The Wisdom of Kierkegaard 2

Clifford Williams

Cornerstone Festival
Bushnell, Illinois
July 2, 2005

Soren Kierkegaard lived in Denmark from 1813-1855. One of his aims was to explain to the Danish church, which he thought did not exemplify genuine Christianity, what being a Christian really means. He probed and poked around in the deeper parts of the Christian psyche. In what follows, I present some of what he said about purity of heart, love, and other themes.


Two forms of double-mindedness

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 with ourselves. “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” (Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, 122).

AMBIVALENCE: We will the Good but we also do not will the Good. “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’” (Purity of Heart, 122). “I was neither wholly willing nor wholly unwilling” (Augustine, Confessions, Book 8, Section 10).

Obstacles to willing one thing

THE LURE OF REWARD: “The Good is one thing; the reward is another” (Purity of Heart, 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” (Purity of Heart, 79).

Fear of punishment: “loss of reputation, misjudgment by others, neglect, the world’s judgment” (Purity of Heart, 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” (Purity of Heart, 99).

COMMITMENT TO A CERTAIN DEGREE: “This has the Good on its side, in that it wills the Good, even though weakly” (Purity of Heart, 105).

BUSYNESS: “The press of busyness is like a charm” (Purity of Heart, 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” (Purity of Heart, 108).

IMAGINATION: “The moment of contemplation he had recklessly misunderstood as being earnest” (Purity of Heart, 115).

“The lazy man always has a disproportionate power of imagination” (Purity of Heart, 116).

“Most people live in the opposite way. They are busy with being something when someone is watching them. If possible, they are something in their own eyes as soon as others are watching them, but inwardly, where the absolute requirement is watching them, they have no taste for accentuating the personal” (Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 503).

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

“No person is saved except by grace; the apostle, too, was accepted only by grace. But there is one sin that makes grace impossible, that is dishonesty; and there is one thing God unconditionally must require, that is honesty” (Christian Discourses, 187).


The power of love

“Just as there is a power in sin that has the perseverance to consume every better feeling a person has, so there is a heavenly power that starves the multiplicity of sin out of a person—this power is the love that hides a multitude of sins” (Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, 64).

Love gives confidence

“We like to be near someone who loves, because he casts out fear. Whereas the mistrustful person scares everyone away, whereas the crafty and cunning spread anxiety and painful disquietude around them, whereas the presence of a domineering person is as oppressive as the heavy pressure of sultry air—love gives bold confidence” (Works of Love, 280-281).

Loving shabbiness

“This is the remarkable thing: if someone has discovered how fundamentally good-natured almost every human being is, he would hardly dare to acknowledge his discovery, and he would fear becoming ludicrous, perhaps even fear that humanity would feel insulted by it. If, however, someone pretends that he had discovered how fundamentally shabby every human being is, how envious, how selfish, how faithless, and what abomination can lie hidden in the purest, that is, in the one regarded by simpletons and silly geese and small-town beauties as the purest—that person conceitedly knows that he is welcome, that it is the yield of his observing, his knowledge, his story that the world longs to hear” (Works of Love, 284).

Loving the weak

“The sagacious person thinks, foolishly, that one wastes one’s love by loving imperfect, weak people; I should think that this is applying one’s love, making use of it” (Works of Love, 163).

Loving oneself

“A person shall love his neighbor as himself, that is, as he ought to love himself” (Works of Love, 23).


“The rigid, the domineering person lacks flexibility, lacks the pliability to comprehend others; he demands his own from everyone, wants everyone to be transformed in his image, to be trimmed according to his pattern for human beings” (Works of Love, 270).


“Who, indeed, has ever been more impoverished than someone who has never loved!” (Works of Love, 175).

Evading love

“No doubt it rarely occurs to a person brazenly to speak ill of loving; far more common, however, is the deception by which people defraud themselves out of actually starting to love because they speak too fanatically about loving and about love” (Works of Love, 161).

Forgetting oneself

“The one who in love forgets himself, forgets his suffering, in order to think of someone else’s, forgets his misery in order to think of someone else’s, forgets what he himself loses in order lovingly to bear in mind someone else’s loss, forgets his advantage in order lovingly to think of someone else’s” (Works of Love, 281).



“Alas, the age of thinkers seems to be past! The quiet patience, the humble and obedient slowness, the noble renunciation of momentary influence, the distance of infinity from the moment, the love devoted to one’s God and to one’s idea, which are necessary to think one thought—this seems to be disappearing; this is almost at the point of becoming ludicrousness to people” (Works of Love, 368).

Knowing and doing

“In every human being there is a capacity, the capacity for knowledge. And every person—the most knowing and the most limited—is in his knowing far beyond what he is in his life or what his life expresses. Yet this misrelation is of little concern to us. On the contrary, we set a high price on knowledge, and everyone strives to develop his knowing more and more. . . . There is nothing more deceitful than the human heart, and this perhaps never appears more clearly than in this misrelation between our understanding and our acting. If this is judged very rigorously, the charge would have to be that we are all hypocrites” (Judge for Yourself! 118, 119).


“The very first thing that must be done is: create silence, bring about silence; God’s Word cannot be heard, and if in order to be heard in the hullabaloo it must be shouted deafeningly with noisy instruments, then it is not God’s Word; create silence! Ah, everything is noisy; and just as a strong drink is said to stir the blood, so everything in our day, even the most insignificant project, even the most empty communication, is designed merely to jolt the senses or to stir up the masses, the crowd, the public, noise!” (For Self-Examination, 48).

Quotations from Kierkegaard’s Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing are from the Douglas V. Steere translation (Harper, 1948). Other translations are from the Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong translations (Princeton University Press).

For a book containing 250 short quotations from Kierkegaard, see Clifford Williams, The Wisdom of Kierkegaard: A Collection of Quotations on Faith and Life (Wipf & Stock, 2009)

Other Cornerstone talks:

The Wisdom of Kierkegaard 1

Kierkegaard and Crowd Christianity

Kierkegaard and Purity of Heart

About Cliff Williams

Home page