More reflections on Kierkegaard’s Works of Love:
I live in Orange County, California and it seems like everyone I know has a busy life. My wife and I are like most of our friends in that we spend our days working jobs, homeschooling and caring for our kids, taking part in church functions, and trying to keep the house up, not to mention and a myriad of other duties. We get up early and go to bed late, often exhausted. As much as this situation is simply a byproduct of our current state in life (we have 4 kids under 10 years old, for example) and will pass as we have fewer diapers to change, etc., there are certain dangers associated with this busyness that, if not addressed now, can result in spiritual problems even after our children have grown and moved out.
One of the most serious of these hazards is the tendency to lose an eternal perspective on life. It is difficult to get one’s focus above the next few minutes or hours if you have ten needs that have to be addressed immediately. As such, I really enjoyed Kierkegaard’s discussion of the importance of eternity in the chapter “Love Hopes All Things and Yet Is Never Put to Shame” (231). I found his understanding of the difference between a worldly and Christian perspective regarding eternity and the necessity of maintaining and Christian vision profound and very inspiring.
Kierkegaard sets the context for his discussion by pointing out that, from a worldly perspective, human life is distinguished by certain “suffocating” characteristics. For instance, people work and work, reap and sow, reap and sow, without much justice in regards to those who seek truth and goodness gaining any more than those who do not. Indeed, it often seems like those who seek good are laboring in vain; beating the air (232). In response, Kierkegaard notes that according to Christianity, earthly life is only for sowing, while eternity is for reaping. We are not to look for rewards here and now. Instead, we must keep our eyes on the big prize: eternal life in the presence of God.
I know that in my own life I have had to return to this truth innumerable times as a harbinger against becoming downcast. I am a goal oriented person. As such, I don’t mind working hard as long as I see some fruits for my labor. However, sometimes those rewards don’t come, or at least they don’t arrive as quickly as I would like. Rather than a progression towards a particular good end, sometimes it seems like life is a treadmill. We just keep doing the same things day after day. When that feeling arises, I have taken particular solace and hope in the image of our life as a journey across the wilderness toward the Promised Land. As sojourners, we are not to expect all the benefits of home just yet, but they will certainly be there when we arrive. The temptation is to start thinking of this life as home and to start looking for those rewards and comforts right now. Kierkegaard reminded me that they are not available yet.
He continued along that theme in the next paragraphs, explaining that, from a worldly perspective, life can become like a whirlpool of “striving, winning, and losing and winning again, now at one point, now at another – but it seems that he who wills the good in truth is the only one who alone is a loser and loses everything” (232). Again, I can relate with this sentiment. In Orange County, success is defined largely by what kind of car you drive and how much fun you had this week. Hedonism is preeminent and winning is defined as having as much pleasure in your life as possible. However, as Kierkegaard rightly points out, the Christian vision is one in which victory comes in eternity. This life is one of tribulation and striving. Again I was reminded of the Israelites as they wandered across the desert. They faced hardships and war and were continually tempted to turn back. Indeed, many did not make it through. However, those that followed Joshua into Canaan were given victory. That future victory is what I must focus on.
That victory will mean more than just reaping comforts and victory. It will also involve the distribution of justice in regards to honor and shame (232). At long last those who are worthy will be rightly honored and those who are not will be shamed. The fact is, as Kierkegaard rightly points out, the world is a place in which praise and blame are handed out in a very cheap and petty fashion, often to those who do not deserve what they get. However, in eternity, everyone will receive the honor and shame they are properly due, in a fashion that befits the award (233). Understanding this, it seems to me, is the foundation for being able to follow Jesus commands to turn the other cheek when someone strikes you (Matt. 5:39) and love your enemy (Matt. 5:44). These are not commands to abandon justice (as it appears on the surface); they are commands to let God handle it. He will dispense to all men what is their due; we do not have to take that into our own hands. I find that keeping this eternal perspective is a huge stress reliever in that it takes the pressure off of us to try to right every wrong here on earth. We are able to forgive others and hand them over to God to deal with. Rather than fall into the back and forth squabbling and fighting that is unfortunately so characteristic of our everyday lives, we can rise above all that by remembering that life is eternal.
Kierkegaard then relates this eternal perspective to hope and love, explaining first that if we do not live with hope, the only alternative is despair (236). I think this clearly explains why so many people, even as they live with more earthly goods and a higher material standard of living than anyone in history, are not happy. They do not have an eternal perspective and are not living with hope.
In regards to love, Kierkegaard argues that love and hope and inexorably bound together. We cannot hope unless we love. This has ramifications for both us and others. In our own lives, hope is dependent on our love for God and our faith in him. We must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him (Heb. 11:6). Also, we must extend this hope to others; we must keep the possibility of good open for them (237). This seems to me to relate to the three-fold credit of love we are to bestow on others. In loving others, we give them a credit of faith, trusting that there is good even in the areas of their lives that we do not know about yet. The credit of hope offers them the benefit of the doubt by interpreting their behavior in a positive way until proven otherwise. The credit of solidarity means that, even when the beloved falters, we see it as a betrayal of their true selves and we mourn with them. All three of these credits are applied when we “hope all things” in loving a person. If we are unwilling to hope for the best for them, how can we rightly hope for it in ourselves? To do so would indicate an unfounded pride on our part, which is part of the reason I think Kierkegaard states that it is simply impossible to despair over another (think they are beyond hope) without actually despairing over ourselves (239).
Kierkegaard’s contrast of worldly and eternal perspectives is something I want to return to often. His words remind me to keep the proper perspective in the midst of my busy life and encourage me to keep hoping and praying for others, particularly those that I might be tempted to consider beyond hope.