II: According to Kierkegaard

Simply Put Parables

To the best of my knowledge, Søren Kierkegaard (Denmark, 1813-55) is the major thinker from Christian history who has given the most (and most effective) attention to the doctrine that we have been calling "the simple life." Such a claim must come as a shock to most people, scholars as well as laymen, because Kierkegaard generally is known as a sophisticated, super-intellectual philosopher, the father of existentialism, a precursor of depth psychology, a theoretical aesthetician, and goodness knows what all--yet anything but a down-to-earth, Bible-believing Christian majoring in the simple life.

But the customary picture of Kierkegaard is wrong--although this is not the place to argue that matter through to a conclusion.4

We shall see another side of Kierkegaard now; and it represents the man in his truest identity and in the witness he was most concerned to make. In that connection, we can note one tiny, but impressive, bit of evidence. An index has been compiled that catalogs the scripture references Kierkegaard used throughout his writings. From it, two things are readily apparent. First, Kierkegaard used the Bible a very great deal, referring to passages scattered from Genesis to Revelation and pausing frequently for more extended exposition. And second, rather clearly, out of all the texts to which he gave attention, the one that drew his most sustained and concentrated interest was Mt. 6:19-34, the very simple-life passage from the Sermon on the Mount we used as the basis of our second chapter.5

In a very real sense, then, the fact that our study now shifts from "According to Jesus and Company" to "According to Kierkegaard" does not represent any radical disjuncture at all. Our focus still is upon the New Testament teaching; it is only that we are inviting Kierkegaard to share with us his understanding of the matter.

One beauty of Kierkegaard's work is his skill in inventing parables that illuminate and drive home the point he wants to make. Several of his best center on our topic, the simple life. Let's look at them.

The Lighted Carriage and the Star-lit Night

We quoted and used this parable at the very outset of our book, and it hardly is necessary to repeat it here. We should, however, remember to include it as Perhaps the first of the parables of Kierkegaard.

Late for Church

This little story obviously does not get to the heart of what the simple life is all about; but it can help us realize how far we actually are from living that life.

Money, money--this is earnestness. So we are brought up, from earliest childhood, trained in ungodly money worship. Permit me to cite an example, the first, the best among thousands and thousands--there are not more herring ahead of a boat working its way through a shoal of herring than there are examples of up-bringing in money-worship. Think of a household in which the head of the family recommends that on the next day (which is Sunday) all of them go to church together. But what happens? Sunday morning finds the girls not dressed in time. What does the father say then--earnest father, who earnestly brings up his children to worship money? Yes, he naturally says nothing, or as good as nothing, because there is no occasion here for a warning or a reprimand; he just says, "If the girls are not ready, we have to stay home; there is nothing else to do." But imagine, imagine how terrible it would be if the girls were to have gone to the theatre and they were not ready at the appointed time. How do you imagine this earnest father would carry on then, and why? Because in this case they had wasted considerable money; whereas by staying at home on Sunday they had saved at least the offering money.6
The Anxious Lily and the Helpful Bird

This story takes off from Jesus' remark about the lilies of the field and the birds of the air and is a valid exposition of it. Even so, Kierkegaard's story is away out from the lilies and birds that Jesus was talking about.

There was once a lily that stood quite apart, near a little running brook, and was well acquainted with some nettles as well as a few other small flowers there in the neighborhood. The lily was, according to the Gospel's veracious description, more beautifully arrayed than Solomon in all his glory, besides being carefree and happy the whole day long....
But it happened one day that a little bird came and visited the lily; it came again the next day, and then it remained away for several days before it came again; which impressed the lily as being strange and inexplicable, inexplicable that the bird should not stay in the same place, like the small flowers--strange that the bird could be so capricious. But as so often happens, so too it happened to the lily, that because the bird was so capricious, the lily fell more and more in love with it.
This little bird was a bad bird; instead of putting itself in the place of the lily, instead of rejoicing with it in its beauty and innocent happiness, the bird wished to make itself important by feeling its own freedom, and by making the lily feel its bondage. And not only this, the little bird was also talkative, and it would tell all kinds of stories, true and false, about how there were, in other places, very unusually magnificent lilies in great abundance; how there were joy and gaiety, fragrance, brilliant coloring, a song of birds, which far surpassed all description.
So the lily became troubled; the more it listened to the bird the more troubled it became.... Now it began to occupy itself with itself and with the circumstances of its life in its self-concern--so long was the day.... Said the lily, "My wish is not an unreasonable desire; I do not ask the impossible, to become what I am not, a bird, for example; my desire is only to become a splendid lily, or even the most splendid one.
At last it confided absolutely in the bird. One evening they agreed that the next morning a change should take place that would put an end to the concern. Early the next morning came the little bird; with its beak it cut the soil away from the lily's roots, so that it might thus become free. When this was accomplished, the bird took the lily under its wing and flew away. The intention was, of course, that the bird would take the lily to where the magnificent lilies bloomed; then the bird would again assist in getting it planted down there, to see if, through the change of soil and the new environment, the lily might not succeed in becoming a magnificent lily in company with the many, or possibly even an imperial lily, envied by all the others.
Alas, on the way the lily withered. If the discontented lily had been satisfied to be lily, then it would not have become concerned; if it had not become concerned, then it would have remained standing where it was--where it stood in all its beauty; had it remained standing, then it would have been precisely the lily about which the preacher spoke on Sunday, when he repeated the Gospel's words: "Consider the lily.... I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like it."
And if a man, like the lily, is satisfied with the fact of being human, then he does not become ill from temporal concern; and if he does not become temporally concerned, then he continues to stand in the place appointed to him; and if he remains there, then it is truly so, that through being human he is more glorious than the glory of Solomon.7

Although that parable rightfully can be related to Jesus' "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink..." (Mt. 6:25), its main thrust stands even closer to Paul's, "Let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you" (1 Cor. 7:17). Kierkegaard's story supports our critique of contemporary liberationist movements for defining liberation solely in terms of changing one's external circumstances, without any comprehension of that liberation which can rise above circumstances without changing them.

Elsewhere, Kierkegaard makes the point even more telling, commenting directly upon Paul's text:

Thus if one who is born a slave, in compliance with the Apostle's heartfelt admonition (for Christ did not come in order to abolish slavery, although this will follow and will be a result of His coming), he is not concerned about it, and merely chooses freedom if it is offered: then he bears the heavy burden lightly. How heavy this burden is, the unhappy slave knows best, and human sympathy understands it with him. If he groans under the burden, as humanity groans with him, then he bears the burden heavily. If he patiently submits to his fate, and patiently hopes for freedom, then he still does not bear the burden lightly. But the meek, who has had the courage really to believe in spiritual freedom, bears the heavy burden lightly: he neither relinquishes the hope of freedom, nor does he expect it. The question which is rightly called decisive, the question about freedom, the question which for a slave-born individual may indeed be called a vital question of being or not being. This mortal or life-giving question the meek handles so easily, as if it did not concern him, and yet, in another way, so easily that in a way it does concern him, for he says, "My being born a slave does not concern me, but if I can become free, then would I preferably choose that." To bite at the chain is to bear it heavily, to ridicule the chain is also to bear it heavily; patiently to endure the chain is still not bearing it lightly, but, slave-born, to bear the bond of slavery as a free man may carry a chain--that is bearing it lightly.8

The Wild Dove and the Tame

This story of the anxious bird is a twin of the Parable of the anxious lily presented above. It, too, derives from Jesus' remark but, in this case, comes closer to what was actually emphasizing at that point, namely, that man can depend upon God's providence and thus need not be anxious in striving to construct security for himself out of his own resources.

There was once a stock dove; in the grim forest, there where wonder also dwells with terror among the straight, solitary trunks, it had its nest. But near by, where the smoke arose from the farmer's chimney, there dwelt some of its more distant relations, some tame doves. It frequently met with a pair of these; that is, it sat on a branch over hanging the farmer's yard; the two tame doves sat on the ridge of the roof; however, the distance between them was not so great but that they could exchange thoughts with each other in conversation....
The stock dove said, "So far I have had my living; I let each day have its own worry and in that way I get through the world."
The tame doves had listened carefully.... Thereupon one answered: "Now we support ourselves differently; with us, that is to say, with the rich farmer with whom we live, one has his future assured. When harvest time comes, then one of us, my mate or I, sits up on the roof and watches. Then the farmer drives one load of grain after another into the barn, and when he has driven so many in that I can no longer keep count, then I know that there are supplies enough for a long time, I know it from experience....
The stock-dove went home and thought the matter over more closely; it occurred to it at once that it must be very gratifying thus to know that one's subsistence was assured for a long time, while, on the contrary, it was indeed wretched to live thus constantly in uncertainty, so one never dares to say that one knows that one is provided for....
Next morning it awakened earlier than usual, and was now so busy gathering together, that it scarcely got time to eat or to eat its fill.... However, no essential change took place with respect to its living.... But it had conceived a future need; its peace of mind was lost--it had acquired anxiety for the necessities of life. From now on the stock dove became concerned, its feathers lost their sheen, its flight its ease....
At last it devised a cunning plan. One day it flew over and sat on the ridge of the farmer's roof between the tame doves. When it noticed that there was a place where these flew in, it also flew in, for the storeroom must certainly be there. But when the farmer came in the evening and locked the dove cote, he at once discovered the strange dove. This he then put in a little box by itself until the next day, when it was killed--and freed from anxiety for the necessities of life....
Had the stock dove been content to be what it was--a bird of the air, then it would have had its living, then would the heavenly Father have fed it, then, in the event of uncertainty, it would have been where it belonged, there where the straight, solitary, somber trunks are in good understanding with the cooing trill of the stock-dove; then it would have been the one of which the preacher spoke on Sunday, when he repeated the Gospel words: "Behold the fowls of the air, which neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them."
If the heavenly Father feeds [a person], then he is indeed without anxiety for his subsistence, then he lives not only like the tame doves with the rich peasant, but he lives with that one who is richer than all. He actually dwells with Him, for when heaven and earth are God's house and possession, then man indeed dwells with Him.
It means this: being satisfied with being human, being satisfied with being the humble, the creature, who can just as little support himself as he can create himself. If, on the other hand, man is willing to forget God--and support himself: then we have a care for the necessities of life. It is certainly laudable and pleasing to God that a man sows and harvests and gathers into barns, that he works to find food; but if he is willing to forget God and to believe that he supports himself with his labor, then he becomes uneasy about his livelihood. The richest man who ever lived, if he forgets God, and believes that he supports himself by his labor, has financial anxieties.
To be dependent on his own wealth, that is dependence and heavy bondage; to be dependent on God, absolutely dependent, that is independence. The worried stock dove foolishly feared to remain absolutely dependent on God, therefore it ceased to be independent and to be the symbol of independence; ceased to be the poor bird of the air, which is absolutely dependent on God. Dependence on God is the only independence, for God has no heaviness; only the earthly and especially the earthly treasure has that.9

The Fireworks and the Stars

Human ingenuity has invented a great many things to amuse and divert the mind, and yet the law for this kind of invention mocks the fruitless striving by the self-contradiction of the diversion. The art itself is at the service of impatience; more and more impatiently it learns to compress the multitude of diversions into a short-lived moment: the more this ingenuity increases the more it works against itself, since it appears that as the ingenuity increases, the diversion constantly lasts for a shorter and shorter time.
Let us take an example, where the vain and worldly diversion shows itself as slight and self-contradictory as it is. Fireworks indeed delight the eye and divert the mind when the elaborate, blazing ephemerality is lighted in the darkness of the night. And yet, if it lasts merely one hour the spectator grows weary; if but one brief moment intervenes before each new ignition, then the spectator grows weary. The task of ingenuity is therefore to speed it up faster and faster; the highest, the most perfect performance consists in burning the whole display in a very few minutes. But if the purpose of the diversion is to while away the time, then the contradiction appears clearly.
As those antic flames blaze and immediately vanish into nothing, so must the soul be of him who knows only such diversions: in the moment of diversion he despairs over the length of time it takes.
Ah, how different are the godly diversions! For have you ever seen the star-lit heavens, and have you ever found any more authentic spectacle! ... As God makes Himself invisible, alas, because of that there are many who perhaps have never really noticed Him: so the starry heaven makes itself, as it were, insignificant; alas, perhaps that is the reason why there are so many who have never really seen it. The divine Majesty disdains the visible, false obviousness.... Its persuasiveness increases with every moment; more and more movingly it draws you away from the temporal; what is to be forgotten sinks into deeper and deeper oblivion with every moment you continue to observe the starry heavens.10

The things of the world, like fireworks, are diversions that share all the shortcomings and futility of diversions. Simplicity, on the other hand, is like a view of the starry heavens. Kierkegaard's analogy underlines a point we insisted upon earlier. The starry heavens do not represent simplicity itself, as though one were to contemplate simplicity and find his reward in doing so. No, the starry heavens represent God himself, and simplicity is valued only as a means to that seeing. But neither Kierkegaard nor the Bible has any opinion about a simplicity that is treated as an end in itself, detached from and without reference to the vision of God.

It's the Life Insights

This chapter consists of some of Kierkegaard's comments on the simple life, gathered from hither and yon throughout his writings. They have then been excerpted, condensed, pulled into some semblance of order, introduced, and commented upon for presentation here.

From Egghead to Simple Christian

Kierkegaard's reputation as a super-egghead is, as we have suggested, off the mark; but it is not entirely without basis. He could and did write that way--and about the simple life even. Yet it was not that he was confused, or that he was entranced with high-falutin language; he knew what he was doing (or at least trying to do).

He was working at what he called "indirect communication." His theory was that, in order to communicate with a person, you must first catch him where he is--even if this is not the level on which ultimately you desire to get at him. The trick, then, is to catch his attention through indirect communication and then, with it, lead him to the place where you can address your real concern to him directly. And Kierkegaard knew that there are many people who will not give serious attention to anything unless it is put in very sophisticated terms; so he was willing to talk that way--at least to begin with.

All five of the quotations below are saying pretty much the same thing (and the same thing our first two chapters were saying); but no one would ever guess it simply by comparing their outward forms. The first two are couched in highly rationalized, philosophical terms, with no reference to the Bible and with even the references to God being very much disguised.

But although it runs contrary to the way many moderns value things, Kierkegaard would have insisted that the last three quotations are much the truer statements of what he has in mind. Real Christian experience, he maintained, does not begin with a simple, biblical, down-to-earth faith that then progresses to the higher and truer level of a more formal and abstract theo-philosophical understanding. Quite the reverse, one grows into Christianity by becoming ever more simple and concrete. The first two quotations are from a work Kierkegaard did not publish under his own name but which he ascribed to a pseudonym who deliberately was portrayed as being less than a Christian. Kierkegaard specified the book as being an example of his "indirect communication."

Kierkegaard's very career as an author, then, is a powerful witness to his understanding of the simple life--and that in an area we might tend to overlook, namely, simplicity in thought and expression.

Now if for any individual an eternal happiness is his highest good, this will mean that all finite satisfactions are volitionally relegated to the status of what may have to be renounced in favor of an eternal happiness.11

It is important to note that, whenever Kierkegaard speaks of "the eternal" (either here or elsewhere), he customarily means this as a designation of God himself. Likewise, then, "an eternal happiness" refers, not simply to pie in the sky bye and bye, but to the happiness attendant upon one's relationship to God--which, of course, can begin at any time and continue through all times.

In order that the individual may sustain an absolute relationship to the absolute telos he must first have exercised himself in the renunciation of relative ends, and only then can there be a question of the ideal task: the simultaneous maintenance of an absolute relationship to the absolute, and a relative relationship to the relative.12
When it is said, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God," it is required above all that man seek not first something else. But what is this "something else" he seeks? It is the temporal. If then he is to seek first God's kingdom, he must freely renounce every temporal goal.13
God's kingdom only can be sought when it is sought first; he who does not seek God's kingdom first does not seek it at all.14

But if a man seeks the kingdom of God first--"then shall all these things be added unto him"; they shall be added unto him, for there is only one thing which must be sought: the kingdom of God; neither the thousands of the rich nor the penny of the poor is to be sought--this shall be added unto you.15

The Potential for Simplicity

In this group of quotations, Kierkegaard seems to be speaking of a fundamental order of simplicity that lies within human nature even prior to its expression in simple living or action. Such a judgment is correct but hardly adequate to Kierkegaard's idea. He makes it plain that, merely in following natural instinct, man's life does not express simplicity; the natural drift is all toward shrewdness, cunning, and complexity. It is only through God and with his help that man can get back to the basic primitiveness for which he was created.

Every man has a basic primitive disposition (for primitiveness is the possibility of "spirit"). God knows this best, for it is he who has created it.
All earthly, temporal, worldly cleverness tends to destroy its own primitiveness.* Christianity aims at following it.
Destroy your own primitiveness and in all probability you will get through the world well, perhaps even be a success--but eternity will denounce you. Follow your primitiveness, you will fail in the temporal world; but eternity will accept you...
*[in the margin]: By primitiveness Christianity of course does not mean all that trumpery of intellectuality, being a genius, and the like. No, primitiveness, spirit, means to stake one's life, first, first, first on the kingdom of God. The more literally a man can take this in his actions, the greater is his primitiveness.16
There is only one thing which overcomes, which more than overcomes, from the very beginning has endlessly overcome, all cunning, that is the simplicity of the gospel, which in its simplicity lets itself be deceived as it were, and yet continues to be the simple. And this too is the edifying feature of the gospel's simplicity, that the evil could not prevail over it to the point of making it wish to be shrewd. Verily the evil has won a victory, and a very serious victory, when it has prompted simplicity to wish to be shrewd... for the sake of making itself secure. For simplicity is made secure, eternally secure, only by letting itself in its simplicity be deceived, however clearly it sees through the deceit.17

Simplicity Is the Choosing of God

When the physician sees that it is all over with the sick man, then one can immediately hear it in his voice--he speaks in passing in a half-whisper, evasively. But, on the contrary, when the physician sees that he can do much, especially that the sick man himself can do much, then he speaks incisively--the severity itself is precisely his admission....
We can speak in many ways about the lilies and the birds; we may speak mildly, movingly, charmingly, affectionately, almost as a poet speaks.... But when the Gospel speaks with authority, then it speaks with the earnestness of eternity, then there is no more time to hang about dreaming of the lily, or to look wistfully after the bird.
"No man can serve two masters." And here there can be no doubt about what two the saying refers to.... The speech cannot be about his relation to men, about serving a master as his servant, or a wise man as his disciple, but only about serving God or the world.... "He must either hate the one and love the other, or he must hold to the one and despise the other." Consequently love to God is hatred to the world, and love for the world is hatred toward God; consequently this is the tremendous issue--either love or hate. Hence this is the place where the world's most terrible conflict is to be fought. And where is this place? In a man's heart....
Now the sadness is indeed forgotten over the terrible nature of the conflict, but then we reach the glorious thing: that the man is granted a choice.... A choice. Do you know, my hearer, how in a single word to express anything more glorious; do you know, if you were to talk year out and year in, how to name anything more glorious than a choice, than having a choice! For it is indeed true that the one happiness still consists in choosing rightly, but the choice itself is still the glorious condition. What does the maiden care about a catalogue of all her intended's excellent qualities, if she herself may not choose; and on the other hand, what more glorious thing does she know to say than when she says, whether others praise the beloved's many perfections or mention his many faults, "He is my heart's choice!"....
God and the world. Do you know anything greater to set together for a choice! Do you know any more overwhelming and humbling expression of God's indulgence and pardon towards man, than that He sets Himself, in a certain sense, on an equal line of choice with the world, merely in order to allow the man to choose? That God, if language may venture to speak in this way, sets the man free, that He, the eternal Strength, sets free the weak man, for the stronger always frees the weaker....
Man must choose; for thus God holds Himself in honor, while He also has a fatherly solicitude for the man. If God has condescended to be that which may be chosen, then man must also choose--God will not suffer Himself to be mocked. Therefore is it truly so that if a man refrains from choosing, then this is the same thing as presumptuously choosing the world?....
No one is to be able to say, "God and mammon, since they are not so unconditionally different, one may in his choice combine both"--for this is to refrain from choosing.... No one is able to say, "One can choose a little mammon, and then God too." No, oh, no, that is impudent blasphemy, if anyone were to think that only the one who asks much money, chooses mammon. Ah, the one who asks a farthing without God, a farthing he wishes to have for himself, he chooses mammon.
It is precisely God's presence in the choice which posits the choice: between God and mammon.... What is the man to choose? He is to choose the kingdom of God and His righteousness.... The right beginning begins with seeking the kingdom of God first; it begins therefore precisely with letting the world be lost.... There is no time to gather riches in advance, there is no time to reflect on this question, there is no time to lay lip a penny in advance, for the beginning is: to seek first the kingdom of God.... He who does not seek it first, does not seek it at all, indifferently, absolutely indifferently, whether he goes to seek a penny or a million.
"God's kingdom and His righteousness." Through the latter the former is described. For God's kingdom is "righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." ... Let then the lily wither, and its beauty become unrecognizable; let the blade of grass fall to earth and the bird fly away; let darkness be upon the fields: God's kingdom does not change with the changing years! Let then the "rest" be needed for a long or short time, let it come abundantly or scantily; let "all these things" have their moment, when they are dispensed with or possessed, their moment as the subject for discussion, until they are eternally forgotten in death: God's kingdom is still that which is to be sought first, but which shall also endure through all eternities to the last.18

To choose God is all-important; but in the following we learn that one reason this is so is because God is the only Master, himself the one true integer, the choice of whom will serve to integrate the chooser as well.

There is only one master whom a man can serve wholly. For in the choice between two masters it is not true that if only a man chooses one of the two and then serves him, no matter which, lie is thus serving only one master.
It is not true therefore that one who has chosen to serve mammon wholly, serves only one master; against his will he is none the less in the service of the other master, in the Lord's service.... No, a man who has chosen to serve another master than "the Master," however desperate and determined his will may be, remains nevertheless in the service of two masters. And just this self-contradiction is his punishment, the contradiction of willing the impossible--for it is impossible to serve two masters....
The Christian serves only one Master; and he not merely serves Him but loves Him, he loves the LORD his God with all his heart and with all his strength. Just for this reason he serves Him wholly; for only love unites wholly, unites the most diverse parties in love, and in this instance unites man to God who is love. Love is the firmest of all bonds, for it makes the lover one with the beloved; more firmly no bond can bind, or so firmly can no bond bind. And the love which loves God is the bond of perfectness, which in perfect obedience makes man one with the God he loves. And the love which loves God is the most beneficial bond, which by keeping a man wholly in God's service saves him from anxieties. This love unifies a man, it makes him eternally in agreement with himself and with the Master who is one; and it unifies a man in likeness to God....
This properly is the hymn of praise, the paean, the song of songs: by joyful and unconditional obedience to praise God when one cannot understand Him. To praise Him upon the day when all goes against thee, when it becomes dark before thine eyes, when others perhaps could easily prove to thee that no God exists--then instead of assuming an air of importance by proving that there is a God, humbly to prove that thou dost believe that God exists, to prove it by joyful and unconditional obedience - that is the hymn of praise. The hymn is not something higher than obedience, but obedience is the only true hymn of praise; in obedience the hymn consists, and if the hymn is truth, it is obedience.19

The choice is one that integrates the chooser; but in order for it to do so, Kierkegaard now tells us, that choice must be entirely voluntary.

Voluntarily to give up all is Christianity.... It is actually true that Christianity requires the Christian to give up and forsake all things. This was not required in Old Testament times.... But in fact Christianity is also the religion of freedom, it is precisely the voluntary which is the Christian. Voluntarily to give up all is to be convinced of the glory of the good that Christianity promises....
There was a time in Christendom when people thought they could do penance by actually forsaking all things, by fleeing to the solitude of the desert, or seeking to be persecuted in the swarming city. There is another way of doing penance, that of being thoroughly sincere towards God.... I do not know that anywhere it is unconditionally required of a man in Christendom that to be a Christian and to become blessed he must in a literal sense forsake everything, or even sacrifice his life, be executed for the sake of Christianity. But this I know, that with an insincere man God can have nothing to do.20

The above point is crucial. It specifies that if one chooses God out of any motivation other than the sheer fact that he wants to, that he loves God for His own sake, that his desire lies totally in the choosing of God. Unless this is the motivation, none of the rest follows. Thus, God cannot be chosen out of a sense of obligation, under the pressure of fear, according to legalistic prescription, or as a scheme to win some other benefit. Voluntary, sincere desire marks the only true choice.

The quotation to follow goes on to point out that this choice necessarily manifests itself as absolute obedience--as absolutely voluntary obedience, it goes without saying.

If God were to speak or could speak of Himself as if He were not absolutely No.1, as if He were not the only one, absolutely everything, but merely another something or another, one who indulged the hope that he also might perhaps be taken into account along with other things--in such case God would have lost Himself, lost the notion of what He is, and He would not be God....
There is one thing the lilies and the birds absolutely do not understand, namely, half-measures--which, alas, most men understand best. That a little disobedience, that this might not be absolute disobedience, is something the lilies and the birds cannot and will not understand. That the least, the very least disobedience, might in truth have any other name than ... contempt of God--that the lilies and the birds cannot and will not understand....
Though the place allotted the lily is as disadvantageous as possible, so that it easily can be foreseen that it will be entirely superfluous all its life long, not be noticed by any one who might rejoice in it; though the place and the environment is (why, here I have forgotten that it is the lily I am talking about!)--is so "desperately" disadvantageous that not only is it not sought out but is avoided, nevertheless the obedient lily puts up obediently with its circumstances and shoots up in all its beauty. We men, or a man in the situation of the lily, would surely say, "It is hard, it is not to be endured, when one is a lily and beautiful as a lily, then to be allotted a place in such a situation, to bloom there in an environment which is as unfavorable as possible."
But the lily thinks differently, it thinks thus: "I myself have not been able to determine the situation and the circumstances, and so it is not in the remotest way my affair; that I stand where I stand is God's will." ... For the lily is, in spite of the environment, itself, because it is absolutely obedient to God; and because it is absolutely obedient to God, therefore it is absolutely carefree, as only the absolutely obedient (especially under such conditions) can be. And because it is fully and completely itself, and absolutely carefree (two things which correspond to one another directly and inversely), therefore it is beautiful. Only by absolute obedience can one with absolute accuracy hit upon the "spot" where one is to stand, and when one hits upon it absolutely one understands that it is absolutely indifferent whether the spot be a dunghill....
If thou art absolutely obedient to God, then there is no ambiguity in thee, and if there is no ambiguity in thee, then art thou mere simplicity before God. But one thing there is which all Satan's cunning and all the snares of temptation cannot take by surprise, and that is simplicity. What Satan spies with keenness of sight as his prey (but what never is found in the lilies and the birds), what all temptation aims at, certain of its prey (but what never is found in the lilies and the birds)--is the ambiguous. Where the ambiguous is, there is temptation, and there it proves only too easily the stronger. But where the ambiguous is, there also, in one way or another, is disobedience down at the bottom.... But the man who with absolute obedience hides himself in God is absolutely safe; from his hiding-place he can see the devil, but the devil cannot see him.21
That obedience, as an escape from ambiguity, is itself the source of man's true freedom ... this is indeed a thought to ponder. Yet, still on the theme of obedience, Kierkegaard tells us now that the first movement indicated is not to get out and do thus and so but to become quiet so that God can speak his will and be heard.
"Seek ye first God's kingdom and his righteousness." What does this mean, what have I to do, or what sort of effort is it that can be said to seek or pursue the kingdom of God? Shall I try to get a job suitable to my talents and powers in order thereby to exert an influence? No, thou shalt first seek God's kingdom. Shall I then give all my fortune to the poor? No, thou shalt first seek God's kingdom. Shall l then go out to proclaim this teaching to the world? No, thou shalt first seek God's kingdom. But then a certain sense it is nothing I shall do. Yes, certainly, in a certain sense it is nothing; thou shalt in the deepest sense make thyself nothing, become nothing before God, learn to keep silent; in this silence is the beginning, which is, first to seek God's kingdom.
It is man's superiority over the beast to be able to speak; but in relation to God it can easily become the ruin of man who is able to speak that he is too willing to speak.
This the true man of prayer knows well, and he who was not the true man of prayer learned perhaps precisely this by praying.... In proportion as he because more and more earnest in prayer, he had less and less to say, and in the end he became quite silent. He became silent--indeed, what is if possible still more expressly the opposite of speaking, he became a hearer. He had supposed that to pray is to speak; he learnt that to pray is not merely to be silent but to hear. And so it is; to pray is not to hear oneself speak, but it is to be silent, and to remain silent, to wait, until the man who prays hears God.... Not as though prayer always began with silence (which we have seen is not the case), but when prayer has really become prayer it has become silence. Seek first God's kingdom--that means, Pray! ...
That thou in silence mightest forget thyself, what thy name is, thine own name, the renowned name, the pitiful name, the insignificant name, for the sake of praying in silence to God, "Hallowed be Thy name!" That thou in silence mightest forget thyself, thy plans, the great, the all-comprehensive plans, or the petty plans regarding thy life and its future, for the sake of praying in silence to God, "Thy kingdom come!" That thou in silence mightest forget thy will, thy self-will, for the sake of praying in silence to God, "Thy will be done!" Yea, if thou couldst learn from the lilies and the birds to become perfectly silent before God, what might not the Gospel help thee to accomplish, then nothing would be impossible for thee!22
And thus to choose so completely that all other concerns and interests are forsaken and fall into silence ... this is the highest praise man can give to God.
In case there was a lover who with the most beautiful and glowing expressions extolled his lady's perfection and superiority, and there was another lover who said not a single word about this, but only, "Behold, for her sake I have forsaken all"--which of these two spoke most gloriously in her praise? For nothing runs so fast as the tongue, and nothing is easier than to let the tongue run, and only this is equally easy: by the help of the tongue to run away from oneself, in what one says to be many, many thousand miles ahead of oneself. If therefore thou wouldst extol Christianity--oh, do not wish for thyself the tongues of angels, nor the art of all the poets, nor the eloquence of all orators: in the same degree that thy life shows how much thou hast forsaken for the sake of it, in that same degree dost thou extol Christianity.23

The Difficulty of Doing It Right

In one sense the simple life is so easy--just choosing God and letting other things fall into place. But in another sense it is so difficult, because it actually involves a denying of one's self and a following of Christ. Yet, easy or difficult, the outcome is the greatest.

To bear one's cross means to deny one's self.... To deny one's self is a slow and burdensome task.... One good deed, one high-minded resolution, does not constitute self-denial.... Christ did not say to the rich young man, "If you wish to be perfect, then sell all your goods and give the money to the poor." ... He says, "Go away and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and come, take up the cross and follow me" (Mk. 10:21). Hence, the fact of selling one's goods and giving the money to the poor is not taking up the cross, or it is at most the beginning, the good beginning.... It is, since the language permits an innocent ingenuousness: taking up the cross. The next step, the long continued process is, to bear one's cross. It must be done daily, not once for all; and there must be nothing, nothing that the disciple is not willing to give up in self-denial.
Perhaps there was someone willing to do what the rich young man did not do, in the hope of thereby perfecting the highest, and yet who did not become a disciple because he stood still, "turned and looked back"--at his great achievement; or, if he did go forward, still did not become a disciple, because he thought he had done something so great that trivialities did not matter.
To follow Christ, then, means denying one's self, and hence it means walking the same way as Christ walked in the humble form of a servant--needy, forsaken, mocked, not loving worldliness and not loved by the worldly minded.... In the crucial pressure of life, it seems a difficult, an impossible thing to live in such a way; impossible even to decide whether anyone actually does live this way. But let us not forget that it is eternity which is to judge how the task was performed.
The proof that the eternal happiness exists is quite gloriously set forth by Paul; for there can be absolutely no doubt that without it he would have been the most wretched of men! If, on the other hand, a man seeks to assure himself in this world, seeks to secure himself the advantage of this world, then is his assurance that there is an eternal happiness hereafter not quite convincing; it scarcely convinces others, it has scarcely convinced himself.24

Simplicity for the Poor

The sheer fact that one is poor is not in itself any indication that he is living in Christian simplicity and thus knows the truth of Jesus' "Be not anxious!" Indeed, poverty can carry a particular anxiety of its own.

What is the anxiety of poverty if it is not that of desiring to be rich? ... To be without anxiety, yea, that is a difficult gait to go, almost like walking upon the water; but if thou art able to believe, it can nevertheless be done.... So it is the Christian goes his gait; he turns his eyes upward, he looks away from danger, in poverty he is without the anxiety of poverty. But he who desires to be rich--his thought is constantly upon the ground, with his anxiety about earthly things; he walks with bowed head, looking constantly before him, if perchance he might find riches.25

Yet true Christian simplicity can free the poor man from his anxiety and even make him rich.

What shall we eat? Or, What shall we drink? After all these things do the heathen seek; for the Christian does not have this anxiety.... We are talking about the Christian who is poor, about the poor Christian. He is poor, but he has not this anxiety, so is poor and yet not poor.... What then does the poor Christian live on? On the daily bread.... But therefore he has also, however poor he may be, something more to live on than the daily bread, which to him has an added flavor, a value, a satisfying quality; ... for the Christian indeed prays for it, and so he knows that the daily bread is from God....
He says, "For me it is enough, it is from Him, that is, from God." ... He believes that he has a Father in heaven who every day openeth His bountiful hand and fillest all things living (him included) with blessing; yet what he seeks is not the satisfaction of his appetite, it is the heavenly Father.... He constantly bears in mind that a life of holiness was led here on earth in poverty, that "He" was hungry in the desert and thirsted on the cross; so that not only can one live in poverty, but in poverty one can live. Hence he prays, it is true, for the daily bread, and gives thanks for it, but to pray and give thanks is to him more important than food, and is indeed his meat, as it was Christ's "meat to do the Father's will." ...
To be able to pray and to give thanks is precisely to be existent for God.... And [the poor Christian's] riches indeed increase with every time he prays and gives thanks, with every time it becomes clearer that he exists for God and God for him; whereas earthly riches become poorer and poorer with every time the rich man forgets to pray and to give thanks....
But then indeed the poor Christian is rich? Yes, certainly he is rich, and thou shalt recognize him by the fact that he does not wish to talk about his earthly poverty, but rather of his heavenly riches.... The Christian shares as it were with God; he lets God take thought for meat and drink and all such things, while he seeks God's kingdom and His righteousness.26

Simplicity for the Rich

Kierkegaard here essays to tread the very tricky territory we tried to navigate earlier. The simple life dare not be defined simply as an arbitrary ceiling regarding how much a man may own and still be a Christian. Yet neither dare it become the license for a person to gather everything his heart desires and claim. God's approval in doing it.

One thing is quite arbitrary and that is to make poverty into piety, as though it were something in itself.... It is quite a different matter when poverty is related to an idea, in the service of which man places his life.27
It is not given to everyone, nor is everyone asked unconditionally to live, in the strictest sense of the word, in poverty and abasement. But he must be honest, he must openly admit that that is above him, and so take a childlike joy in the gentler conditions, since ultimately grace is the same for all. But the situation must not be twisted around; people must not be conceited and say, "it is more perfect to include worldliness."28

Kierkegaard makes a good point here: If a Christian finds it necessary and permissible to retain a degree of worldly wealth, let him at least be honest enough to recognize that he is indulging the faith. But it is sheer hypocrisy when many Christians keep their wealth and then make out as if it were a reward for their faithfulness and a mark of God's blessing.

Yet, in our next selection, he goes on to argue that, although the gospel may not require a literal making of oneself poor as the only way to Christian simplicity, it nevertheless is the case that literal poverty represents the surest and safest way there.

Christianity has never taught that to be literally a lowly man is synonymous with being a Christian, nor that from the literal condition of lowliness there is direct transition as a matter of course to becoming a Christian; neither has it taught that if the man of worldly position were to give up all his power, he therefore would be a Christian. But from literal lowliness to the point of becoming a Christian there is however only one step. The position of being literally a lowly man is by no means an unfavorable preparation for becoming a Christian; the position of being in possession of the advantages of outward circumstance is a circuitous path which for the more scrupulous makes necessary a double preparation.
One who has the advantages of outward circumstance helps himself by becoming literally poor, despised and lowly. If he does not do this he must with all the more inward concern watch over himself.... Christianity has never required unconditionally of anyone that he should literally give up the advantages of outward circumstance, it has proposed to men rather a little precautionary rule.29

We shall discover that the "precautionary rule" Kierkegaard has in mind is the attitude of "as if not." However, he will insist that true Christian simplicity is a possibility even for the well to do.

But is abundance then an anxiety? ... For riches and abundance come hypocritically clad in sheep's clothing, pretending to be security against anxieties, and they become then the object of anxiety, of "the anxiety"; they secure a man against anxieties just about as well as the wolf which is put to tending the sheep secures them against the wolf....
[The bird of the air] teaches us the surest way to avoid the anxiety of riches and abundance, namely, not to lay up riches and abundance--bearing in mind that one is a traveler; and in the second place, it teaches us (what is especially appropriate to this discourse), in abundance to be ignorant of the fact that one has abundance--bearing in mind that one is a traveler....
In connection with abundance, thought can take from the rich man the thought of possession, the thought that he owns and possesses this wealth and abundance as his.... When I do not know what I am to live on tomorrow, I evidently possess nothing. But when I reflect that I might die tonight, "this very night," then I possess nothing, however rich I may be. To be rich I must possess something until the morrow, etc., must be secured for the morrow; but to be rich I must also be assured of the morrow. Take away riches, and then no longer can I be called rich; but take away the morrow, and then too, alas, I no longer can be called rich....
So far from calling the earthly riches "mine," the rich Christian realizes that they are God's, and that they are to be administered as far as possible in accordance with the proprietor's wish, administered with the proprietor's indifference to money and money value, administered by giving them away at the right time and place....
He has no anxiety in gathering abundance, for he does not care to gather abundance; he has no anxiety in retaining, for it is easy enough to retain what one has not, and he is as one who has not; he has no anxiety about losing, for he indeed is as one who has not; he has no anxiety for the fact that others possess more, for he is as one who possesses nothing; and he has no anxiety about what he shall leave to his heirs.... As ignorant as the poor Christian is of his earthly poverty, just so ignorant is the rich Christian of his earthly riches; as the former does not talk of his earthly poverty, so he too does not talk of earthly riches; they both talk of one and the same thing, of the heavenly riches.... [The rich Christian] keeps constantly in mind that He who possessed all the riches of the world gave up all that He possessed and lived in poverty, and so again in ignorance of all the riches that are possessed....
The bird is--well, if it is rich, it is ignorant that it is rich; the rich Christian became ignorant of it, he is rich, poor, rich; the rich heathen is poor, poor, poor.... When one is rich there is one way of becoming rich: that of becoming ignorant of one's riches, of becoming poor. The bird's way is the shortest, that of the Christian the most blessed. According to the teaching of Christianity, there is only one rich man, namely, the Christian; every one else is poor, both the poor man and the rich. A man is most healthy when he does not notice at all or know that he has a body, and the rich man is in health when, as healthy as the bird, he knows nothing of his earthly riches; but when he knows of it, when it is the only thing he knows, then he is lost. When the rich Christian became entirely ignorant of his earthly riches he gained more than the bird, he gained heaven; when the rich heathen became entirely and solely conscious of his riches he lost what no bird loses when it falls to the ground, he lost heaven.30

On the Throwing Off of Anxiety

Simplicity is the cure for anxiety. One way it does this is by getting rid of "tomorrow."

From whatever height the bird surveyed the whole world, and whatever it saw, it never saw "the next day." There is no yesterday and no tomorrow for the bird, it lives but one day, and the lily blooms but one day. Consequently the bird has no anxiety for the next day. But anxiety for the next day is precisely what self-torment is, and hence the bird is without the anxiety of self-torment. For what is self-torment? It is the worry which today (having enough worry of its own) does not have....
The Gospel says that "every day has enough worries of its own.... It assumes that with the daily worries a man can manage to get along. It says therefore, in effect, every day shall have its worries.... Every day shall have its worry, that is to say, take care to be free from the next day's worry, accept tranquilly and gratefully the worry of today, thou dost get off easily with that ... by becoming free from the next day's worry....
One who rows a boat turns his back to the goal toward which he labors. So it is with the next day. When by the help of eternity a man lives absorbed in today, he turns his back to the next day. The more lie is eternally absorbed in today, the more decisively does he turn his back upon the next day, so that he does not see it at all. If he turns around, eternity is confused before his eyes, it becomes the next day. But if for the sake of laboring more effectually towards the goal (eternity) he turns his back, he does not see the next day at all, whereas by the help of eternity he sees quite clearly today and its task....
Hence when the Christian works, or when he prays, he talks only of today: he prays for daily bread "today," for a blessing upon his work "today," that he may avoid the snares of the evil one "today," that he may come nearer to God's kingdom "today." ... To live thus, to cram today with eternity and not with the next day, the Christian has learnt and continues to learn (for the Christian is always learning) from the Pattern.... He had Eternity with Him in the day that is called today, hence the next day had no power over Him, it had no existence for Him. It had no power over Him before it came, and when it came and was the day that is called today it had no other power over Him than that which was the Father's will, to which He consented with eternal freedom, and to which He obediently bowed.31

What follows represents a significant insight regarding anxiety. That man can be anxious (and yet also find the means of rising above his anxiety) marks a real superiority over the birds and lilies that are free of anxiety only because they do not have the capacity for such.

It is a perfection to be able to have a care for the necessities of life--in order to overcome this fear, in order to let faith and confidence drive out fear, so that one is in truth without a care for the necessities of life in the unconcern of faith. For only this freedom from care on the part of faith is in the divine sense the soaring, who's beautiful but imperfect symbol is the easy flight of the bird....
The bird that is without subsistence cares, is then the symbol of the human, and yet the human, through being able to have these cares, is far more perfect than the symbol. Therefore the human never dares forget that the One who referred him to the bird of the air, as to a primary, a childish instruction, that precisely He in earnestness and truth is the real symbol, the true, essential human symbol of perfection.... For when it is said, "The birds of the air have nests and foxes have holes, but the Son of man has not where to lay his head," then there is mentioned a condition which is far more helpless than that of a bird, and is also itself conscious of this. But then, with the consciousness of this, to be without a nest, without a place in which to seek refuge, then--to be without anxiety: aye, this is the exalted image of creation, this is man's divine pattern....
"The bird sows not, it reaps not, nor does it gather into barns"; that is to say, the bird does not labor. But is this then a perfection, not to work at all? ... To work is the perfection of the human. Through working the human being resembles God, who also works. And if, then, a man works for food, we shall not foolishly say that he supports himself; we shall rather say, simply in order to recall how glorious it is to be human: "He works with God for food. He works with God, hence he is God's fellow-worker." The bird is not that; it gets its food, but it is not God's fellow-laborer.32

Kierkegaard has just made it plain that the simple life, far from implying a freedom from work, incorporates work as a privilege through which the Christian helps God in the dispelling of anxiety. He pursues the thought further in the beautiful little illustration that follows.

"Consider the lilies of the field; they sew not, neither do they spin"--and yet the most skilful seamstress who sews for herself, or a princess who with the use of the costliest fabric has her sewing done by the most skilful seamstress, or Solomon in all his glory, was not arrayed like one of these. So then there is one who sews and spins for the lilies? That indeed there is: God in heaven. But as for man, he sews and spins. "Yes, necessity is enough to teach him that, necessity teaches naked women to spin." Fie upon thee, that thou canst think so meanly of thy labour, of what it is to be a man, so meanly of God and of existence--as if it were nothing but a house of correction!
No, consider the lilies of the field, learn from them, learn to understand what thou knowest: thou knowest that it is man who spins and sews, learn from the lilies to understand that nevertheless really, even when it is man who spins and sews, it is God who spins and sews. Dost thou think that the seamstress, if she understands this, will become less diligent at her work and in it, that she will lay her hands in her lap and think: "If after all it is really God who spins and sews, the best thing for me is to be free, to be liberated from this unreal spinning and sewing"? If so, then this seamstress is a foolish little maiden, not to say a saucy wench, in whom God can take no pleasure, and who can take no pleasure in the lilies, and well deserves to have the good Lord show the door, and then she would see what will become of her. But this seamstress, our own dear lovable seamstress with her childlike piety, understands that only when she herself sews, is it God who will sew for her, and hence she becomes all the more diligent at her work, for the fact that by constantly sewing she constantly must understand--oh, blissful pleasantry!--that it is God who sews every stitch, for the fact that by sewing constantly she must constantly understand--oh, the seriousness of it! --that it is God who sews every stitch.33

Yet, in the final analysis, sheer freedom from anxiety is not what Christian simplicity is all about. No, what it is all about is joy in the Lord.

He whose joy is dependent upon certain conditions is not joy itself, his joy is in fact dependent upon conditions and is conditioned by them. But he who is joy itself is unconditionally joyful, just as, to state the converse proposition, he who is unconditionally joyful is joy itself.... For by the help of conditions, even if it were of all conditions, it is impossible indeed to be more than or otherwise than conditionally joyful....
There is a saying of the Apostle Peter which the lilies and the birds have laid to heart, and, simple as they are, they take it quite literally, just this it is that helps them. There is an immense force in this saying when it is taken quite literally; when it is not taken literally, exactly according to the letter, it is more or less powerless, and at last only an unmeaning phrase; but it absolutely requires simplicity to take it absolutely with perfect literalness. "Cast all your care UPON GOD." ... And indeed this is quite natural, for God the Almighty supports the whole world and all the world's care (including that of the lilies and the birds) with infinite ease. What indescribable joy!--joy over God the Almighty.... For this is the absolute joy, to adore the almighty power with which God the Almighty bears all thy care and sorrow as easily as nothing. And this also is the absolute joy, the next one, which in fact the Apostle subjoins, adoringly to dare to believe that "God careth for thee." The absolute joy is precisely joy over God, over whom and in whom thou canst always rejoice. If in this relationship thou art not absolutely joyful, the fault lies absolutely in thee, in thy lack of dexterity in casting thy care upon Him, in thine unwillingness to do it, in thy self-conceit, in short, it lies in the fact that thou art not like the lilies and the birds....
And if thou couldst learn to be entirely like the lilies and the birds--ah, and if I could learn it--then would also the prayer of truth be true in thee and in me, the last prayer in "the Prayer" which (a model of all true prayer, which indeed prays itself joyful, and more joyful, and absolutely joyful) at last has nothing, nothing whatever more to pray for or to desire, but with absolute joyfulness concludes with prayer and worship, the prayer: "For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory." Yes, His is the kingdom; and therefore thou art to be absolutely silent, lest thou mightest make it disturbingly noticeable that thou dost exist, but that with absolute silence thou mayest express the fact that the kingdom is His. And His is the power; and therefore thou art to be absolutely obedient and art with absolute obedience to bear with everything, for His is the power. And His is the glory; therefore in all that thou doest and in all that thou endurest, thou hast absolutely one thing more to do; to give Him the glory, for the glory is His.34

Copyright (c) 1971