Posted in musings

unity of mind and will

In college I read quite a bit of Kierkegaard – some was assigned for my freshman honors seminar, and I kept going from there – and one of the major themes that has stuck in my memory since then is single-mindedness. I always find it challenging to quote succinctly from Kierkegaard, since he did not write in easily divisible points but in arguments crashing over and rolling underneath each other like ocean waves at the shore, and it is necessary (or at least highly recommended) to read a whole discourse to grasp the end to which all his words were tending. So in that light I would encourage you to read “Purity of Heart Is To Will One Thing” – but I will also attempt to include some short excerpts.

In that particular discourse, Kierkegaard began by contemplating the words of James: “for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways, will receive anythings from the Lord.” (James 1:6-8). Those are concerning words to anyone who looks inside themselves and sees the draw of our desires and thoughts to multiple things: a desire to be loved, or to be respected, or to gain power, or to accumulate wealth, or to live comfortably, and so on. We try to follow God while part of our heart gazes mournfully off to the side, complaining and trying to persuade us to take a different path; we avoid the unseen and tedious acts of faith like daily prayer and Scripture reading while continuing to perform the outward acts of church attendance and token service; we pamper and comfort our bodies instead of ruling over our physical desires and denying them for the sake of the good; in short, we love God with only part of our mind, part of our heart, part of our soul, and part of our body (cf. Matthew 22:37).

Shall a man in truth will one thing, then this one thing that he wills must be such that it remains unaltered in all changes, so that by willing it he can win immutability. If it changes continually, then he himself becomes changeable, double-minded, and unstable. And this continual change is nothing else than impurity. […] In truth to will one thing, then, can only mean to will the Good.

Soren Kierkegaard, “Purity of Heart Is To Will One Thing”

For of course, the only unchangeable One is God, so the only one thing that we can will, the only single purpose and direction we can have that doesn’t change through the seasons of life and even past death, is God Himself. The Psalms are continually pointing that out, after all. “Whom have I in heaven but You?” the Psalmist asks, “And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides You.” (Ps. 73:25). And again, “One thing I have asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in His temple.” (Ps. 27:4). Those are the words of a heart truly desiring God above all else and choosing to seek Him alone, not the changing passions of the body or the changing ideals of human culture.

What I have been realizing, stumbling through the Psalms and the Epistles in ways clearly not of my own planning, remembering that lingering philosophy, is that it is not easy to be single-minded, to have unity of purpose within myself, to truly and honestly will one thing in heart and mind and body and soul. I can say that I want the Good but be too cowardly to act on it when confrontation (or even just conversation) is warranted, showing that my will is also for safety and peace. Or I could be too undisciplined to pursue the Good diligently, again showing that I also desire comfort and convenience. And all the time I should be striving to say with the Apostle Paul that “one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).

Father in Heaven! What is a man without Thee! What is all that he knows, vast accumulation though it be, but a chipped fragment if he does not know Thee! What is all his striving, could it even encompass the world, but a half-finished work if he does not know Thee: Thee the One, who art one thing and who art all! So may Thou give to the intellect, wisdom to comprehend that one thing; to the heart, sincerity to receive this understanding; to the will, purity that wills only one thing. In prosperity may Thou grant perseverance to will one thing; amid distractions, collectedness to will one thing; in suffering, patience to will one thing. […] Alas, but this has indeed not come to pass. Something has come in between. The separation of sin lies in between. Each day, and day after day something is being placed in between: delay, blockage, interruption, delusion, corruption. So in this time of repentance may Thou give the courage once again to will one thing.

Soren Kierkegaard, “Purity of Heart Is To Will One Thing”

But as Kierkegaard reminds us, there is help from the Spirit along the way, and the chance for repentance to choose to set aside our sin once more and attempt again to follow God with unity of mind and with totality of self. Our salvation is not a single prayer to cover all time, but a lifetime of learning and growing and choosing to walk in the path of the Lord, desiring Him and loving Him with all that we are, setting aside all that distracts and unifying all that is good and helpful into that greatest Good of all.

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