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 11: The Price of Willing One Thing: The Sufferer’s Use of Cleverness to Expose Evasion
But the sufferer who sincerely wills the Good, uses this very cleverness to cut off evasions and hence to launch himself into the commitment and to escape the disillusionments of choosing the temporal way. He does not fear the mark of the commitment that, as it were, draws the suffering over him; for he knows that this mark is the breaking through of the Eternal. He knows that in the Commitment the nerve of the temporal order is being cut, even though pain continues in the wish. There is no doubt that what often makes a sufferer impatient is that he takes upon himself in advance the suffering of a whole lifetime and now quails before what would be lighter to bear if he were to take each day’s burden as it comes.
The commitment should not Concentrate sufferings in this way. For the error is just this, that in spite of all his advance acceptance of suffering, the sufferer wins nothing that is eternal but only becomes terrified in a temporal sense. Because of the uncertainty of the temporal order, it is also true that over a period of many years a sufferer may talk himself out of the original impression of the commitment. And this is a calamity. On that account the sufferer who sincerely wills the Good knows that cleverness is a treacherous friend, and that only the commitment is fully trustworthy.
The active one will do all for the Good, the sufferer will suffer all for the Good. The similarity is that they both may be and remain committed to the Good. Only the direction in which they work is different, and this difference must not be understood as making them mutually exclusive. The active one works from without in order that the Good may conquer; even his suffering has significance from its bearing upon this goal. The true sufferer does everything inwardly (by being willing to suffer all) for the Good in order that it may conquer in him. Yet the Good must have conquered and must continue to conquer in the active one’s own heart, if he sincerely works for the Good outwardly. The true sufferer can always work for the Good outwardly by the power of example, and work effectually. For his life, just because so much is denied him, contains a great challenge to the many to whom much is given. His life when he is and remains committed to the Good, contains a severe judgment upon the many, who use in an inexcusable way the much that has been given them. Yes, even if the sufferer were denied this working by the power of example, even if he were cut off from all other men, he would still be sharing in mankind’s great common concern. On his lonely outpost he, too, would be defending a difficult pass by saving his own soul from all of the ensnaring difficulties of suffering. Although not a single man should see him, mankind feels with him, suffers with him, and conquers with him! For everywhere that the Good truly conquers, the victory is really as great whether the Good conquers in the many by means of one, or whether it conquers in a solitary forsaken one by his own efforts; in reality the victory is equally great. Oh, praised be the blessed justice of the Eternal!
Yet one thing still remains to be discussed before leaving the matter of sufferings: Can one be said to will suffering? Is not suffering something that one must be forced into against his will? If a man can be free of it, can he then will it, and if he is bound to it, can he be said to will it? If we would answer this question, let us first of all distinguish between what it is to will in the sense of inclination, and what it is to will in the noble sense of freedom. Yes, for many men it is almost an impossibility for them to unite freedom and suffering in the same thought. Hence, when they see a man of means who could spend his time easily and comfortably, when they see him straining himself as much as a scrupulous workman, exposing himself to many sufferings, choosing the burdensome way of a higher calling: they look upon him as either a fanatic or a lunatic. They all but complain that Providence has given all of these fortunate circumstances to someone that simply does not know how to make use of them. They think in their hearts even when they do not say it aloud, even when they do not consider how tragically they are betraying their own inner life: "We should have been there in his place, we should have really known how to enjoy that life." According to this, if one can be free of suffering it is either fanaticism or insanity to will it.
But what then is courage? Is it courage to go where pleasure beckons in order to see where pleasure is? Or, in order for courage to be revealed, is it not required that there be opposition (which even language seems to indicate)(The Dutch word for "courage" is Mod and for "opposition" is Modstand,[Tr.]) as though the courageous person looks the danger in the eye, even though the danger is not what the eye wants to see? To illustrate, is it not as when the courageous knight spurs his horse forward against some terrifying object? There is no tremor of fear in his eye because courage controls even the expression of the eye. Yet the knight and the horse illustrate the structure of courage. The knight is the courageous one, the horse is skittish. The horse and its skittishness answer to that which is low in a man and its skittishness is that which courage checks. In this way, courage voluntarily wills suffering. The courageous one has a treacherous opposition within himself that is in league with the opposition without. But just on that account, he is the courageous one, because in spite of it he voluntarily wills the suffering.
On the other hand (and this is what we must primarily consider, for we are speaking of the true sufferer), the sufferer can voluntarily accept that suffering which in one sense is forced upon him, in so far as he does not have it in his power to get rid of it. Can anyone but one who is free of suffering, say, "Put me in chains, I am not afraid"? Can even a prisoner say, "Of my own free will I accept my imprisonment" -- the very imprisonment which is already his condition? Here again the opinion of most men is that such a thing is impossible, and that therefore the condition of the sufferer is one of sighing despondency. But what then is patience? (The Danish word for "patience," Taalmod, contains the Danish word for "courage," Mod, and invites the discourse which follows. (Tr.) Is patience not precisely that courage which voluntarily accepts unavoidable suffering? The unavoidable is just the thing which will shatter courage. There is a treacherous opposition in the sufferer himself that is in league with the dread of inevitability, and together they wish to crush him. But in spite of this, patience submits to suffering and by just this submission finds itself free in the midst of unavoidable suffering. Thus patience, if one may put it in this way, performs an even greater miracle than courage. Courage voluntarily chooses suffering that may be avoided; but patience achieves freedom in unavoidable suffering. By his courage, the free one voluntarily lets himself be caught, but by his patience the prisoner effects his freedom -- although not in the sense that need make the jailer anxious or fearful.
The outward impossibility of ridding oneself of suffering does not hinder the inward possibility of being able really to emancipate oneself within suffering -- of one’s own free will accepting suffering, as the patient one gives his consent by willing to accept suffering. For one can be forced into the narrow prison, one can be forced into lifelong sufferings, and necessity is the tyrant; but one cannot be forced into patience. If the tyrant necessity presses upon a soul which neither possesses nor wills to possess the elasticity of freedom, then the soul becomes depressed, but it does not become patient. Patience is the counterpressure of resiliency, whereby the coerced ones are set free from restraint. Or can only the rich man be economical because he may, if he likes, be extravagant? Cannot the poor man also be economical even though he is powerless to be extravagant, even though he is forced to be -- economical? No, he cannot be forced to be economical even though he is forced to be poor. Alas, the wisdom of many men seems calculated to abolish the Good. When a person of means voluntarily chooses the hard way, then he is called strange, "he who could be so well off without working and who could indulge his every desire for comfort." And when the victim of unavoidable suffering bears it patiently, one says of him, "to his shame, he is coerced, and he is making a virtue out of a necessity." Undeniably he is making a virtue out of a necessity, that is just the secret, that is certainly a most accurate designation for what he does. He makes a virtue out of necessity. He brings a determination of freedom out of that which is determined as necessity. And it is just there that the healing power of the decision for the Eternal resides: that the sufferer may voluntarily accept the compulsory suffering. Just as it is a relief to the sufferer to open himself in confidence to a friend, so it is deliverance to the sufferer to commit himself to the Eternal even though the compulsion of necessity should press against his heart, it is deliverance to open himself to the Eternal and to consent eternally to be willing to suffer all.
For that man is captive indeed for whom a door stands open: the trapdoor of eternity! And he is indeed in bonds, who is eternally free! When Paul said, "I am a Roman citizen,"(Compare Acts 22:27-30, and 24:23.)the prefect did not dare to put him into prison, and he was placed in voluntary confinement. In like fashion when a man dares declare, "I am eternity’s free citizen," necessity cannot imprison him, except in voluntary confinement.
My listeners! If you are willing, let us recall the direction that our talk has taken. If a man should will one thing, then he must will the Good, for in this way alone was it possible for him to will a single thing. If, however, it is to be genuine, he must will the Good in truth. According to whether he is an active one or a sufferer he must be willing either to do all for the Good, or he must be willing to suffer all for the Good. He must be willing either to do all for the Good, or to be and to remain committed to the Good. But cleverness may be misused internally, to seek evasions; and misused externally in deception. The good man, on the contrary, uses cleverness to cut off all evasions and thereby to launch out and to remain constant -- in the commitment. He also uses cleverness to prevent such external deception. He must be willing to suffer all for the Good, or to be and to remain committed to the Good. And the talk went on to describe the true sufferer’s condition, because by looking at sufferings one may really learn what the highest is. Once again in regard to suffering, cleverness may be misused internally to seek ways of escape, but the Good man makes use of just this very cleverness against ways of escape, in order that he may be and remain committed to the Good, by being willing to suffer all, by accepting the enforced necessity of suffering.
But purity of heart is to will one thing. It is this thesis that has been the object of the talk which we have linked to the apostolic words: "Draw nigh to God and he will draw nigh to you, cleanse your hands, ye sinners, and purify your hearts, ye double-minded!" For commitment to the Good is a whole-souled decision, and a man cannot by the craft and the flattery of his tongue lay hold of God while his heart is far away. No, for since God is spirit and truth, a man can only draw near to Him by sincerity, by willing to be holy, as He is holy:(Compare I Peter 1-16.) by purity of heart. Purity of heart: it is a figure of speech that compares the heart to the sea, and why just to this? Simply for the reason that the depth of the sea determines its purity, and its purity determines its transparency. Since the sea is pure only when it is deep, and is transparent only when it is pure, as soon as it is impure it is no longer deep but only surface water, and as soon as it is only surface water it is not transparent. When, on the contrary, it is deeply and transparently pure, then it is all of one consistency, no matter how long one looks at it; then its purity is this constancy in depth and transparency. On this account we compare the heart with the sea, because the purity of the sea lies in its constancy of depth and transparency. No storm may perturb it; no sudden gust of wind may stir its surface, no drowsy fog may sprawl out over it; no doubtful movement may stir within it; no swift-moving cloud may darken it: rather it must lie calm, transparent to its depths. And today if you should see it so, you would be drawn upwards by contemplating the purity of the sea. If you saw it every day, then you would declare that it is forever pure -- like the heart of that man who wills but one thing. As the sea, when it lies calm and deeply transparent, yearns for heaven, so may the pure heart, when it is calm and deeply transparent, yearn for the Good. As the sea is made pure by yearning for heaven alone; so may the heart become pure by yearning only for the Good. As the sea mirrors the elevation of heaven in its pure depths, so may the heart when it is calm and deeply transparent mirror the divine elevation of the Good in its pure depths. If the least thing comes in between, between the heavens and the sea, between the heart and the Good, then it would be sheer impatience to covet the reflection. For if the sea is impure it cannot give a pure reflection of the heavens.