Soren Kierkegaard’s “Works of Love” 3 (Love as hidden and recognizable)

works of love

In 1847 the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard published his “Christian reflections” on “the works of love.” I have come to believe that Kierkegaard has been largely misunderstood, misrepresented, and therefore ignored by many Christians, to their own detriment. So for these reasons, and due to my own interest in what he has to teach about the “works of love,” I will be presenting a series of meditations as I read through this book.

In this entry we will consider the opening section entitled: “Love’s Hidden Life and its Recognizability by its Fruits.” Kierkegaard begins this reflection on love by stating that “If it were true…that one should believe in nothing which he cannot see by means of his physical eyes, then first and foremost one ought to give up believing in love.” He says this because in its essence, the life of love is hidden. He eloquently writes,

“From whence comes love, where does it have its origin and its source; where is the place, its stronghold, from which it proceeds? Certainly this place is hidden or is in that which is hidden. There is a place in a human being’s most inward depths; from this place proceeds the life of love, for “from the heart proceeds life”…

…The hidden life of love is in the most inward depths, unfathomable, and still has an unfathomable relationship with the whole of existence. As the quiet lake is fed deep down by the flow of hidden springs, which no eye sees, so a human being’s love is grounded, still more deeply, in God’s love. If there were no spring at the bottom, if God were not love, then there would be neither a little lake nor man’s love. As the still waters begin obscurely in the deep spring, so a man’s love mysteriously begins in God’s love.” (pp. 26-27)

The text he refers to is Proverbs 4:23

“Keep your heart with all vigilance,
for from it flow the springs of life.” (English Standard Version)

Although love is in its essence hidden, it cannot remain so, and expresses itself in fruitfulness. His thoughts here are based on the words of Christ as in Luke 6:44

“For each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.” (p. 23)

In this regard he brings out several things. Love is knowable by its fruits and more importantly, love needs to be knowable. He explains this by saying that it is like the poet that needs to write, the orator that needs to speak, or the girl that needs to love. He says it is “an indication of abundance.”

“It would be the greatest torture, if love really could contain such a self-contradiction, for love to require of itself to keep hidden, to require its own unrecognizability. Would it not be as if a plant, sensitive to the vigour and blessing of life in itself, did not dare let it become known and kept the blessing of itself as if it were a curse – alas, as a secret in its inexplicable withering away.” (p. 28)

Kierkegaard continues saying that “the tree is also known by its leaves, but the fruit is still its essential mark.” He brings up this factor in order to discuss the relationship between words and deeds. He thought that the leaves and fruits of a tree were a fitting way to illustrate the truth of 1 John 3:18 “Little children, let us not love in words or in speech but in deed and in truth.”

“How can we better compare this love in words and speech than with the leaves of a tree; for words and expressions and the inventions of speech can also be a mark of love, but they are uncertain. ” (p. 29)

He adds an important qualification here, probably conceiving in his mind how this truth could possibly be misapplied in human relationships. What he says here is especially touching, and also very convicting especially for us introverts.

“Yet because of this one should not repress the words, any more than one should hide visible emotion when it is genuine, for this can be just as unkind a wrong as holding back from a man what is due him. Your friend, your beloved, your child, or whoever is the object of your love, has a claim upon its expression also in words when it really moves you inwardly. The emotion is not your possession but the other’s…When the heart is full you should not grudgingly and loftily, short-changing the other, injure him by pressing your lips together in silence; you should let the mouth speak out of the abundance of the heart” (alluding to Matthew 12:34, p. 29)

Kierkegaard then discusses the “practical theology” that is necessary for more fully understanding how the hiddenness and fruitfulness of love “work” in the life of the Christian. In this regard he presents the necessity of what we now call “spiritual formation.”

“…if it is really to bear fruit and consequently be recognizable by its fruit, it must form a heart. Love, to be sure, proceeds from the heart, but let us not in our haste about this forget the eternal truth that love forms the heart. Every man experiences the transient excitements of an inconstant heart, but to have a heart in this natural sense is infinitely different from forming a heart in the eternal sense. How rarely the eternal gets enough control over a man so that the love establishes itself in him eternally or forms his heart. Yet it is the essential condition for bearing love’s own fruit by which it is known.” (pp. 29-30)

Kierkegaard closes this section with some words concerning the tendency to become judgmental of others regarding their fruitfulness. But he will have none of that and expresses that the purpose of the scriptures is otherwise.

“They are rather spoken warningly to the individual, to you, my reader, and to me, to encourage each one not to let his love become unfruitful but to work so that it is capable of being recognized by its fruits, whether these are recognized by others or not…For the divine authority of the Gospel speaks not to one man about another man, not to you, the reader, about me, or to me about you – no, when the gospel speaks it speaks to the single individual.” (p. 31)

Notice that Kierkegaard is not for parading the fruits of love, but merely for producing them in reality. That is what he means by working so that love becomes recognizable, verifying that love is in that hidden place.

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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