Oh My God! Who Will Save Me from this Body of Death? A Kierkegaardian Account of Sin as ‘Despair’

I am currently reading a book on the life and theology of Strasbourg Protestant Reformer, Martin Bucer; but as is typical I also have multiple other books going at the same time. The book I will be referring to in this post is one I am working through slowly, it is a book authored by Andrew Torrance on Kierkegaard’s theology entitled: The Freedom To Become A Christian: A Kierkegaardian despairAccount of Human Transformation in Relationship with God. A. Torrance, in the section we will look at, is describing Kierkegaard’s doctrine of sin as ‘despair.’ As I picked Torrance’s book up and began to read this I was compelled to immediately sit down and write this post; so here we go.

As we will see, through Torrance’s explication, Kierkegaard sees despair as something that happens to people as God removes himself from their lives, and in a sense, leaves them to themselves. It is natural, as Augustine and the Bible so presciently note, that if humans were created for relationship with God, if they were created to find their purpose and end in Deus incarnatus, God incarnate, Jesus Christ, and then are uncoupled from that, for humans to despair. This becomes the entry point for how we ought to understand the human condition of sin, according to Kierkegaard, according to Torrance. Torrance writes:

Notably, however, although Anti-Climacus [pseudonym for Kierkegaard] describes despair as a sickness, he also affirms that it is not ‘something that happens to man … like a disease to which he succumbs’. Rather, ‘despairing lies in man himself’. It arises by way of the individual’s own volition, which God allows the human when he ‘releases it from his hand’. It arises when the individual willingly embraces a self that is not the true self but the sinful self.

Sin is: before God, or with the conception of God, in despair not to wil to be oneself, or in despair to will to be oneself. Thus sin is intensified weakness or intensified defiance: sin is the intensification of despair.

Here, Anti-Climacus presents sin as the state of the self who, ‘before God’, is in despair. In sin, a person consents to a life that is not the life for which he was created – a life of loving fellowship with God. Despair is the state of the individual who ‘before God’ chooses himself in sin. According to Anti-Climacus, there are two ways in which a person conscious before God, uses God-given volition to choose sin: ‘in despair not to will to be oneself’, and ‘in despair to will to be oneself’.

First, sin is ‘in despair not to will to be oneself’. In this case, the sinner chooses to continue in sin because she does not have the inner strength or passion to embrace what she knows to be her true selfhood before God. This either takes the form of ‘despair over the earthly’/’despair in weakness’, in which a person is distracted from devotion to God by commitment to worldly affairs, such as the question of what the immediate future might hold. Or, it takes the form of ‘despair of the eternal over oneself’/’despair over weakness’. In this case, the person recognises that it is a weakness to despair over the earthly, but then proceeds to despair over this weakness, bringing about a sense of self-hatred, which closely resembles guilt. That is, instead of faithfully humbling himself before God and seeking forgiveness, he dwells legalistically on sin and despairs that nothing can be done for him, thereby becoming further entrenched in despair and further intensifying his sin. In so doing, a person resists his actual selfhood and true selfhood before God. With this despair in mind, Kierkegaard writes,

This is … the eternal consolation in the doctrine of the forgiveness of sins: you shall believe it. For when the anguished conscience starts having burdensome thoughts, and it seems to one that in eternity it is impossible to forget: then it says, you shall not forget, you shall stop thinking of your sin; not only are you permitted to stop, not only do you dare ask God for permission to dare forget – no, you shall not forget, for you shall believe that your sin is forgiven.

Second, sin is ‘in despair to will to be oneself’. In this case, the individual chooses to cling to his own autonomy in active defiance of his true freedom before God. In this instance, ‘the self in despair wants to be master of itself or to create itself, to make his self into the self he wants to be’. With this despair, the individual is too proud to see his need for repentance and reconciliation, in unbelief seeing himself as his own god who sets the standard for what it means to be a self. Hence, the individual has no desire to die to himself or to the world, and feels no need to be forgiven for the life that he has made for himself. As a result, the individual embraces himself as a self that is dead to the true God.[1]

The first form of despair, I think, could loosely define many Christians out there; the latter form of despair sounds simply like unbelieving humanity in the main. It is interesting, and not surprising, because we are reading sin through Kierkegaard, how prominent the psychological factor is; i.e. the personalist element of Kierkegaard’s understanding of sin. I think all too often because of the forensic models of sin that evangelical and Reformed Christians have been stunted by, we lose sight of how existential, sin actually is; how relationally oriented it is.

As I read Kierkegaard’s account, mediated through Torrance, it resonates deeply with my own lived experience of sin. I have had seasons where I have desperately despaired of my sin before God; burdened down with such a sense of guilt-riddeness that it damaged my vision of and fellowship with God in Jesus Christ. I have despaired of sin so deeply, and particular sins so trenchantly, that it almost took my sanity. It wasn’t until I was able, by the Holy Spirit, through laborious wrestling with God in Scripture, and with Scripture’s reality, Jesus, that I was finally able to stand in who I am in the elected humanity of God in Jesus Christ; I was finally able to stand in the liberty by which Christ had made me free and not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.

As we read the second account of despair in Kierkegaard, I am sure we can all recognize that type of despair, at points in our old-self, but most prominently in the world at large; in the people we bump into daily at work, the mall, on the freeways, in the classroom and elsewhere. It is the despairing soul who has looked up into the heavens, presumed itself to be its own terminus, and lived a life out of that destruction. It is this soul we have been called to ambassador the reality of the evangel to. God help us!

[1] Andrew B. Torrance, The Freedom To Become A Christian: A Kierkegaardian Account of Human Transformation in Relationship with God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 30-1.

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3 comments

  1. Good thoughts!
    Despair occurs when we try to create our own alternative reality…and then realize we cannot actually save ourselves from anything. Thankfully, it also opens our eyes to the fact that we are NOT God and gives the opportunity to admit our weakness and ask for Him to intervene.

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  2. Thanks, Heather. Yes, despair in itself presupposes that there is something or someOne better than ourselves. SomeOne we need to bring us to non-despair. Despair presupposes a holy standard external to ourselves such that we know there must be something greater than ourselves (Eccl 3.14).

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