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 15: Conclusion: Man and the Eternal
This was the issue of the talk. But now if the individual, yes, if you, my listener, and I must admit to ourselves that we were far from living in this way, far from that purity of heart which truthfully wills but one thing; must admit to ourselves that the questions demanded an answer, and yet in another sense, in order to avoid any deception, did not require an answer, in that they were, if anything, charges against ourselves which in spite of the form of the question changed themselves into an accusation: then should the individual, and you, my listener, and I join together in saying, "Indeed our life is like that of most others"? How, then, shall we begin over again, at this time, and once more speak of the evasion which consists of being among the many? For where there are many, there is externality, and comparison, and indulgence, and excuse and evasion. Shall we, even after we have come to understand the calamity of this evasion, in the end take refuge in it? Shall we console ourselves with a common plight? Alas, even in the world of time, a common plight is a doubtful consolation; and in eternity there is no common plight. In eternity, the individual, yes, you, my listener, and I as individuals will each be asked solely about himself as an individual, and about the individual details in his life. If in this talk I have spoken poorly, then you will not be asked about that, my listener; nor will any man from whom I may have learned. For if he has stated it falsely, then he will be questioned about that and I will be made to answer for having learned from another what was false. Nor will any with whom I have had an acquaintance be made to answer. For if his acquaintance was corrupting, then he will be questioned about that, but I shall be made to answer for having sought out or not having avoided his acquaintance, and for letting myself become corrupted. No, if I have spoken poorly and just in so far as I have spoken poorly, then without any excuse whatsoever I, as an individual, will be questioned about that. For in eternity there is not the remotest thought of any common plight. In eternity, the individual, yes, you, my listener, and I as individuals will each be asked solely about himself as an individual and about the individual details in his life.
If it should so happen that in this talk I have spoken the truth, then I shall be questioned no further about this matter. There will be no questioning as to whether I have won men (quite on the contrary, it might well be asked whether I had any notion of having by my own efforts done the least thing toward winning them); no questioning as to whether, by the talk I have gained some earthly advantage (quite on the contrary, it might well be asked whether I had any notion of having myself done the least thing toward gaining it); no questioning about what results I have produced, or whether I may have produced no results at all, or whether loss and the sport that others made of me were the only results I have produced. No, eternity will release me from one and all of such foolish questions. In the world of time a man can be confused, for he does not know which is which: which question is the serious one and which the silly one, especially since the silly one is heard a thousand times to the serious question’s once. Eternity, on the other hand, can admirably distinguish between them; yet it is obvious that the thing does not become easier on that account. The seriousness of the plight is only intensified. For in eternity there is not the remotest thought of any common plight. In eternity, the individual, yes, you, my listener, and I as individuals will each be asked solely about himself as an individual, and about the individual details in his life. If it should happen that a true reflection of life is contained in this talk, if it is so that the ability and the occasion is vouchsafed me which enabled me to set it forth; yet it may also have happened, we can suppose such a case, that the circumstances under which it had to be spoken did not seem favorable. If this were so, then eternity would not inquisitively enter into any long-drawn-out discourse about circumstances. Had I remained silent, eternity would hold me as an individual to account. For in the world of time, when the task is to be clever for one’s own advantage, when worldly cleverness judges and criticizes, then unfavorable circumstances are not only a ground for silence, but silence becomes admired as cleverness; while favorable circumstances are an invitation for all to join in the conversation. On the other hand, in the eternal order, if the circumstances are difficult the obligation to speak is doubled. The difficulty is precisely an invitation. Eternally, the individual will only be asked whether he knew that they were unfavorable, and whether in this event he dared remain silent and therefore by his silence, yes, to use the proverb, by his consent, he had as an individual contributed to a condition where the circumstances became still more unfavorable for the truth. Eternally, circumstances will provide neither hiding place nor evasion for him, for he will be asked as an individual, and the difficulty of the circumstances will stand against him as a double accusation. As for remaining silent, it is not as with sleeping that he who sleeps does not sin. For in the world the individual has brought the most atrocious guilt upon himself -- through remaining silent. The fault was not that he did not manage to get the circumstances changed. The fault was that he was silent not out of discretion, which is silent when it is proper to be silent, but out of cleverness, which is silent because it is the most prudent to be so.
But what, then, shall we do, if the questions sound like accusations? Above all else, each one will himself become an individual with his responsibility to God. Each one will himself be subject to the stern judgment of this individuality. Is this not the purpose of the office of Confession? For just as little as in that silent churchyard the multitude of dead make up a society," so little does the multitude of those coming to confess make up a society -- for not even the king goes to confession alone in order to escape the common company of others. Those who are coming to confess do not belong together in a society. Each one is an individual before God. Man and wife may go to confession in beautiful fellowship with each other, but they may not confess together. The one who confesses is not in company, he is as an individual, alone before God. And if, as an individual he admits to himself that the questions, which by the help of an insignificant one’s whisper he puts to himself, are accusations, then he confesses. For one does not confess merits and achievements, he confesses sins. When one confesses, he sees at once that he has no merits. He sees that merits and achievements are fantasies and sense deceptions that are at home where one moves about in the crowd and engages others in conversation. He sees that it is just on this account that the one who never himself becomes an individual is easily tempted to consider himself a most meritorious man. But the purpose of the office of Confession is certainly not to make a man conscious of himself as an individual at the moment of its celebration, and then for the rest of the time to allow him to live outside this consciousness. On the contrary, in the moment of confession itself he should give account as to how he has lived as an individual. If the same consciousness were not demanded of him for daily use, then the demand of the office of Confession is a self-contradiction. It is as if one now and then demanded of a humble man that he should render account to himself and to God of how he had lived as a king -- he that had never been a king. And so it is to ask of a man that he shall render account of his life as an individual when one allows him to lead his life outside this consciousness.
My listener! Do you remember now, how this talk began? Let me call it back to your remembrance. It is true that the temporal order has its time; but the Eternal shall always have time. If this should not happen within a man’s life, then the Eternal comes again under another name, and once again shall always have time. This is repentance. And since at present no man’s life is lived in perfection, but each one in frailty, so Providence has given man two companions for his journey, the one calls him forward, the other calls him back. But the call of repentance is always at the eleventh hour. Therefore confession is always at the eleventh hour, but not in the sense of being precipitate. For confession is a holy act, which calls for a collected mind. A collected mind is a mind that has collected itself from every distraction, from every relation, in order to center itself upon this relation to itself as an individual who is responsible to God. It is a mind that has collected itself from every distraction, and therefore also from all comparison. For comparison may either tempt a man to an earthly and fortuitous despondency because the one who compares must admit to himself that he is behind many others, or it may tempt him to pride because, humanly speaking, he seems to be ahead of many others.
A new expression of the true extremity of the eleventh hour comes when the penitent has withdrawn himself from every relation in order to center himself upon his relation to himself as an individual. By this he becomes responsible for every relation in which he ordinarily stands, and he is outside of any comparison. The more use one makes of comparison, the more it seems that there is still plenty of time. The more a man makes use of comparison, the more indolent and the more wretched his life becomes. But when all comparison is relinquished forever then a man confesses as an individual before God -- and he is outside any comparison, just as the demand which purity of heart lays upon him is outside of comparison. Purity of heart is what God requires of him and the penitent demands it of himself before God. Yes, it is just on this account that he confesses his sins. And heavy as the way and the hour of the confession may be, yet the penitent wins the Eternal. He is strengthened in the consciousness that he is an individual, and in the task of truthfully willing only one thing. This consciousness is the strait gate sand the narrow way. For it is not this narrow way that the many take, following one after another. No, this straitness means rather that each must himself become an individual, that through this needle’s eyes he must press forward to the narrow way where no comparison cools, but yet where no comparison kills with its insidious cooling. The broad way, on the other hand, is broad because so many travel upon it. The crowd’s way is always broad. There the poisonous ornamental flower of excuses is found in bloom. The inviting hiding places of evasion are there. There comparison wafts its cooling breath of air. This way leadeth not unto life.
Only the individual can truthfully will the Good, and even though the penitent toils heavily not merely in the eleventh hour of confession, with all the questions standing as accusations of himself, but also in their daily use in repentance, yet the way is the right one. For he is in touch with the demand that calls for purity of heart by willing only one thing.
If you, my listener, unquestionably know much more concerning the office of Confession than has been set forth here; if you know the next thing that follows upon the confession of sins, still this extended talk has not been in vain if it has made you pause, made you pause before something that you already know well, you, who know so much more. But do not forget, that the most terrible thing of all is to "live on, deceived, not by what one might expect to be deceived (alas, and on that account horribly deceived) but deceived by too much knowledge." Consider that in these times it is a particularly great temptation for speakers to leave the individual as quickly as possible in order to get as much as possible said, so that nobody might suspect that the speaker did not know what every man in a Christian country knows. Alas, only God knows how the individual, knows it. But what does it profit a man if he goes further and further and it must be said of him: he never stops going further; when it also must be said of him: there was nothing that made him pause? For pausing is not a sluggish repose. Pausing is also movement. It is the inward movement of the heart. To pause is to deepen oneself in inwardness. But merely going further is to go straight in the direction of superficiality. By that way one does not come to will only one thing. Only if at some time he decisively stopped going further and then again came to a pause, as he went further, only then could he will only one thing. For purity of heart was to will one thing.
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 the 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 daily 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.