Do Your Duty
March 4, 2012
Grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus tells us in Mark 8:34 to deny ourselves. But what does that amount to? Are we, for instance, to deny all medical care, education, friendship, job training, food, and housing? Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), that keen Lutheran author, measures and weighs this self-denial or self-hatred in, Works of Love (1847). In that book he does this by warning against five of its abuses:
When the bustler wastes his time and powers in the service of futile, inconsequential pursuits…. When the light-minded person throws himself almost like a nonentity into the folly of the moment and makes nothing of it…. When the depressed person desires to be rid of life, indeed, of himself…. When someone surrenders to despair because the world or another person has faithlessly left him betrayed…. When someone self-tormentingly thinks to do God a service by torturing himself…. (Kierkegaard’s Writings 16:23).
This futility, this folly, this depression, this despair, this torture – all of these are fueled or encouraged when we deny ourselves in the wrong way. So how can we heed our Lord’s admonition, deny ourselves properly, and, at the same time, avoid these five pitfalls?
A Tale of Seduction
In Kierkegaard’s little book, also published in 1847, with the long title, What Can We Learn from the Lilies in the Field and from the Birds of the Air? – which is based on the parable of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:25-34) on the lilies and the birds, he says that what the follower of Christ needs to deny is the desire “to compare himself to God [or] to have a security by himself” (KW 15:178). This is what self-denial is supposed to attack.
He takes up this horrible blunder, of wanting to be like God, which self-denial is to unravel, in a little parable in that book, about a seduced lily. It’s out in the field, where “imperceptibly and blissfully time slipped by, like running water that murmurs and disappears” (KW 15:167). Then a little bird visits in the beauty of the field – coming and going at will – almost capriciously. “But as so often happens,” Kierkegaard writes – forebodingly, “the lily fell more and more in love with the bird precisely because it was capricious” (KW 15:167)! Can you hear in this the echo of John 3:19 – “the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the light”?! Kierkegaard then goes on to say that
this little bird was a naughty bird. Instead of … delighting in [the lily’s] loveliness,… the bird would show off in its feelings of freedom by making the lily feel its lack of freedom. Not only that, but the little bird… talked… truthfully and untruthfully, about how in other places there were… gorgeous lilies in… rapture and merriment…. And it usually ended its story,… humiliating to the lily, that in comparison… the lily looked like nothing (KW 15:167).
And with that the lily was crushed. So what happened next? The naughty bird agrees to peck the soil away “from the root of the lily,” take it under its wing, and fly off to the place of beautiful lilies, and plant it there, so that it “might succeed in becoming a gorgeous lily” too (KW 15:168-169)! Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? But what happens? “Alas, on the way the lily withered” (KW 15:169)! Alas, indeed – for now its dreams of glory are over!
Doing Your Duty
Kierkegaard concludes by saying that “the lily is the human being. The naughty little bird is the restless mentality of comparison, which roams far and wide, fitfully and capriciously, and gleans the morbid knowledge of diversity…. The little bird is [what’s] seductive in [us],…. the conflict of discontented comparison” (KW 15:169, 181). And this seduction is morbid – for it destroys the life of peace that God has in mind for his children (Philippians 4:4-13). It keeps us from exclaiming: “O Lord, my heart is not [occupied] with things too great and marvelous for me” (Psalm 131:1)!
In whatever we do, then, we must not think we’re in control (John 15:5). For that would be to long to be like God (Romans 1:22-25). In whatever walk of life we pursue, where ambition and hard work definitely have their place (Galatians 6:4-5), we must give all the glory to God (1 Corinthians 10:31). Self-reliance is always wrong for the Christian (Deuteronomy 8:17; Isaiah 64:6; Luke 18:9; James 4:14-15). We instead, should think of ourselves as servants – and unworthy ones, at that – who are only doing our duty (Luke 17:10). So if we’re teachers or mechanics, lawyers or artists, presidents or entrepreneurs, truck drivers or restaurant employees, don’t forget you’re still unworthy servants just doing your duty – ambassadors for Christ in whatever walk of life you’re in (2 Corinthians 5:20). That’s your most resilient, basic identity – and it holds even if your vocation fails. For everything else is secondary. So don’t succumb to “inflated self-importance,” as Martin Luther warned (Luther’s Works 52:208). Say with Kierkegaard:
Dependence on God is the only independence, because God has no gravity; only the things on this earth, especially earthly treasure, have that – [so] the person who is completely dependent on him is light (KW 15:182)!
So don’t compare yourself to those above you socio-politically, as Luther again warned (LW 21:320). Remember you’re a person like everyone else – just a man. Deny everything else that wells up within you to seduce you – as happened to our poor little lily in Kierkegaard’s parable. And then, with our astute Danish writer,
consider Solomon. When he puts on his royal robs… there is… ceremonial address, and the one speaking says: Your Majesty. But when the most solemn term of address is to be used in the eternal language of earnestness, then we say: Man! We use the very same term of address for the lowliest person when he like Lazarus [Luke 16], is sunk, almost unidentifiable, in poverty and wretchedness – we say: Man!.... And in the decisive moment of death when all diversities are abolished, we say: Man! (KW 15:170-171).
Depend on Christ
But maybe we still want to play one-upmanship! We still want to think of others as being beneath us by making ourselves better than all of the rest (contra Philippians 2:3)! To break this, we need to look to Christ – the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). And when we do we see one who “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed” (Mark 8:31). Yes! And he is killed so that he might “destroy… death” and open heaven for all who believe in him (Hebrews 2:14, 9:24)! By worrying about being better than others we can’t add “one cubit” to our span of life (Matthew 6:27). But Christ is “able” to (Hebrews 2:18) – and for all of eternity at that (John 14:3), which is considerably more than one lousy cubit of time or stature! So deny yourself and believe in Christ, your Mediator and Redeemer (1 Timothy 2:5; Colossians 1:14)! In his death he bears our sins (1 Peter 2:24) and so saves us from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9) and gives us eternal life (John 3:36)!
Long for the Supper
And he is not now long gone, after he has done this for us, but is with us today, and until “the close of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Receive him then – in the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper, where he promised us he would be for us (1 Corinthians 11:24-25). Receive Christ, as Kierkegaard loved to do, in this magnificent sacrament. Receive it, for in it is life, the abundant life (John 6:53; 10:10), through the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28). Long for it – for as Kierkegaard said about its splendor:
Oh, there is indeed only one… trustworthy friend in heaven and on earth, our Lord Jesus Christ…. He who went to death for me – should I not long for fellowship with him [in his supper]! No friend has ever been able to be more than faithful unto death, but he remained faithful in death – [for] his death was indeed my salvation…. He gave me life by his death; it was I who was dead, and his death gave me life (KW 17:258).
And, then, by the power of the Spirit of Christ himself (John 14:12-26), do good deeds in his name (Colossians 3:17). And do them out of gratitude to God for the mercy he has shown you in Christ Jesus. For without our works of righteousness – based on faith in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:10) – faith is dead (James 2:26).
Let us then follow the summary of the law – and love God above all and then our neighbors (Matthew 22:36-40). One good way to love both God and neighbor would be to guard the earth (Genesis 2:15) – thereby glorifying God’s work, as well as cleaning up where we live together. Luther says this work is now “sad and difficult,” whereas before Adam and Eve dragged us all down into the doldrums of sin, it was a “most pleasant” activity. But now “only faint and almost extinct traces” of this care for the earth remain (LW 1:103). But let that not deter us! For God has called us to this task. See in it then, yet one more noble duty to do. Amen.
Lily and Bird
Lily and Bird
by Seth Fitts
by Seth Fitts
(Søren Kierkegaard Society Newsletter,