Despair and the True Self

This blog is coming to you from atop the back deck of the Zahnd home. What a beautiful day! Monday is my reading and thinking day. Today it’s also been a “get caught up on a backlog of emails day.” I’m just about caught up on my emails and I’m looking forward to some fellowship with Brother Dostoevsky. Here’s what I’m reading for pleasure these days. But before I get back to enjoying Demons (there’s a strange line for you!) I thought I’d crank out a quick blog.


Blame it on Jason Upton. Back in June Jason ministered for two nights during our Youth Conference. After the second night, Jason sat in my study and scribbled these words on a note pad that was sitting on my desk: Provocations -Soren Kierkegaard. I don’t remember him doing this, but I found the note the next day. I ordered Provocations and it’s turned out to be a spiritual gold mine. I’ve read it twice now…slowly, underlining long passages and filling the margins with notes.

During our vacation in Colorado I put some notes in my moleskin from Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death. At the time they were just for myself. But the following week I shared them with our pastoral team during our retreat. Last Friday I used these notes during my message “I Think Myself Happy.” Several people have asked me for these notes so I thought I would post them here. These notes are not always direct quotes from Kierkegaard, but paraphrases with some of my own thoughts interjected. We’ll call them “Kierkezahnd.” Anyway, here they are as the appear in my moleskin.



Whoever desire to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul? -Jesus (Mark 8:35-36)

Follow Me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, My way to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? -The Message

The human being is essentially a spirit. But what is a spirit? A spirit is a self. But what’s a self? Self is the synthesis of the Infinite and the finite. (God is the Infinite and Eternal Spirit — the Father of spirits [Heb. 12:9]) The task of a spirit is to become itself. This, of course, can only be done in relationship to God. Not to be oneself, as God created you, is despair. Despair comes in three guises…

The Despair of the Finite (Materialism)

This consists in ascribing infinite value to finite things — the trivial and the temporal. Here the self is lost by being reduced altogether to the finite, so that the self is cheated by other things. This form of despair goes virtually unnoticed as despair by the world. Precisely by losing oneself in this way a person gains all that is required for a flawless performance in everyday life, yes, for making a great “success” out of life. But one is ground as smooth as a pebble. Far from anyone thinking of such a person being in despair, he is thought to be just what a human being ought to be. What we call worldliness simply consists of such people who pawn themselves to the world. But they are not authentic selves. They are copies. In a spiritual sense they have not self.

The Despair of Weakness (Conformity)

The despair of weakness is the despair of not wanting to be oneself. This kind of despair is a passivity of the self. It’s frame of reference is the pleasant and the unpleasant. What matter is what happens or does not happen to oneself. True despair is to lose the Eternal, but this kind of despair does not occur to the one who despairs in weakness. He is too preoccupied with securing his earthly existence. To lose the earthly is not true despair, yet that is precisely what this person calls despair. He is turned around and what he says must be understood backwards. He stands there pointing to something that is not really despair (a loss of some kind); he is explaining that he is in despair, and yes, sure enough, the despair is going on, but it is behind him and he is unaware of it. If everything suddenly changes and his wishes are fulfilled, then happiness returns to him. When help comes from outside happiness is restored to him and he begins where he left off. Yet he neither was nor becomes a self. He simply carries on living merely on the level of what is immediate and what is happening around him. This form of despair consists of not wanting to be a self. Actually, it consists of wanting to be someone else! Such a self refuses to take responsibility. Life is but a game of chance. Hence, in the moment of despair, when no help comes, such a person wants desperately to become someone else. And yet a despairer of this kind, whose only wish is the craziest of all wishes — to be someone else — is in love with a fancy that change can be made as easily as one puts on another coat. Or to put it differently, he knows himself only by his coat. He simply doesn’t know himself! He knows what it is to have a self only in externals. There could hardly be a more absurd confusion, for a self differs precisely, no infinitely, from those externals. It is impossible to draw a picture of him that is not comic.

The Despair of Defiance (The Madness of Nietzsche).

Unlike the despair of weakness, the despair of defiance is the despair of wrongly wanting to be oneself. It is rooted in the consciousness of Infinity and of being related to Infinity (God), but the defiant self wants to be infinite (God). In it’s defiance and rebellion the defiant self severs itself from any relationship to the Power that made it. It desperately wants to rule over itself, create itself, make itself what it wants to be and determine what it will and will not have — he seeks to construct his own self, by himself and for himself. The defiant self take notice only of itself, which it does by means of bestowing infinite interest and significance upon all its enterprises. But in the process of its wish to be its own master it works its way into the exact opposite; it really becomes no self and despairs. As it acts there is nothing eternally firm on which it stands. There is no meaning. Yes, the defiant self is its own master, but upon closer examination it is easy to see that he really rules over nothing — he is a king without a country. Does he have the hope of help? No! For he will not recognize his need for God. He would rather be a defiant self with all the torments of hell than ask for God’s help. Ah, demonic madness! Such a self wants to be itself in hatred toward existence (Nihilism). The defiant self both ignores and blames God. It says, “I will not be changed. I will stand as witness against you, a witness to the fact that you are a second-rate creator.” Yes, this is the despair of defiance, and what despair it is!

“Now with God’s help I shall become myself.”
-Soren Kierkegaard

Here is the Hope that brings us out of despair: Christ brings new life! A new life, yes, and this is no platitude. No, it is a new life, literally a new life — because, mark this well, death goes in between life and the new life on the other side of death. Yes, that is a new life.


Those are the notes from my moleskin. If you would like a fuller explanation of their meaning, I would recommend you check out my message “I Think Myself Happy” from August, 11. You will able to stream it from the Word of Life website in a few days; you can also sign up for the free podcast of the messages and get it that way.

Become yourself in Christ!