Lord, give us weak eyes for things of little worth, and eyes clear-sighted in all of your truth.
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55)
THIS prayer of Søren Kierkegaard is quoted at the front of his book The Sickness Unto Death, which was published in 1849. The book is described as “A Christian psychological exposition for upbuilding and awakening”. It is essentially a treatise on the nature and effect of despair — which, Kierkegaard says, is the “sickness unto death”.
The book is not an easy read, but it brings home Kierkegaard’s determination to confront important spiritual matters that, particularly in our age, we may prefer to avoid. Kierkegaard is clear that, in order to please God, we must not shrink from truth. We are to seek all of God’s truth, wherever that may lead us, and whatever challenges that may call on us to face.
The truth that Kierkegaard has in mind here is the knowledge of that which is truly horrifying before God. Christianly understood, this is not the earthly suffering of need, illness, misery, hardship, cares, and grief. What is truly horrifying is the sickness unto death, which is despair, and this is not understood by those who do not recognise the true God, and who worship an idol as God.
So this is a prayer that is not to be prayed lightly. Indeed, if all prayer is the human heart speaking to the heart of God, then no prayer should ever be prayed lightly. Every word addressed to the living God, the God of truth, is to be weighed carefully, and offered as a true intention of our hearts.
I remember when I was a school chaplain listening to some 300 young voices singing to a jaunty tune: “Take my life, and let it be Consecrated, Lord, to thee.” I could not help inwardly cringing, because the disconnection between the seriousness of the words and the requirements of morning chapel seemed so obvious. “You desire truth in the inward being,” Psalm 51.6 says.
So we might need to stop and think carefully before we pray: “Lord, give us weak eyes for things of little worth, and eyes clear-sighted in all of your truth.” All of us live with a measure of illusion about ourselves, about others, and about the world. We also carry illusions about God; none of us can know God as he is, in all of his truth.
Jesus’s promise to his followers was that he would send to us the Spirit of truth, who would lead us into all truth (John 16.13). To pray in the power of the Holy Spirit is to pray that we will be led into the truth — about who God truly is, and also about who I truly am. We are praying that we will be enabled, by the mercy of God, to become more and more our true selves in Christ.
This, again, is not something to be taken lightly. To be stripped of our illusions can leave us feeling helpless. It is not easy to let go of many of the cherished assumptions that we make about ourselves and our lives, to bolster our sense of control and significance.
Too often, my own praying has been a desperate calling out to God to remove all the obstacles to my ambitions. Many of these goals, I now begin to understand, go back to a childhood where the need to gain recognition from parents, teachers, and peers has been a constant issue. So my goals have often been as much about the need to prove myself to others as they have been about doing the will of God.
We are praying for humility here, and that is always a tough prayer to pray. To be humble is to be known for who you really are. Humility is about honest self-knowledge, which was highly prized by Kierkegaard. Genuine humility is not some pretence of being meek and mild: it is the truthfulness about ourselves before God, without which any faith journey is deeply compromised.
This prayer is asking for the grace of God to know which are the things that are pleasing to him, and which are the things of little worth in his sight. We are surrounded by much in our culture which is ultimately of little value before the priorities of the Kingdom of Jesus. There is also much that is positively sinful, in the sense of not being pleasing to God and to his heart of love.
We can all too easily accept as normal the inequality of wealth and resources in our world, and the greed that drives so much of this. There have certainly been times when I have known in my heart that Jesus is calling me to simplicity and generosity, and yet I have struggled not to harden my heart and let my selfish impulses have their way.
May we be given spiritual wisdom in a complex and demanding culture to see what are the things of little worth, and to know, also, what is the truth that will make us free.
The Revd Ian Cowley is Spirituality Co-ordinator for the diocese of Salisbury, and the author of The Contemplative Minister (BRF, 2015).