most explicable as pantheism, an identification of God with nature. This is problematic, because Kierkegaard is not a pantheist. He is unquestionably Christian.

            The statement is explicable from the position of a pagan – and he immediately returns to the question of the pagan. But then we are left to wonder what he means by “God.” The God of a Christian and of a pagan are very different things. 

            Kierkegaard wrote so quickly and so very much, I should not be surprised with an inartful phrase here or there. This is especially the case when he is also seeking to be deliberately evocative and paradoxical. Finally, I am also working with a translation.  The best I can make of this idea is that it a pagan concept of “God.”

            What then happens when the sight which was a primitive wonder becomes domesticated and no longer provokes worship? When the idolatry is brought indoors so to speak, it become poetry (or “posey” in my translation). 

            The posey aside, what happens to the one who was seeking God who wished to encounter God and who has come to realize that what once brought wonder has only brought disillusion? That thing which previously was full of wonder is now seen as a deception. For example

“When the gnarled tree-trunk creates the illusion of a figure unfamiliar to him, resembling a human being, and yet, to his surprise, resembling supernatural proportions he stops and worships.” What when that pagan realizes, this is merely a tree and no wonder? 

He realizes that he has been stumbling merely toward that which he does not understand. At that point he no longer experiences wonder but only confusion. 

Here he moves from wishing to find God. Now he must seek. He cannot trust to blundering along and being surprised and worshiping whatever he stumbles upon provided it provokes an emotion and surprise. Wonder alone is an insufficient guide to God. There must be a purposeful striving.

Kierkegaard, What it means to seek God.3


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Kiekegaard comes to the matter of wishing and seeking. He does admit the limits of the one who merely is wishing for this — it is never expressly stated, only hinted at. The limits are that he is seeking some “definite place.”  If he is wishing to find “the stillness”, he will never find that stillness: the stillness is not someplace one can go. 

And so wishing is limited, not because of its object but because of its ignorance. The wisher does not know whether his movements bring him nearer or leave him further away. 

But the one who gives up wishing is worse still.  This one has “exchanged the precarious wealth of the wish for the certain wretchedness of mediocrity!” I will do without the wish and without the stillness. 

He shifts the focus, again. The logical connection is not explicit, this implies that; rather it is suggestive, requiring the reader to ask, why this topic here?

The possible suggestion here is that, you could wish or seek for any number of things. The only thing which you could encounter “which is not determined by its relation to others … and this good is God.” This is the greatest thing for which one could wish for which one could seek. 

Then he ties together this concept of wishing and seeking (without knowledge of how to find) with God. The movement here is striking.  The wisher is wandering about and then “he is startled, and the expression for his wonder is worship.” 

When one comes upon God, or the realization that God is there the moment of confrontation is one of “wonder.” He then unpacks “wonder” as follows, wonder contains “both fear and bliss.”

Is that fair or true? One cannot simply read Kierkegaard without pausing repeatedly to reflect. But I cannot say this definition is wrong. Nothing focuses the attention quite so well as fear, but rather than retreating  — which is the normal response to fear – one is also transfixed, hence the bliss. 

He then provides this marvelous discussion of worship

The worship is therefore mingled fear and happiness.

Even the most purified and rational worship of God is 

            happiness in fear and trembling, 

            confidence in deadly peril,

            frankness in the consciousness of sin.

This underscores the paradox of seeking God which he raised above: One must come to this God in purity of heart and as a sinner. The saint is the most acutely aware of danger. 

I think of the story of Peter in the boat with Jesus: 

Luke 5:1-8

On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” 

Any number of such stories could be found in the Bible. To be confronted with the knowledge that God is here is both fascinating and terrifying; I cannot look away and I cannot come nearer. 

If this is worship, then why do we settle for emotional inflammation? Do we actually truly want to be “startled” by God?