22 April 2016
The Sickness unto Death – a brief reflection
I felt as though this post should begin with this statement, not because I think that Kierkegaard is right without challenge or nuance in what he said, but that it is a definition of sin that speaks to the gaps in our modern understanding. It is good for us to place a definition of sin in front of us, since it appears that ours is a culture that is quickly losing its ability to tell its right hand from its left.
In his book, Kierkegaard works through an understanding of despair, but I am not interested in reviewing that here. The piece I wish to point to is his emphasis that sin happens before God. Interestingly, his words contrast the "older dogmatics" with the newer trends of a spiritual life. The same contrast remains true for us today, though with slightly different nuance. But sin is what happens as a result of our actions before God. Our inability to recognize sinful thoughts or behavior is thus connected to our recognition of life before our Creator.
It is easy to escape the dark clouds – the guilt – of sin by ignoring the presence of the Almighty. If we do not wish to make the demands of the gospel too much for our neighbors, then we simply do not speak about those things that are bothersome. And this is how humanity can be free from despair, and uninhibited by the weight of an external conscience. After all, we can all make decisions for ourselves, and there is no point in us living an unhappy and frustrated life.
This problem is not confined to the world, we now see the fruits of a generation of believers who have been told that sin is outdated and outmoded. Even among those who can give lip service to the theoretical presence of sin, there is a diminishing number in the church who would dare advocate for a universal standard of truth. In short, we no longer speak about sin – to ourselves or anybody else – because we no longer understand sin. This is where Kierkegaard's definition needs to be inserted: a reminder that our lives, every piece, are lived before the Almighty.
As a result of the Fall heaven and earth have been pulled apart. This isn't a geographic statement, as many people think of today, but rather a spiritual reality as consequence of sin. Of course, we need simply to remind ourselves that the sin in the garden was a willing rejection of God that took place before God. The fusion of heaven and earth that was intended by the Creator was now severed, and humanity is now cut-off from the divine presence. We no longer see God on our own, and we thus fail in our memory that we are still before God in our lives.
There are various concepts and definitions of sin that float around our world. Some of these are helpful, and some of them are stupid; some help us catch God's revelation of himself, while others are simply ways of escaping the burden of despair. Those who do not have God in their lives are not bothered by the notion of sin. Perhaps the church, somewhere along the way, became jealous of this perceived freedom, and decided that we too would be unbothered (with the additional benefit of putting away the unpopular suggestions that the church was too overbearing).
Thus, we have become a people who, by and large, have given up one freedom for another – forsaking liberty from our sin in exchange for a happy relief that we simply don't have to think about sin anymore. In this way sin may be likened to a cancer: ignoring the sickness does not make it disappear from the body, one must embark on the long and difficult road of treatment to eradicate the problem. The church in our culture is trying to ignore the presence of sin because we want to avoid the trouble (and embarrassment) of dealing with it. And as we do so we move further away from the presence of God, before whom we live and move and have our being.
Our way back is found in our coming before God once again, acknowledging the truth that he is the Creator of all things, and that we exist for his pleasure. Our despair at life is the means by which we can know that he has called us, and that we were made for a purpose that transcends the shallowness of an unspiritual life. Our despair leads us to his presence, and we must make a choice of whether we will seek self-gratifying pleasures that will cover up the longing, or if we will embrace the hurting, confess the sin that we carry out before God, and receive his new life.
The final piece to this that must be acknowledged is best taken in Kierkegaard's own words: "Very often, however, it is overlooked that the opposite of sin is by no means virtue. In part, this is a pagan view, which is satisfied with a merely human criterion and simply does not know what sin is, that all sin is before God. No, the opposite of sin is faith, as it says in Romans 14:23: 'whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.' And this is one of the most decisive definitions for all Christianity – that the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith."
Our warring culture is the result of trying to advance our own vices and virtues. The stark truth of life is that nothing we bring is good enough, for we are a broken humanity living in a broken world. Our world needs the external character of holiness to break in and give to us a way forward. Indeed, that holiness has come, but we are failing to surrender ourselves to the truth of the gospel, which bids us come and die. Even the best of our virtue falls short of the glory of God, causing us to lose sight of our Creator, and leading us down the path of self-destruction. Indeed, ours looks like a world that can no longer see God at the center, and is thereby blind to the wreckage of individualism.