In one of Søren Kierkegaard’s later works, For Self-Examination, in which he took more direct aim at what he saw as the deficient Christianity of his day, he asks us to consider the following parable.

There was a king who issued a command to all of his subjects. This was a big deal and everyone knew it. They all responded to this serious situation like this:

“A remarkable change comes over them all: they all become interpreters, the officers become authors, every blessed day there comes out an interpretation more learned than the last, more acute, more elegant, more profound, more ingenious, more wonderful, More Charming, and more wonderfully charming.”

If you want a sense of how seriously everyone took the command, just look at the mounting piles of literature exploring the command from all angles. People even began writing reviews and critical pieces on this initial body of literature. Everyone was busy with the king’s command.

And yet.

“Everything became interpretation—but no one read the royal command with a view to acting in accordance with it.”

Does that sound familiar? They took the command seriously. How so? Not by obeying it, but by writing about it and discussing it.

Keep in mind that Kierkegaard was writing to Danish Christians in the early 1800s. This is a recurring problem for Christians. We take God and his direction for human beings and for his church so seriously that we write books, commentaries, and blogs. Then we start writing books, commentaries, and blogs on those works. Ironically, there are (really helpful!) commentaries on Kierkegaard’s works as well. No one can accuse of us ignoring God’s commands because there’s a huge body of literature in which we work to get. it. right.

And yet.

Do we imagine that when Jesus told us to love our neighbors he wanted us to write a bunch of books or blog posts about that statement rather than—hear me out—actually loving our actual neighbors? There are many commands in the Bible. But we have a tendency to write, preach, and group-study about them rather than simply obeying them. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t write, preach, or do group studies. It’s simply to ask a more fundamental question: why did God tell us any of this in the first place?

“We take God and commands so seriously that we write books, commentaries, and blogs. But is this what it means to take his commands seriously? Do we find ourselves putting his commands into action?”

Kierkegaard finishes the parable by speaking about what the king can and can’t forgive. The king actually turns out to be very gracious. He can probably forgive the fact that people weren’t obeying the command. Even if the people all got together and signed a petition asking the king to be patient with them as they failed to obey the command or even asking him to abolish the command because it was too hard to obey—even then the king could probably forgive them.

But for Kierkegaard, there is an unforgivable sin here: The people decided on their own what it meant to take the command seriously. In other words, when they chose to act as though taking the command seriously meant producing literature and discussion rather than obedience, this was when they went too far.

I’m convicted and challenged by this parable. I need to hear it. Pick any command in Scripture: love your neighbor, weep with those who weep, pray for those who persecute you, preach the gospel, outdo one another in showing love, etc. Maybe we’ll decide to take it seriously. But we also have to allow the king to determine what it means to take it seriously. In Kierkegaard’s parable, you could devote your whole life to the command (by becoming an interpreter or author) and yet never have engaged the command itself. May this not be true of us.

Let’s step outside of the loop of endless commentary and discussion, step away from our apparent need to police each other’s literature on any one of these commands, and take any of these commands that God gives us seriously in the way he desires. By obeying.

Mark has been serving in pastoral roles for nearly 20 years. After a decade in various teaching and administrative roles at Eternity Bible College, Mark is a pastor at Creekside Church in Rocklin, California. His books include Resonate: Enjoying God’s Gift of Music and the New York Times bestseller Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples, which he co-authored with Francis Chan.

8 COMMENTS

  1. I needed this. I got into some pretty fierce debates with memebers of other christian traditions recently and it’s just gotten my practice of faith all messed up. Am I worshipping RIGHT? Will God forgive me if I’m not?? I deeply respect Kirkgaard, and have tried reading his book “Provocations” but he can be very deep and hard to understand. This is a great parable and reminder that it’s about obedience, not necessarily understanding. Good stuff, Mark.

    • I’m so glad this was helpful, Frank! I love it. Keep it up! If you want a slightly more accessible starting point with Kierkegaard, his Works of Love is stunning. For a cool overview of his thinking based on excerpts from his writings, try How to Read Kierkegaard by Caputo. Or for a good overview of his life that includes a rundown of his works, Backhouse’s biography is really accessible and well done.

  2. Yes, challenging! Would the people have been in obedience if, after having interpreted the command as they understood it, they then acted under that interpretation? How does one interpret “outdo one another in showing love”? And where is that command found?
    Love these articles, Mark! Thank you!

    • Great question, Tony! Of course this is only Kierkegaard’s parable, so it doesn’t matter a ton, but my guess is that he’d say that an earnest attempt to obey what they understood would have been praiseworthy. I think the thing he’s critiquing is deciding that interpretation was more important than obedience. But this is a great question. It’s got me thinking.

      I slightly misquoted Rom. 12:10: “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” I take that to mean we should keep working harder to honor/love the people around us even more than they honor/love us. I like to imagine how could it would be to live in a community where everyone is competing to honor the others the most.

      • Agreed on the interesting aspect of interpretation and acting upon it. Because even as you list, “pick any command in Scripture…outdo one another in [showing honor]…”, that command cannot be taken out of the context of the rest of the chapter, or the book of Romans, or the Bible, or even the natural world and wonders around us He created that also shows us. NIV interprets this command as “Honor one another above yourselves.” Seems like a pretty good interpretation especially when reinforced with the other verses in chapter 12; also, a less competitive interpretation. You know I’m into competition; just in the right context.

        One could interpret (falsely, I believe) “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” as radically as literally knifing yourself on a literal altar without the right context and interpretation of that verse. Or maybe a slightly less radical version, a person could decline to eat anything not grown in a non-industrial garden. This, I believe, would still be a very poor interpretation, since it doesn’t affect the lives of those around them; which I believe Romans 12 is driving. Of course, in the context of this article too, the overall great forgiveness of our God would likely forgive each of these even though acting out of poor interpretation.

  3. This is an excellent reminder for me in remembering that old saying that “actions speak louder than words.”

    I have no right to point fingers at others without first checking myself. I am making slow progress through Bible Study and prayer and reminders like this one.

    Thank you for posting this and sharing.

  4. Everything I’ve read on ya’lls blog has felt like nourishment.

    I was just talking to a friend about how Christians in the West have reduced the definition of “loving people” to “being truthful about their sin,” and we got to talking about what “loving one another” as described in Corinthians really might look like.

    And I remembered something a priest had said once: that time and time again, Jesus referred to Himself as the bread of life because, in that comparison, you can find what it means to love people. Loving people means that every person you interact with leaves feeling “fed.” Like you left them with something real to get them through their day/week/month. And sometimes “loving people,” means saying absolutely nothing, and just being there with them.

    Like St. Francis said: Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary: use words

    Appreciate you guys!

    • I love that, Sonia! Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’ll definitely be thinking about the idea of “leaving people feeling fed” as I interact.

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