“To need God is man’s highest perfection” (Soren Kierkegaard)

Written by on March 15, 2011

This morning I was reminded again of Soren Kierkegaard’s phrase “to need God is man’s highest perfection.” First time I heard these words I was sitting in a summer class up at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C.  Somewhere midway through a morning lecture, Dr. James Houston got off his notes and began to reflect more personally on a life of prayer. And in the midst of his delightful ramblings and musings he said: “The greatest privilege we can have in the spiritual life is to have a sense of need.” I was immediately struck by how much sense these strange words were making of my experience of adult faith and formation. As many of you enter into this season of Lent in which we prepare for Good Friday remembrance and Easter celebration these words of Kierkegaard are worth meditating upon. I have placed them within the larger context. After addressing the way his nineteenth century Danish community was throwing around the phrase “to be contented with the grace of God”, Kierkegaard launches into this exploration of need and its crucial dynamic in a person’s relationship with God. He writes, 

Then in a beautiful sense the human heart will gradually (the grace of God is never taken by force) become more and more discontented—that is, it will desire more and more ardently, will long more and more intensely, to be assured of grace.  See, now everything has become new, everything has changed.  With respect to the earthly, one needs little, and to the degree one needs less, the more perfect one is.  A pagan who knew how to speak only of the earthly has said that the deity is blessed because he needs nothing, and next to him the wise man, because he needs little.  In a human being’s relationship with God, it is inverted: the more he needs God, the more deeply he comprehends that he is in need of God, and then the more he in his need presses forward to God, the more perfect he is.  Therefore, the words “to be contented with the grace of God” will not only comfort a person, and then comfort him again every time earthly want and distress make him, to speak mundanely, needful of comfort, but when he really has become attentive to the words they will call him aside, where he no longer hears the secular mentality’s earthly mother tongue, the speech of human beings, the noise of shop keepers, but where the words explain themselves to him, confide to him the secret of perfection: that to need God is nothing to be ashamed of but is perfection itself, and that the saddest thing of all is if a human being goes through life without discovering that he needs God. (Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, ‘To Need God is Man’s Highest Perfection’, 303)

One can almost hear Kierkegaard celebrating with Jesus’ words and Paul’s boasting recorded in 2 Corinthians 12—“My grace is sufficient for you. For power is perfected in weakness.”   I would encourage you to re-read through this a number of times, even reading it a loud, and then land on one or more of the questions that follow. Blessings on the journey…   Reflection & Conversation: • In what ways has your experience with God compared to Kierkegaard’s portrait of growth here (i.e. a deepening awareness of our need for God)? • How might Kierkegaard’s words instruct our discerning of God’s activity in others lives? 

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