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Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing by Sören Kierkegaard


Sören Kierkegaard is one of the towering Christian existential thinkers of the mid-nineteenth century. While his literary style was experimental, his writings call for Christian morality; a defense of faith and religion. Among his many books are Training in Christianity, Sickness Unto Death, and Fear and Trembling. This book was first published by Harper in 1938. It was translated from the Danish and contains an introductory essay by Douglas V. Steere. Prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Willie Brock.


Chapter 1: Introduction: Man and the Eternal


Father in heaven! What is a man without Thee! What is all that he knows, vast accumulation though it be, but a chipped fragment if he does not know Thee! What is all his striving, could it even encompass a world, but a half-finished work if he does not know Thee: Thee the One, who art one thing and who art all! So may Thou give to the intellect, wisdom to comprehend that one thing; to the heart, sincerity to receive this understanding; to the will, purity that wills only one thing. In prosperity may Thou grant perseverance to will one thing; amid distractions, collectedness to will one thing; in suffering, patience to will one thing. Oh, Thou that giveth both the beginning and the completion, may Thou early, at the dawn of day, give to the young man the resolution to will one thing. As the day wanes, may Thou give to the old man a renewed remembrance of his first resolution, that the first may be like the last, the last like the first, in possession of a life that has willed only one thing. Alas, but this has indeed not come to pass. Something has come in between. The separation of sin lies in between. Each day, and day after day something is being placed in between: delay, blockage, interruption, delusion, corruption. So in this time of repentance may Thou give the courage once again to will one thing. True, it is an interruption of our ordinary tasks; we do lay down our work as though it were a day of rest, when the penitent (and it is only in a time of repentance that the heavy-laden worker may be quiet in the confession of sin) is alone before Thee in self-accusation. This is indeed an interruption. But it is an interruption that searches back into its very beginnings that it might bind up anew that which sin has separated, that in its grief it might atone for lost time, that in its anxiety it might bring to completion that which lies before it. Oh, Thou that givest both the beginning and the completion, give Thou victory in the day of need so that what neither a man’s burning wish nor his determined resolution may attain to, may be granted unto him in the sorrowing of repentance: to will only one thing.

"To everything there is a season," says Solomon.(Ecclesiastes 3:1) And in these words he voices the experience of the past and of that which lies behind us. For when an old man relives his life, he lives it only by dwelling upon his memories; and when wisdom in an old man has outgrown the immediate impressions of life, the past viewed from the quiet of memory is something different from the present in all its bustle. The time of work and of strain, of merrymaking and of dancing is over. Life requires nothing more of the old man and he claims nothing more of it. By being present, one thing is no nearer to him than another. Expectation, decision, repentance in regard to a thing do not affect his judgment. By being a part of the past, these distinctions all become meaningless, for that which is completely past has no present to which it may attach itself. Oh, the desolation of old age, if to be an old man means this: means that at any given moment a living person could look at life as if he himself did not exist, as if life were merely a past event that held no more present tasks for him as a living person, as if he, as a living person, and life were cut off from each other within life, so that life was past and gone, and he had become a stranger to it. Oh, tragic wisdom, if it were of everything human that Solomon spoke, and if the speech must ever end in the same manner, insisting that everything has its time, in the well-known words: "What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth" (Ecclesiastes 3:9)? Perhaps the meaning would have been clearer if Solomon had said, "There was a time for all, all had its time," in order to show that, as an old man, he is speaking of the past and that in fact he is not speaking to someone but is talking to himself. For the person who talks about human life, which changes with the years, must be careful to state his own age to his listeners. And that wisdom which is related to such a changeable and temporal element in a man must, as with every frailty, be treated with caution in order that it shall not work harm.

Only the Eternal is always appropriate and always present, is always true. Only the Eternal applies to each human being, whatever his age may be. The changeable exists, and when its time has passed it is changed. Therefore any statement about it is subject to change. That which may be wisdom when spoken by an old man about past events may be folly in the mouth of a youth or of a grown man when spoken of the present. The youth would not be able to understand it and the grown man would not want to understand it. Even one who is a little advanced in age may fully agree with Solomon in saying, "There is a time to dance from sheer joy." And yet how can he agree with him? For his dancing time is past, and therefore he speaks of it as of something past. And it does not matter whether, in that day when both youth and the longing to dance were his, he grieved at its being denied him, or whether in joyous abandon he yielded to the invitation to dance: one who is a little advanced in age will still say quietly, "There is a time to dance." But for the youth, to be allowed to hurry off to the dance and to sit shut in at home are two such different things that it does not occur to him to consider them on the same level and to say, "There is a time for the one and a time for the other." A man is changed in the course of the years, and each time some portion of life lies behind him he tends to talk of its varied content as if it were all on the same level. But it does not follow from this that he has become any wiser. For by this, one has only said that he has changed. Perhaps even now there is something that makes him restless in the same way that the dance disturbs the youth, something that absorbs his attention in the same way that a toy absorbs a child. It is in this manner that a man changes, over the years. Old age is the final change. The old man speaks in the same vein of it all, of all the changeable that is now past.

But is this all of the story? Has all been heard that may be said about being a man, and about man’s temporal life? The most important and decisive thing of all is certainly left out. For the talk about the natural changes of human life over the years, together with what externally happened there, is not in essence any different from talking of plant or of animal life. The animal also changes with the years. When it is older it has other desires than it had at an earlier age. At certain times it, too, has its happiness in life, and at other times it must endure hardship. Yes, when late autumn comes, even the flower can speak the wisdom of the years and say with truthfulness, "All has its time, there is ‘a time to be born and a time to die’; there is a time to jest lightheartedly in the spring breeze, and a time to break under the autumn storm; there is a time to burst forth into blossom, beside the running water, beloved by the stream, and a time to wither and be forgotten; a time to be sought out for one’s beauty, and a time to be unnoticed in one’s wretchedness; there is a time to be nursed with care, and a time to be cast out with contempt; there is a time to delight in the warmth of the morning sun and a time to perish in the night’s cold. All has its time; ‘what profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth?’

Yes, the animal, too, when it has lived its time may speak the wisdom of the years and say with truth, "All has its time. There is a time to leap with joy, and a time to drag oneself along the earth; there is a time to waken early, and a time to sleep long; there is a time to run with the herd, and a time to go apart to die; there is a time to build nests with one’s beloved, and there is a time to sit alone on the roof; there is a time to soar freely among the clouds, and a time to sink heavily to the earth. All has its time; ‘what profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth?’ " And, in case you should say to the flower. "Is there, then, nothing more to tell?" then it will answer you, "No, when the flower is dead, the story is over." Otherwise the story must have been different from the beginning and been different as it went along, not merely becoming different at the end. For let us assume that the flower concluded its story in another fashion and added, "The story is not over, for when I am dead, I am immortal." Would this not be a strange story? If the flower were really immortal then immortality must be just that which prevented it from dying, and therefore immortality must have been present in each instant of its life. And the story of its life must once again have been wholly different in order to express continually immortality’s difference from all the changeableness and the different kinds of variations of the perishable. Immortality cannot be a final alteration that crept in, so to speak, at the moment of death as the final stage. On the contrary, it is a changelessness that is not altered by the passage of the years. Therefore, to the old man’s words that "all has its time," the wise Solomon adds, "God made all things beautiful in his time; also he hath set eternity within man’s heart" (Ecclesiastes 3: 11). (Kierkegaard often takes some liberty with his quotations paraphrasing what he takes them essentially to mean. "He hath made everything beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart from the beginning to the end.") Thus says the sage. For the talk about change, and the varied way of talking about change is indeed confusing, even when it comes from the mouth of an old man. Only the Eternal is constructive. The wisdom of the years is confusing. Only the wisdom of eternity is edifying.

If there is, then, something eternal in a man, it must be able to exist and to be grasped within every change. Nor can it be wisdom to say, indiscriminately, that this something eternal has its time like the perishable, that it makes its circle like the wind that never gets further; that it has its course like the river that never fills up the sea. Nor can it be wisdom to talk of this eternal element in the same vein as if one were speaking of the past, as if it is past and past in the sense that it can never, not even in repentance, relate itself to a present person but only to an absent one. For repentance is precisely the relation between something past and someone that has his life in the present time. It was unwise of the youth to wish to talk in the same terms of the pleasure of dancing and of its opposite. For this clear act of folly betrayed that the youth, in his youth, would like to have outgrown youth. But as for the Eternal, the time never comes when a man has grown away from it, or has become older -- than the Eternal.

If there is, then, something eternal in a man the discussion of it must have a different ring. It must be said that there is something that shall always have its time. something that a man shall always do, just as one Apostle says that we should always give thanks to God. (For example: 2 Thessalonians 1:3.) For that which has its time must properly be looked upon as an associate and an equal with other temporal things that in their turn shall pass away. But the Eternal is that which is set over all, The Eternal will not have its time, but will fashion time to its own desire, and then give its consent that the temporal should also be given its time. So the Scripture says, "The one shall be done, the other shall not be neglected."(Matthew 23:23. See note 2. The precise text is: "These ought ye to have done and not to leave the other undone.")But that which shall not be neglected is just that which cannot come into consideration until that is done which ought to be done. In like fashion with the Eternal. If the wisdom of life should ever alter that which. concerns the eternal in a man to the point of changing it into something temporal, then this would be folly whether it be spoken by an old man or by a youth. For m relation to the Eternal, age gives no justification for speaking absurdly, and youth does not exclude one from being able to grasp what is true. Should someone explain that the fear of God, in the sense of that felt in this world of time, should belong to childhood and therefore disappear with the years as does childhood itself, or should be like a happy state of mind that cannot be maintained, but only remembered; should someone explain that penitence comes like the weakness of old age, with the wasting away of strength, when the senses are blunted, when sleep no longer strengthens but weakens; then this would be Impiety and folly. Yes, to be sure, it is a fact that there was a man who with the years forgot his childish fear of God, was swindled out of the best, and was taken in by that which was most insolent. Yes, to be sure, it is a fact that there was a man whom repentance first overtook in the painfulness of old age, when he no longer had the strength to sin, so that the repentance not only came late, but the despair of late repentance became the final stage. But this is no story of an event that calls for an ingenious explanation or that would even of itself explain life. When it happens, it is a horrible thing. And even if a man should become a thousand years old, he would not have become so old that he dares speak otherwise of it than the youth -- with fear and trembling. For in relation to the Eternal, a man ages neither in the sense of time nor in the sense of an accumulation of past events. No, when an old person has outgrown the childish and the youthful, ordinary language calls this, maturity and a gain. But willfully ever to have outgrown the Eternal is spoken of as falling away from God and as perdition; and only the life of the ungodly "shall be as the snail that melts, as it goes" (Psalm 58:8).

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