Kierkegaard on the Seventh Sin

Edited by Phillip Hanson

By Anderson Hultgren

    8 min. Read Time

Published December 1st, 2020

            Like Luther before him, Søren Kierkegaard was a Christian rebel. However, he was not a rebel against God nor the Christian faith. Kierkegaard was a rebel against being “conformed to this world.” Using the grace imparted to him, he would renew his mind making sure that he could “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2 ESV).[1]
            Furthermore, Kierkegaard did not only discern for himself, but for all of Christianity. When G.W.F. Hegel’s philosophy (the dominant philosopher of the age) claimed to define Christianity through logic, Kierkegaard responded with biblical faith.[2] When the church no longer acted as Christians—not even knowing what it meant to be Christian—Kierkegaard wrote his Attack on “Christendom.”[3] When the crowd[4] accused him of arrogance and pride, he stood firm in confessing the Christian faith, “Whether it is a help or a torment, I want only one thing, I want to belong to Christ, I want to be a Christian.”[5] Who better then Søren Kierkegaard to inquire on the seventh sin of pride? 
            Pride can be one of the most confusing sins, as it is often conflated with other behaviors like defiance, self-worth, or cowardliness. However, pride is a specific sin with defining characteristics. Sin, in many ways, is like an enemy, but if you do not know your enemy, you may forget which weapons to use when combating it. This article will track how Kierkegaard defined pride, and how to use the weapon of humility against it. 

The Tax Collector - Luke 18:13

            We know the parable well. Two men turn to pray. The first, a well-respected religious leader who, “standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get’” (Lk. 18:11-12). The second was a despised tax collector, “standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (v. 13). Of the two, Jesus justified the tax collector claiming, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (v. 14).
            Noting that only the proud need to be humbled, Kierkegaard desects the difference between the two.[6] The first difference is the distance each has from their peers. Though the pharisee was “standing by himself” (v. 11) as the text states, he was surrounded by the eyes of those around him. If you have prayed in public, like I have, you may have felt this temptation to be seen before others. This is one of pride’s temptations, to take the reward of self-exaltation, claiming a difference of effort or greatness. Kierkegaard expounds, 

The Pharisee's pride consisted precisely in his proudly using other people to measure his distance from them, in his refusing before God to let go of the thought of other people but clinging to this thought in order to stand proudly by himself in contrast to other people. But that, of course, is not standing by oneself, least of all standing alone by oneself before God.[7]

            The pharisee’s pride is traced all throughout this passage. Not only did the pharisee pray so that others could see him, but he did this to make himself superior to the other—above the “other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (v. 11). His prayer was itself an action of sinful pride, fueled by years of a dedication to greatness. This was the reward of the pharisee, to make himself greater than those around him. The pharisee chose self-exaltation as his reward. The pharisee chose pride, to which Kierkegaard writes, “No more than water changes its nature and runs up the mountains can a human being lift himself up to God-by pride.”[8] 
            Pride’s temptation is sly, slithering amidst the shadows and the human heart. What response do we have if we recognize it in ourselves? Kierkegaard suggests we follow the approach of the tax collector, 

Self-accusation is the possibility of justification. The tax collector accused himself. There was no one else who accused him. It was not civic justice that seized him by the chest and said, "You are a criminal"; it was not the people whom he perhaps cheated who beat him on the breast and said, "You are a cheater" but he beat his own breast and said, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." He accused himself, that he was a sinner before God.[9] 

            Such a self-accusation combines confession before God with honest remorse. Honest remorse is evidenced by the tax collector, who stood “far off … [lifted] his eyes to heaven … [beating] his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (v. 13). These actions are a result of an honest reflection of his sinful nature. We can only honestly respond by seeing our sinful state before our holy God. Thus, Kirkegaard’s first weapon is honest self-accusation before God. 

Pride and Cowardliness

            As we discussed in the introduction, pride is often conflated with other behaviors. Kierkegaard wrote extensively on cowardliness, stating, “what is spoken of under the name of pride is ordinarily cowardliness.”[10] Although scripture is accurate in its terminology, everyday speech might call cowardliness pride. To this, Kierkegaard claims cowardliness a false pride.[11] Like combatting pride with a specific weapon, we can combat what we might call pride through a prudent understanding of cowardliness.[12]
            Concerning this false pride, Kierkegaard describes a coward,

False pride [Cowardliness] requires a high conception of one's own worth and of the responsibility the proud person has for himself, which he fears more than he fears the whole world. The proud person [Pride] always wants to do the right thing, the great thing, and he is actually struggling not with people but with God, because he wants to do it with his own power; he does not want to sneak out of something no, what he wants is to set the task as high as possible and then to finish it by himself, satisfied with his own consciousness and his own approval.[13]

            The difference between the coward and the proud is linked to motivation and reward.[14] The proud wish to be great so that they can gain their own approval. This can clearly be seen in the pharisee who exalts himself when “standing by himself.” The proud’s reward is self-exultation. Conversely, the coward wishes to be great to gain the approval of others, struggling with people. The coward’s reward is the exultation from other people. 
            Unlike the proud, who will take every step small or great, the coward struggles with acedia. Cowardliness neglects to take care of the daily tasks, for they are too small and unimportant. For, as the theologian writes, “Cowardliness … always wants to deal with the important, not simply in order to carry out something properly but because it is flattering to be tried in the more important things and because, when one fails, it is consoling that it was something important.”[15] Since the approval from the crowd is their reward, the coward finds menial tasks a trifle—not worthy of their time. One might be tempted to say that the coward is too proud to take care of what needs caring, but the truth is they are too fearful to be associated with the trifles. No one would admire them, praise them, or place them above others. 
Kierkegaard offers this defense against cowardness, 

God does not give a spirit of cowardliness but a spirit of power and of love and of self control, such as is necessary in order to know what is the good, what is truly great and noble, what significance it has for him and in relation to him; in order to love the good with the unselfish love that desires only to be an unworthy servant, which is always love's delight.[16]

            Citing 2 Timothy 1:7 and 1 John 4:8, the coward should no longer be controlled by the praise of others but take self control and lovingly serve others, taking their reward from God alone.[17] However, concerning pride, Kierkegaard’s second weapon against pride is prudence. If we can understand ‘what pride is’ we can understand how to fight pride
            The proud pat themselves on the back, where the coward craves the applause. Each commit their practice to please their audience, creating a habitual and sinful vice. Both proud and cowardly pursue greatness but with an evil and lesser reward: non-divine exultation. Neither enter into the joy of our Lord, never hearing (nor solely wanting), “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Mt. 25:21). 
            To combat pride, Kierkegaard argued that we must look to our motivation, checking which reward we delight in (Mt. 6:1-4). The pursuit of excellence for the Kingdom of Heaven is indeed good, but such greatness may not have an applauding audience or self appreciation. The pursuit of godly greatness is a humble life. The humble accuse themselves before God (Jas. 4:10), place others above themselves (Phil. 2:3-11), do not rely on their own strength or understanding (Prov. 3:5; 2 Cor. 1:8), and are prudent[18] in their pursuit of godly humility (Zeph. 2:3).



            [1] Søren Kierkegaard, Howard V. Hong, Edna H. Hong, Kierkegaard's Writings, XX, Volume 20: Practice in Christianity: Practice in Christianity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013, Project MUSE), XII.; 
"the requirement for being a Christian ... should indeed be stated, presented, and heard. From the Christian point of view, there ought to be no scaling down of the requirement, nor suppression of it instead of a personal admission and confession. The requirement should be heard and I understand what is said as spoken to me alone—so that I might learn not only to resort to grace but to resort to it in relation to the use of grace."
            [2] See: Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumbs (Cambridge, UK:Cambridge University Press, 2009); "Soren Kierkegaard" Christian Classics Ethereal Library (Online), Accessed 11/04/20:
            [3] Søren Kierkegaard, Attack Upon "Christendom" (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1946, Online), Accessed 11/04/20:
            [4] See: Søren Kierkegaard, The Crowd is Untruth, (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Online). Accessed Nov. 3, 2020:
            [5] Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity, 115. 
            [6] Søren Kierkegaard, Howard V. Hong, Edna H. Hong, Kierkegaard's Writings, XVIII: Without Authority (Princeton University Press, 2009, Project MUSE), 129. 
            [7] Ibid., 129.
            [8] Ibid., 132.
            [9] Ibid.
            [10] Søren Kierkegaard, Howard V. Hong, Edna H. Hong, Kierkegaard's Writings, V, Volume 5: Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses (Princeton University Press, 2015, Online), 354.
            [11] Ibid., 355; “We certainly do not say this in order to extol that false pride, but its way nevertheless is terrible and therefore is seldom trodden, which is fine, of course, because the devil lies in wait for false pride, and it becomes his victim, since it is cowardliness.”
            [12] Fr. Jeff Reimer, “The Seven Deadly Sins: A Short Introduction” Worthwhile Theology Magazine, 5 (2020): Accessed 11/08/20: 
            [13] Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, 354.
            [14] Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety, trans. Reidar Thomte (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 145; “Pride begins through an activity, cowardice through a passivity; in all other respects they are identical, because in cowardice there is just enough activity to maintain anxiety about the good. Pride is a profound cowardice … Cowardice is a profound pride.”
            [15] Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, 365. 
            [16] Ibid., 369.
            [17] Søren Kierkegaard, Howard V. Hong, Edna H. Hong, Kierkegaard's Writings, XVI: Works of Love (Princeton University Press, 2013, Project MUSE), 67, 74, 84.
“Love is a need, the deepest need, in the person in whom there is love for the neighbor; he does not need people just to have someone to love, but he needs to love people. Yet there is no pride or haughtiness in this wealth, because God is the middle term, and eternity's shall binds and guides this great need so that it does not go astray and turn into pride. But there are no limits to the objects, because the neighbor is all human beings, unconditionally every human being.” 
“Whether someone savoring his arrogance and his pride openly gives other people to understand that they do not exist for him and, for the nourishment of his arrogance, wants them to feel it as he demands expressions of slavish submission from them, or whether he slyly and secretly expresses that they do not exist for him simply by avoiding any contact with them (perhaps also out of fear that openness would incite people and endanger him personally)- these are basically one and the same.” 
“To will to exist openly for other people only according to one's advantages of earthly dis- similarity is pride and arrogance; but the sagacious invention of not willing to exist for others at all in order secretly to enjoy in alliance with one's peers the advantages of one's dissimilarity is cowardly pride.” 
            [18] Jeff Reimer, “The Seven Deadly Sins: A Short Introduction”

Further Reading: 
            Søren Kierkegaard, Howard V. Hong, Edna H. Hong, Kierkegaard's Writings, XXII: The Point of View, (Princeton University Press, 2009, Online).
            Ulrich Steinvorth, "Kierkegaard on due Pride" in Pride and Authenticity (London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, Cham) 33-38. 
            Clare Carlisle, “Humble Courage: Kierkegaard on Abraham and Mary,” Literature and Theology, (Vol 30, Issue 3, September 2016), Pages 278–292,

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