Expand

How Kierkegaard Changed My Life

On the famed philosopher’s message for anxious Christians.

I have always lived in anxiety.

In grade school, I was the kid who got picked on. I was timid and anxious, and the torment inflicted upon me by my peers only perpetuated my anxious behavior. Throughout my adolescence, my anxiety quietly festered. In college, I felt trapped, alone and terrified. It took every ounce of strength to go to my classes. If someone tried speaking to me, I would often shut down. What was very much internal angst began to show external physical signs. Panic attacks, sweats, shortness of breath and other anxiety-ridden symptoms took over. I was prescribed medication for this, which helped physically, but mentally I removed myself from the internal issues I needed to confront.

Kierkegaard taught me what I had been waiting to hear my whole life: Anxiety is necessary and even good.

Then I enrolled in a philosophy course. We studied the typical figures—Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, etc. It was the first time I encountered Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. I didn’t know it at the time, but my life was about to radically change.

Here was a philosopher—and a man of faith—who actually experienced anxiety like me.

Kierkegaard is unique among philosophers, in that he listened to and even trusted human emotions. Whereas some philosophers dispose of and do not trust the emotive state of individuals, Kierkegaard not only embraced them, he wrote entire books on them. I began to pursue my masters in philosophy, and Kierkegaard took a prominent role in my life.

Throughout my education, I’ve studied many arguments for the existence of God. While I believe some are successful, many lack the existential pull that is so prevalent in Kierkegaard. My second year living in Denver for graduate school was perhaps the most treacherous year of my life, but it was indeed the most formative. Despair is the single word that sums up that year of my life, a word Kierkegaard knew much about. As it is described in the The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard, “hopelessness is just a sign that one has reached a point where the goal of oneself must ... be re-conceived in a way that offers new hope.”

I remember vividly reading this line—sitting back in my rocking chair, putting down my pipe, and weeping. There it was. It seemed simple, really. But the moment was as profound as the quote itself. I’d been doing things all wrong. Everyone, included myself, told me I had to get rid of or at least suppress this fear. But the everyday task of taming and attempting to repress the anxiety and fear was futile. The anxiety, the hopelessness, was always there. It was a part of me.

So I read Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety. It’s a difficult read, perplexing at times, yet the lessons radiated in my being. Kierkegaard argues that anxiety is not, in fact, the enemy, but a part of humanity. The attempts to remove anxiety are futile, he says: “Anxiety is an alien power which lays hold of the individual, and yet cannot tear oneself away, nor has a will to do so; for one fears, but what one fears one desires.”

Hopelessness, Kierkegaard teaches, is a catalyst—it is a moment in which one must refocus, shift the paradigm and find new hope.

Kierkegaard taught me what I had been waiting to hear my whole life: Anxiety is necessary and even good. It manifests itself at the juncture where an individual realizes the power he or she has in making decisions. Anxiety is the realization of freedom and the possibility of choice. Some decisions are easy, and sometimes we become paralyzed in our decision-making. Anxiety provoked me to face those decisions, the seemingly infinite possibilities set before me, and walk forward. It provoked me to move.

This book so radically reoriented my concept of anxiety that I was able to develop who I am instead of run from it, condemn it or suppress it.

Society is so quick to run from what scares us—even if we are the object of our own fear. But such hasty movement away from ourselves leaves us feeling hopeless. Yet hopelessness, Kierkegaard teaches, is a catalyst—it is a moment in which one must refocus, shift the paradigm and find new hope.

What’s surprising is that many Christians don’t see it this way. Many will cite passages such as Philippians 4:6-8: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” They read this and think anxiety should have nothing to do with the life of a believer. From this passage, there seems to be a common—though unrealistic—perception that to worry or to have anxiety is to sin. This is not only false, but incredibly unrealistic. To remove anxiety would be to separate oneself with an attribute of humanity.

Without room for extensive hermeneutics, the Philippians passage speaks as to how one should engage with anxiety: Enter into it with prayer and supplication. It would be foolish to wrestle with anxiety without seeking God’s help through prayer. Whereas anxiety is a part of what it means to be human, it can indeed turn dangerous thing if not engaged properly. And it can lead a person into sin.

Being anxious does not necessarily imply that our faith is weak. Rather, anxiety tests our faith in relation to decision-making. Anxiety reminds us that they are free to make own decisions—whether that decision will better ourselves and our relationship with Christ, or glorify our own self-interests.

Kierkegaard voiced what many of us know already firsthand: “Anxiety is potentially present at every instant.” This seems true enough for my life. In his journals, Kierkegaard writes, “All existence make me anxious, from the smallest fly to the mysteries of the Incarnation; the whole thing is inexplicable to me, I myself most of all; to me all existence is infected, I myself most of all.”

Kierkegaard did not cure me of my anxiety. But he showed me what to do with it. Today, every time I enter the classroom to teach, I enter with some degree of fear and trembling. But the angst is not formed from a lack or preparation. Rather, it is the realization that I can influence my students. The angst reminds me of my own responsibility as an educator, and the seriousness with which I take such a role.

Today, I thank God for my anxiety. And I thank Søren Kierkegaard for changing my life—by teaching me that there is room for fear and trembling in faith.

19 Comments

Greg Warner

6

Greg Warner commented…

I also respectfully disagree with the author. I too have suffered from anxiety often through life (isn't it something of an increasing epidemic in our culture?), and I'm slowly coming to learn that I should neither run from it in denial (here I agree) or embrace it as a friend. Anxiety is not the catalyst to change and growth, but the pressure it creates indeed is, and we can be thankful for it. However, that doesn't mean the anxiety in itself is good—any more than any other aspect of our human fallenness and wrestlings should be seen as good simply because it is naturally occurring. Hatred for another may be seen as "part of the human experience" in that it is natural but instead of calling us to embrace it to be true to ourselves, God calls us to repent of it. So we are called to trust in the Lord and not in our own understanding (Prov. 3:5-6), and told again and again to trust, obey, and give up our self-reliance. I think Kierkegaard is close to the truth—sometimes we directly desire what we fear (e.g. fearing another person whose approval we desire but aren't receiving or fear we aren't or won't receive), but anxiety is most often a symptom that we are esteeming the wrong thing or esteeming a good thing too highly. If I am anxious over a job, it is because I fear lack of provision. If I fear a peer, it is because I desperately want their approval. If I am fearful in a relationship, it is because I am afraid of hurting the other person or afraid they may hurt me. So when God calls us to "not be anxious about anything" He isn't slapping us down for something we can't help. He's calling us to refuse to give in to the natural anxieties which plague us in our fallenness. That doesn't mean some people don't have physical, mental, or developmental factors playing into their tendencies, or that medication is never necessary. But it means when anxieties arise, we flee to Christ as our sufficiency, and to His promises to care for us and do us good when we relinquish self-will in favor of His leading. We repent of loving the esteem of others too much. We repent of fear over Him not providing. We repent of anxiety over world events beyond our control, and reach out like a child to trust in faith and dependence. Sometimes we just need to sleep. But we strive to always cast off anxiety when it rears it's head, because we believe that peace is indeed possible when we seek to follow the Prince of it, who seeks to lead us from the fog into the clear.

Michael

3

Michael commented…

Thank you all for your wonderful comments. I'm thankful this sparked some conversation, including some disagreement. It is my hope that I can respond to most of these individually, but I have a mound of papers to grade.

In the meantime, thank you again for all of your wonderful comments, encouragement, and disagreements. They spark further thought.

Rob Wiese

5

Rob Wiese commented…

I, again, would respectfully disagree with this article.

I don't believe anxiety is a human attribute, but an attribute of life itself. It is part of the fallen world that which we live in. It rears its ugly head in moments of decision-making.

I also don't believe anxiety is a purely medical condition, as is my belief on many psychological "illnesses" that fall upon average humans (I'm not speaking of mental conditions one is born with like Autism). We often associate chemical imbalances to a psychological illness as if the illness caused the imbalance. I would like to throw out the idea that maybe because one thinks a certain way that that then inhibits the chemicals from producing properly rather than the other way around. I believe there needs to be a clear distinction between the mind and the brain.

I would agree in part with the article on entering into anxiety filled decisions with prayer and fasting. We are to be in prayer constantly and in all things as the scriptures advise us to do. God knows what's best for us and we should seek Him to make the decision that will, even in the process of making the decision, make us more holy and in union with Him (we won't be perfectly holy of course in this life).

Also an anxiety can be a symptom of a lie that one believes which was instilled into our hearts by the evil spirits (which I can personally and recently attest to). Once the light of God has been shone on that lie, you might come to realize that that anxiety was part of an elaborate scheme of demons. This strategy of demons is a three part scheme. First, they wound you, then they instill a lie in you, then you believe the lie and live life with that lie until God reveals the truth to you. It's a wrestling match that I recently discovered.

As a last note, I don't think I would be looking to Kierkegaard for existential understanding or a true understanding of anxiety. I would rather be scouring the scriptures (the literal Word of God) than rely on a man's writings, who could be very wrong on a lot of different things, and who philosophized some millennium and a half after my Lord and Savior who really does know what life is all about.

Put your faith and hope in Christ. Trust in Him in all things, not man.

Matthew Beal

1

Matthew Beal commented…

Speaking as a mental health professional, I think those who disagree have a point while missing the point. An anxiety disorder is a diagnosable mental health disorder that may have myriad expressions and be caused by diverse contributing factors. It is not the same as the existential angst at the root of Kierkegaard's concerns. Though the ultimate effect of angst may be quite similar at times to clinical anxiety, angst is rooted in the nature of our human existence, not in the fluctuations of mood and chemistry.

Kathleen Piche Steindler

1

Kathleen Piche Steindler commented…

I totally appreciate the way Kierkegaard developed you to understand and accept yourself and continue to be very high functioning with the handicap of anxiety. It is a beautiful story of grace.
I know life with and without anxiety and when dealing with anxiety functionality suffers greatly for me. I so appreciate the freedom of life without anxiety. Meditation has been the medicine that heals anxiety for me. Anxiety feels like a bucking bull that wants to throw me in every direction- or freeze me in place- life feels very unsafe- and it feels like we are all on the verge of impending disaster. On the other hand Meditation allows me to say no to my brain and nervous system and how things appear- it allows me to be still and know that He is God. It allows me to breath, anxiety gets me holding my breath. Meditation allows me the profound trust that stops me from vainly trying so hard. It brings me back to a reality of acceptance and peace and freedom.This of course would not work the same way for the person that is not certain of the existence of God. Yet it may still work fine. Faith in and of itself is good medicine for me. I am grateful for the gift of faith, it has been my anchor and my sail. It affords me sanity in a world that seems very unstable and insane sometimes. Faith has been my connection when all other connections are frail and vulnerable to disconnect. Faith is a beautiful mystery- that infiltrates my life with understanding, compassion and love for others and myself. Scripture speaks to me in an encouraging way, as you say, teaching how to engage with our frailties and our humanness. Inspiring new options that escape me in the moment, giving me liberating thoughts, making things new- catapulting me out of my ruts. The truths of scripture are found everywhere in many writings and all truth points to the One who called himself the Way and the Truth. Thank you Jesus!!!!!!! Glad Kierkegaard could register truth in the minds of many by his writings that come from his experience and suffering.

Please log in or register to comment

Log In