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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 3: Barriers to Willing One Thing: Variety and Great Moments Are Not One Thing

So let us, then, upon the occasion of a time of Confession speak about this sentence: PURITY OF HEART IS TO WILL ONE THING as we base our meditation on the Apostle Jamesí words in his Epistle, Chapter 4, verse 8:

"Draw nigh to God and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts ye double-minded." For only the pure in heart can see God, and therefore, draw nigh to Him; and only by Godís drawing nigh to them can they maintain this purity. And he who in truth wills only one thing can will only the Good, and he who only wills one thing when he wills the Good can only will the Good in truth.

. . . . .

Let us speak of this, but let us first put out of our minds the occasion of the office of Confession in order to come to an agreement on an understanding of this verse, and on what the apostolic word of admonition "purify your hearts ye double-minded" is condemning, namely, double-mindedness. Then at the close of the talk we may return more specifically to a treatment of the occasion.

. . . . .

I. If it is to be Possible, That a Man Can Will Only One Thing, Then He Must Will the Good.

To will only one thing: but will this not inevitably become a long-drawn-out talk? If one should consider this matter properly must he not first consider, one by one, each goal in life that a man could conceivably set up for himself, mentioning separately all of the many things that a man might will? And not only this; since each of these considerations readily becomes too abstract in character, is he not obliged as the next step to attempt to will, one after the other, each of these goals in order to find out what is the single thing he is to will, if it is a matter of willing only one thing? Yes, if someone should begin in this fashion, then he would never come to an end. Or more accurately, how could he ever arrive at the end since at the outset he took the wrong way and then continued to go on further and further along this false way? It is only by a painful route that this way leads to the Good, namely, when the wanderer turns around and goes back. For as the Good is only a single thing, so all ways lead to the Good, even the false ones: when the repentant one follows the same way back. Oh, Thou the unfathomable trustworthiness of the Good! ĎWherever a man may be in the world, whichever road he travels, when he wills one thing, he is on a road that leads him to Thee! Here such a far-flung enumeration would only work harm. Instead of wasting many moments on naming the vast multitude of goals or squandering lifeís costly years in personal experiments upon them, can the talk do as life ought to do -- with a commendable brevity stick to the point?

In a certain sense nothing can be spoken of so briefly as the Good, when it is well described. For the Good without condition and without qualification, without preface and without compromise is, absolutely the only thing that a man may and should will, and is only one thing. Oh, blessed brevity, oh, blessed simplicity, that seizes swiftly what cleverness, tired out in the service of vanity, may grasp but slowly! That which a simple soul, in the happy impulse of a pious heart, feels no need of understanding m an elaborate way, since he simply seizes the Good immediately, is grasped by the clever one only at the cost of much time and much grief. The way this one thing is willed is not such that: one man wills one thing but that which he wills is not the Good; another wills one thing nor is what he wills the Good; a third wills one thing and what he wills is the Good. No, it is not done in that way. The person who wills one thing that is not the Good, he does not truly will one thing. It is a delusion, an illusion, a deception, a self-deception that he wills only one thing. For in his innermost being he is, he is bound to be, double-minded. Therefore the Apostle says, "Purify your hearts ye double-minded," that is, purify your hearts of double-mindedness; in other words, let your heart in truth will only one thing, for therein is the heartís purity.

And again it is of this same purity of heart that the Apostle is speaking when he says, "If someone lacks wisdom, then let him pray... but in faith, not like a double-minded man" (James 1:5,6, 8). For purity of heart is the very wisdom that is acquired through prayer. A man of prayer does not pore over learned books for he is the wise man "whose eyes are opened" -- when he kneels down (Numbers 24:16).

In a word, then, there is a man whose mind remains piously ignorant of the multitude of things, for the Good is one thing. The more difficult part of the talk is directed to the man whose mind in its double-mindedness has made the doubtful acquaintance of the multitude of things, and of knowledge. If it is certain that a man in truth wills one thing, then he wills the Good, for this alone can be willed in this manner. But both of these assertions speak of identical things, or they speak of different things. The one assertion plainly designates the name of the Good, declaring it to be that one thing. The other assertion cunningly conceals this name. It appears almost as if it spoke of something else. But just on that account it forces its way, searchingly, into a manís innermost being. And no matter how much he may protest, or defy, or boast that he wills only one thing, it searches him through and through in order to show the double-mindedness in him if the one thing he wills is not the Good.

For in truth there was a man on earth who seemed to will only one thing. It was unnecessary for him to insist upon it. Even if he had been silent about it, there were witnesses enough against him who testified how inhumanly he steeled his mind, how nothing touched him, neither tenderness, nor innocence, nor misery; how his blinded soul had eyes for nothing, and how the senses in him had only eyes for the one thing that he willed. And yet it was certainly a delusion, a terrible delusion, that he willed one thing. For pleasure and honor and riches and power and all that this world has to offer only appear to be one thing. It is not, nor does it remain one thing, while everything else is in change or while he himself is in change. It is not in all circumstances the same. On the contrary, it is subject to continual alteration. Hence even if this man named but one thing whether it be pleasure, or honor or riches, actually he did not will one thing. Neither can he be said to will one thing when that one thing which he wills is not in itself one: is in itself a multitude of things, a dispersion, the toy of changeableness, and the prey of corruption! In the time of pleasure see how he longed for one gratification after another. Variety was his watchword. Is variety, then, to will one thing that shall ever remain the same? On the contrary, it is to will one thing that must never be the same. It is to will a multitude of things. And a person who wills in this fashion is not only double-minded but is at odds with himself. For such a man wills first one thing and then immediately wills the opposite, because the oneness of pleasure is a snare and a delusion. It is the diversity of pleasures that he wills. So when the man of whom we are speaking had gratified himself up to the point of disgust, he became weary and sated. Even 1f he still desired one thing -- what was it that he desired? He desired new pleasures; his enfeebled soul raged so that no ingenuity was sufficient to discover something new -- something new! It was change he cried out for as pleasure served him, change! change! And it was change that he cried out for as he came to pleasureís limit, as his servants were worn out -- change! change!

Now it is to be understood that there are also changes in life that can prove to a man whether he wills one thing. There is the change of the perishable nature when the sensual man must step aside, when dancing and the tumult of the whirling senses are over, when all becomes soberly quiet. That is the change of death. If, for once, the perishable nature should seem to forget to close in, if it should seem as if the sensual one had succeeded in slipping by: death does not forget. The sensual one will not slip past death, who has dominion over what belongs to the earth and who will change into nothing the one thing which the sensual person desires.

And last of all, there is the change of eternity, which changes all. Then only the Good remains and it remains the blessed possession of the man that has willed only one thing. But that rich man whom no misery could touch, that rich man who even in eternity to his own damnation must continue to will one thing, ask him now whether he really wills one thing. So, too, with honor and riches and power. For in the time of strength as he aspired to honor, did he really discover some limit, or was that not simply the striverís restless passion to climb higher and higher? Did he find some rest amid his sleeplessness in which he sought to capture honor and to hold it fast? Did he find some refreshment in the cold fire of his passion? And if he really won honorís highest prize, then is earthly honor in itself one thing? Or in its diversity when the thousands and thousands braid the wreath, is honor to be likened to the gorgeous carpet of the field -- created by a single hand? No, like worldly contempt, worldly honor is a whirlpool, a play of confused forces, an illusory moment in the flux of opinions. It is a sense-deception, as when a swarm of insects at a distance seem to the eye like one body; a sense-deception, as when the noise of the many at a distance seems to the ear like a single voice.

Even if honor were unanimous it would still be meaningless, and the more so, the more thousands that create the unanimity. And the greater the multitude that created unanimity, the sooner will it show itself to be meaningless. And indeed it was this unanimity of the thousands that he desired. It was not the approbation of the good men. They are soon counted. No, it was rather the approbation of the thousands. Is, then, this desire for counting, is this to will one thing? To count and count until it suffices, to count and count until a mistake is made; is this to will one thing? Whoever, therefore, wills this honor or fears this contempt, whether or not he is said to will one thing in his innermost being, is not merely double-minded but thousand-minded, and at variance with himself. So is his life when he must grovel -- in order to attain honor; when he must flatter his enemies -- in order to attain honor; when he must woo the favor of those he despises -- in order to attain honor; when he must betray the one whom he respects -- in order to attain honor. For to attain honor means to despise oneself after one has attained the pinnacle of honor -- and yet to tremble before any change. Change, yes, where does change rage more unchecked than here? What desertion is more swift and sudden, like a mistake in foolery, like a hit by a blind man, when the seeker for honor has not even time to take off the garb of honor before insult seizes him in it? Change, the final change, the absolute certainty among the range of unpredictables: no matter how loud the thunder of honor may sound over his grave, even if it could be heard over the whole earth, there is one who cannot hear it: the dead man, he who died with honor, the single thing he had desired. But also in dying he lost the honor, for it remains outside, it marches home again, it dies away like an echo. Change, the true change, when eternity exists: I should like to know if honorís crown is offered to the much-honored one there! And yet eternity is more lust than the earth and the world; for in eternity there is a crown of honor laid aside for each of those that have in truth willed only one thing. So also with riches and power and the world that passes away and the lust thereof. The one who has willed either of them, even if he only willed one thing, must, to his own agony, continue to will it when it has passed, and learn by the agony of contradiction that it is not one thing. But the one who in truth willed one thing and therefore willed the Good, even if he be sacrificed for it, why should he not go on willing the same in eternity, the same thing that he was willing to die for? Why should he not will the same, when it has triumphed in eternity?

To will one thing, therefore, cannot mean to will that which only appears to be one thing. The fact is that the worldly goal is not one thing in its essence because it is unreal. Its so-called unity is actually nothing but emptiness which is hidden beneath the manyness. In the short-lived moment of delusion the worldly goal is therefore a multitude of things, and thus not one thing. So far is it from a state of being and remaining one thing, that in the next moment it changes itself into its opposite. Carried to its extreme limit, what is pleasure other than disgust? What is earthly honor at its dizzy pinnacle other than contempt f or existence? What are riches, the highest superabundance of riches, other than poverty? For no matter how much all the earthís gold hidden in covetousness may amount to, is it not infinitely less than the smallest mite hidden in the contentment of the poor! What is worldly omnipotence other than dependence? What slave in chains is as unfree as a tyrant! No, the worldly goal is not one thing. Diverse as it is, in life it is changed into its opposite, in death into nothing, in eternity into damnation: for the one who has willed this goal. Only the Good is one thing in its essence and the same in each of its expressions. Take love as an illustration. The one who truly loves does not love once and for all. Nor does he use a part of his love, and then again another part. For to change it into small coins is not to use it rightly. No, he loves with all of his love. It is wholly present in each expression. He continues to give it away as a whole, and yet he keeps it intact as a whole, in his heart. Wonderful riches! When the miser has gathered all the worldís gold in sordidness -- then he has become poor. When the lover gives away his whole love, he keeps it entire -- in the purity of the heart. Shall a man in truth will one thing, then this one thing that he wills must be such that it remains unaltered in all changes, so that by willing it he can win immutability. If it changes continually, then he himself becomes changeable, double-minded, and unstable. And this continual change is nothing else than impurity.

Now, willing one thing does not mean to commit the grave mistake of a brazen, unholy enthusiasm, namely, to will the big, no matter whether it be good or bad. Also, one who wills in this fashion no matter how desperately he does it, is indeed double-minded. Is not despair simply double-mindedness? For what is despairing other than to have two wills? For whether the weakling despairs over not being able to wrench himself away from the bad, or whether the brazen one despairs over not being able to tear himself completely away from the Good: they are both double-minded, they both have two wills. Neither of them honestly wills one thing, however desperately they may seem to will it. Whether it was a woman whom desire brought to desperation, or whether it was a man who despaired in defiance; whether a man despaired because he got his will, or despaired because he did not get his will: each one in despairing has two wills, one that he fruitlessly tries wholly to follow and one that he fruitlessly tries wholly to avoid. In this fashion has God, better than any king, insured himself against every rebellion. For it has indeed happened that a king has been dethroned by a rebellion. But each rebel against God, in the last instance, is himself reduced to despair. Despair is the limit -- There and no further!" Despair is the limit. Here are met the cowardly timorous ill-temper of self-love, and the proud defiant presumption of the mind -- here they are met in equal impotence.

Only too soon personal experience and the experience of others teaches how far most menís lives are from being what a manís life ought to be. All have great moments. They see themselves in the magic mirror of possibility which hope holds before them while the wish flatters them. But they swiftly forget this sight in the daily round of things. Or perhaps they talk enthusiastic words, "for the tongue is a little member and boasteth great things."(James 3:5.)But talk takes the name of enthusiasm in vain by proclaiming loudly from the housetop what it should work out in silence. And in the midst of the trivial details of life these enthusiastic words are quickly forgotten. It is forgotten that such a thing was said of this man. It is forgotten that it was he himself who said it. Now and then, perhaps, memory wakens with horror, and remorse seems to promise new strength. But, alas, this, too, lasts only for a good-sized moment. All of them have intentions, plans, resolutions for life, yes, for eternity. But the intention soon loses its youthful strength and fades away. The resolution is not firmly grounded and is unable to withstand opposition. It totters before circumstances and is altered by them. Memory, too, has a way of failing, until by common practice and habit they learn to draw sympathy from one another. If someone proclaims the slender comfort that excuses yield, instead of realizing how treacherous is such sympathy, they finally come to regard it as edifying, because it encourages and strengthens indolence. Now there are men who find it edifying that the demand to will one thing be asserted in all its sublimity, in all its severity, so that it may press its claim into the innermost fastness of the soul. Others find it edifying, that a wretched compromise should be made between God, the claim, and the language used. There are men who find it edifying if only someone will challenge them. But there are also the sleepy souls who regard it as not only pleasing, but even edifying, to be lulled to sleep.

This is indeed a lamentable fact; but there is a wisdom which is not from above, but is earthly and fleshly and devilish. It has discovered this common human weakness and indolence; it wants to be helpful. It perceives that all depends upon the will and so it proclaims loudly, "Unless it wills one thing, a manís life is sure to become one of wretched mediocrity, of pitiful misery. He must will one thing regardless of whether it be good or bad. He must will one thing for therein lies a manís greatness." Yet it is not difficult to see through this powerful error. As to the working out of salvation, the holy Scripture teaches that sin is the corruption of man. Salvation, therefore, lies only in the purity with which a man wills the Good. That very earthly and devilish cleverness distorts this into a temptation to perdition; weakness is a manís misfortune; strength the sole salvation: "When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry and empty places but finds no rest. Then he turns back again and now he brings with him" that unclean cleverness, the wisdom of the desert and the empty places, that unclean cleverness -- that now drives out the spirit of indolence and of mediocrity "so that the last stage becomes worse than the first."(Matthew 12:43, 45.) How shall one describe the nature of such a man? It is said of a singer that by overscreeching he can crack his voice. In like fashion, such a man s nature by overscreeching itself and the voice of conscience, has cracked. It is said of a man who stands dizzily upon a high place, that all things run together before his eyes. Such a man has made himself giddy in the infinite, where those things which are forever separate run together into one thing, so that only the vast remains.

It is this dryness and emptiness that always gives birth to giddiness. But no matter how desperately such a man may seem to will one thing, he is double-minded. If he, the self-willed one, had his way, then there would be only this one thing: he would be the only one that was not double-minded, he the only one that had cast off every chain, he the only one that was free. But the slave of sin is not yet free; nor has he cast off the chain, "because he scoffs at it."(Compare Börne, Collected Works, Vol. II, p. 126: "All are not free who scoff at their chains.")He is in bonds, and therefore double-minded, and for once he may not have his own way. There is a power that binds him. He cannot tear himself loose from it. Nay, he cannot even wholly will it. For this power, too, is denied him. If you, my listener, should see such a man, although it is unlikely, for without a doubt weakness and mediocrity are the more common, if you should meet him in what he himself would call a weak moment, but which, alas, you would have to call a better moment; if you should meet him when he had found no rest in the desert, when the giddiness passes away for a moment and he feels an agonizing longing for the Good; if you should meet him when, shaken in his innermost being, and not without sadness, he was thinking of that man of single purpose who even in all his frailty still wills the Good: then you would discover that he had two wills, and you would discover his painful double-mindedness.

Desperate as he was, he thought: lost is lost. But he could not help turning around once more in his longing for the Good. How terribly embittered he had become against this very longing, a longing that reveals that, just as a man m all his defiance has not power enough wholly to loose himself from the Good, because it is the stronger, so he has not even the power wholly to will it.

Perhaps you may even have heard that desperate one say, "Some good went down with me." When a man meets his death by drowning, as he sinks, without being quite dead he comes to the surface again. At last a bubble comes out of his mouth. When this has happened, then he sinks, dead. That bubble was the last breath, the last supply of air, that could make him lighter than the sea. So with that remark. In that remark the last hope of salvation expired. In that remark he gave himself up. Was there still concealed in this thought a hope of salvation? Hidden in the soul, was there still in this thought a possible link with salvation? When a remark is pronounced in confidence to another man (oh, terrible misuse of confidence, even if the desperate one only misused it against himself!), when this word is heard, then he sinks forever.

Alas, it is horrible to see a man rush toward his own destruction. It is horrible to see him dance on the rim of the abyss without any intimation of it. But this clarity about himself and about his own destruction is even more horrible. It is horrible to see a man seek comfort by hurling himself into the whirlpool of despair. But this coolness is still more horrible: that, in the anxiety of death, a man should not cry out for help, "I am going under, save me"; but that he should quietly choose to be a witness to his own destruction! Oh, most extreme vanity, not to wish to draw manís eyes to himself by beauty, by riches, by ability, by power, by honor, but to wish to get his attention by his own destruction, by choosing to say of himself what at most pity in all sadness may venture to say of such a person at his grave, "Yet, some good went down with him." Oh, horrible doubleness of mind in a manís destruction, to wish to draw a sort of advantage out of the fact that the Good remains the only thing that a man has not willed. For now the other will becomes apparent to him, even if it were so weak as to be but a feeble dallying in the moment of destruction, an attempt to be exceptional by means of his own destruction.

To will one thing cannot, then, mean to will what in its essence is not one thing, but only seems to be so by means of a horrible falsehood. Only through a lie is it one thing. Now just as he that only wills this one thing is a liar, so he that conjures up this one thing is the father of lies. That dryness and emptiness is not in truth one thing, but is in truth nothing at all. And it is destruction for the man that only wills that one. If, on the contrary, a man should in truth will only one thing, then this thing must, in the truth of its innermost being, be one thing. It must, by an eternal separation, cut off the heterogeneous from itself in order that it may in truth continue to be one and the same thing and thereby fashion that man who only wills one thing into conformity with itself.

In truth to will one thing, then, can only mean to will the Good, because every other object is not a unity; and the will that only wills that object, therefore, must become double-minded. For as the coveted object is, so becomes the coveter. Or would it be possible that a man by willing the evil could will one thing, provided that it was possible for a man so to harden himself as to will nothing but the evil? Is not this evil, like evil persons, in disagreement with itself, divided against itself? Take one such man, separate him from society, shut him up in solitary confinement. Is he not at odds with himself there, just as a poor union between persons of his sort is an association that is ridden with dissension? But a good man, even if he lived in an out-of-the-way corner of the world and never saw any human being, would be at one with himself and at one with all about him because he wills one thing, and because the Good is one thing. Each one who in truth would will one thing must be led to will the Good, even though now and then it happens that a man begins by willing one thing that is not in its deepest sense the Good although it may be something quite innocent; and then, little by little, he is changed really in truth to will one thing by willing the Good. Love, from time to time, has in this way helped a man along the right path. Faithfully he only willed one thing, his love. For it, he would live and die. For it, he would sacrifice all and in it alone he would have his eternal reward. Yet the act of being in love is still not in the deepest sense the Good. But it may possibly become for him a helpful educator, who will finally lead him by the possession of his beloved one or perhaps by her loss, in truth to will one thing and to will the Good. In this fashion a man is educated by many means; and true love is also an education toward the Good.

Perhaps there was a man whose enthusiasm reached out toward a definite cause. In his enthusiasm he desired only one thing. He would live and die for that cause. He would sacrifice all for that in which alone he would have his happiness, for love and enthusiasm are not satisfied with a divided heart. Yet his endeavor was perhaps still not in the deepest sense the Good. Thus enthusiasm became for him a teacher, whom he outgrew, but to whom also he owed much. For, as it is said, all ways lead to the Good, when a man in truth only wills one thing. And where there is some truth in the fact that he wills one thing, this is all for the best. But there is danger that the lover and the enthusiast may swerve out of the true course and aim perhaps for the impressive instead of being led to the Good. The Good is certainly also in truth the impressive, but the impressive is not always the Good. And one can bid for a womanís favor by willing something when it is merely impressive. This can flatter the girlís pride and she can repay it with her adoration. But God in heaven is not as a young girlís folly. He does not reward the impressive with admiration. The reward of the good man is to be allowed to worship in truth.

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