Kierkegaard and Purity of Heart

Clifford Williams
Emeritus Professor of Philosophy
Trinity College of Trinity International University

Cornerstone Festival
Bushnell, Illinois
July, 2004

Soren Kierkegaard lived in Denmark from1813-1855. He wrote Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing in order to prepare readers for confession of sin. To do this he presented an extraordinarily rich analysis of inner dividedness. Kierkegaard’s aim was for readers single-mindedly to will “the Good” so as to dispel both ambivalence and illusion. The urgent question that the book provokes is whether one can actually dispel ambivalence and illusion. It is urgent because one’s commitment to God depends on doing so.

The idea of willing one thing

We will the Good and only the Good. We do not resist it, we do not will it for ulterior reasons, and we do not possess other motives which obscure it. “We center down upon one thing” (47).

Willing “the Good”

Willing what is good, willing what God wills, willing to be gracious and kind, accepting God’s forgiveness for guilt, willing to be obedient to God.

“The doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:7-8).

Two forms of double-mindedness

Ambivalence: We will the Good but we also do not will the Good. “I was neither wholly willing nor wholly unwilling” (Augustine, Confessions, Book 8, Section 10).

Illusion: We mistakenly think we are willing the Good. We think we want to do what God wills, but we really want something else. We think we have repented, but we really have been impatient.

“There is a danger that is called delusion” (38-39).

“The grieving of repentance after God . . . can so easily be confused with its opposite . . . that is, with impatience” (43).

Illusory experiences of grace

We think we have experienced God’s grace when in fact we have not. Matthew 25

Obstacles to willing one thing

The lure of reward: “The Good is one thing; the reward is another” (69). Reward: what we get from being good—admiration and approval of significant others.

The fear of punishment: “Willing the good only out of fear of punishment” (79). Fear of punishment: “loss of reputation, misjudgment by others, neglect, the world’s judgment” (88). Also: fear of other people’s disapproval.

Egocentric service of the good: “A man wills the Good simply in order that he may score the victory” (99).

Commitment to a certain degree: “This has the Good on its side, in that it wills the Good, even though weakly” (105). Two causes:

Busyness: “The press of busyness is like a charm” (107). “In the press of busyness, there is neither time nor quiet to win the transparency that is indispensable if a man is to come to understand himself in willing one thing” (108).

Imagination: “The moment of contemplation he had recklessly misunderstood as being earnest” (115). “The lazy man always has a disproportionate power of imagination” (116).


“A type of double-mindedness that . . . seemed to will the Good, for the sake of reward, out of fear of punishment, or as a form of self-assertion” (122).


“A kind of double-mindedness born of weakness . . . that wills the Good in a kind of sincerity, but only wills it ‘to a certain degree’” (122).

More obstacles

Self-justification: We try to make ourselves acceptable to God by our own features, accomplishments, or reputation, instead of letting ourselves be made acceptable to God by God’s grace (Eph.2:8-9).

Comparison: We imagine ourselves better than others.

Living outside ourselves: We hide from God by identifying ourselves with other people. In a sense, we are someone else. “The man of immediacy does not know himself, he quite literally identifies himself only by the clothes he wears, he identifies having a self by externalities” (Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, 52).

Indifference: We do not care about eternal matters. We live “without a thought for the final end of life, drifting wherever [our] inclinations and pleasures may take [us]”; we do “not want to take the trouble” to investigate our eternal lot, and are “unconcerned to seek the truth” (Pascal, Pensees, 156, 161, 159).

Resistance: We refuse to do what is good. We push God away. We shut down. We utter a brute “No.”

The hidden self

We see our double-mindedness “with half-closed eyes”; we “see it and indeed not see it” (47).

The exposure of evasions

We are swarms of excuses and deceptions that must be isolated and excised. We can use cleverness to evade the Good, but “the one who truly wills the Good . . . makes use of cleverness against evasions” (141).

What must we do?

Act decisively: “The main concern is earnestness” (180).

Live as an individual: “Each one shall render account to God as an individual” (185). “In eternity there is no mob pressure, no crowd, no hiding place in the crowd” (186). “Do you now live so that you are conscious of yourself as an individual? . . . Do you live in such a way that this consciousness is able to secure the time and quiet and liberty of action to penetrate every relation of your life?” (187, 197).

Single-mindedly willing the Good must be “slowly and honestly earned” (117).

How can we know we are saved?

By introspecting: By uncovering evasions, by comparing what we take to be experiences of God’s grace with what we know it should be.

By your fruits you shall know yourself: “Is this not, in truth, the sole proof that a man has a conviction: that his own life actually expresses it?” (111).

A few questions

Must we always be suspicious of ourselves?

Can there be “simple souls” who do not need to introspect?

Does Kierkegaard’s approach call for too much awareness of sin?

What role does observing goodness and beauty have in the Christian life?

What are life’s true tragedies?

Can we be nurtured as an individual by a crowd?

What is it truly to lose our innocence?

What would a Kierkegaardian faith look like?

Except where noted, quotations are from Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, trans. Douglas V. Steere (Harper, 1948).

For an exposition of the themes in Kierkegaard's Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, see Clifford Williams, The Divided Soul: A Kierkegaardian Exploration (Wipf & Stock, 2009).

For a contemporary treatment of these ideas, see Clifford Williams, Singleness of Heart: Restoring the Divided Soul (Eerdmans, 1994; Wipf & Stock, 2008).

Other Cornerstone talks:

Kierkegaard and Crowd Christianity

The Wisdom of Kierkegaard 1

The Wisdom of Kierkegaard 2

About Cliff Williams

Home page