Worry, Not: Søren Kierkegaard on What We Can Learn from the Birds of the Air and Lilies of the Field

Long before the modern remedies for an anxious mind came into existence, the antidote to worrying, it seems, could be found in nature, by giving heed to the “birds of the air” and the “lilies of the field”:

“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them…consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” 

Spoken by Jesus during the famous “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 6:26, 28) to encourage His followers to refrain from worrying “about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear” (Matthew 6:25), this passage contains a most important lesson for how to live without the debilitating, crippling worry that human beings have always been inclined to assume – and which is particularly prevalent in today’s world, with the rise of anxiety-related disorders and psychological distress.

What exactly do the birds of the air and lilies of the field teach us that can help stave off our worrying?

It is precisely this question that Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) so eloquently addresses in his work, The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air: Three Godly Discourses, first published in April 1849.

Considered one of Kierkegaard’s most important works, it encapsulates the famous Danish thinker’s theology, namely that:

“Christianity is a moral and spiritual exercise that has the ultimate purpose of teaching human beings their imperfection, their weakness and selfishness, in the face of the perfection, majesty, and absolute otherness of God.”

1. From the lily and the bird, we learn to keep silent (i.e. not to question)…

The bird:

“The bird keeps silent and waits; it knows, or rather it fully and firmly believes, that everything takes place at its appointed time. Therefore the bird waits, but it knows that it is not granted to it to know the hour or the day; therefore it keeps silent. ‘It will surely take place at the appointed time,’ the bird says. Or no, the bird does not say this, but keeps silent. But its silence speaks, and its silence says that it believes it, and because it believes it, it keeps silent and waits. Then, when the moment comes, the silent bird understand that this is the moment; it makes use of it and is never put to shame.”

The lily:

“because it knows that [Spring] will come at the appointed time; it knows that it would not benefit in any way whatever if it were permitted to determine the seasons of the year. It does not say, ‘When will we get rain?’ or ‘When will we have sunshine? Or ‘Now we have had too much rain,’ or ‘Now it is too hot.’…no, it keeps silent and waits…”

It is what their silence expresses, however, that is most important:

“[Their silence] expresses respect for God, for the fact that it is he who rules and he alone to whom wisdom and understanding belong. And just because this silence is respect for God, is worship – as it can be in nature – this silence is so solemn. And because this silence is solemn in this way, a person perceives God in nature – so what wonder it is, indeed, that everything keeps silent out of respect for him!”

Before you say that this is silly because the lily and the bird cannot speak, consider this:

“Before God, you shall not become more important to yourself than a lily or a bird…And even if what you want to accomplish in the world were the most amazing feat: you shall acknowledge the lily and the bird as your teachers and before God you are not to become more important to yourself than the lily and the bird.”

Because it is not about us, or our plans:

“Would that in the silence you might forget yourself, forget what you yourself are called, your own name, the famous name, the lowly name, the insignificant name, in order in silence to pray to God, ‘Hallowed by your name!’”

But about God and His plans:

“Would that in silence you might forget yourself, your plans, the great, all-encompassing plans, or the limited plans concerning your life and its future, in order in silence to pray to God, ‘Your kingdom come!’ Would that you might in silence forget your will, your willfulness, in order in silence to pray to God, ‘Your will be done!’ Yes, if you could learn from the lily and the bird to become utterly silent before God, what, then, wouldn’t the gospel be able to help you do – then nothing would be impossible for you.”


2. From the lily and the bird, we learn to obey God…

“Out there with the lily and the bird there is silence, we said. But this silence – or what we strove to learn from it, to become silent – is the first condition for truly being able to obey.”

Just think of all the things in nature that seamlessly unfold at God’s command:

“…[t]he sighing of the wind, the echo of the forest, the whispering of the leaves…the rise of the sun at a given hour, and its setting at a given hour…and the agreement of the seasons of the year in their precise alternation: everything, everything, everything is obedience. Yes, were there a star in the heavens that wanted to have its own will, or a speck of dust on earth: they are instantly annihilated, and with equal ease. For in nature everything is nothing, understood in the sense that there is nothing other than God’s unconditional will; at the same instant that it is not unconditionally God’s will, it has ceased to exist.”

It is the undivided nature of their obedience, however, that allows the lily and the bird to submit fully, wholly and unconditionally:

“If the place assigned to the lily is really as unfortunate as possible, so that it can be easily foreseen that it will be totally superfluous all its life, not be noticed by a single person who might find joy in it; if the place and the surroundings are – yes, I had forgotten it was the lily of which we are speaking – are so ‘desperately’ unfortunate, that not only is it not visited, but is avoided: the obedient lily obediently submits to its circumstances and bursts forth in all its loveliness.”

The lily disregards itself and thinks:

“…[the lily] thinks as follows: ‘Of course, I myself cannot determine the location and the circumstances; this is thus not my affair in the least way; that I stand where I stand is God’s will.’”

And the bird, even if it disagrees:

“When the moment comes for it to depart, even though, according to its understanding of the matter, the bird is quite certain that things are quite good the way they are, and that to travel is thus to let go of what is certain in order to grasp what is uncertain, the obedient bird nonetheless immediately sets forth on the journey…When the bird comes into contact with the harshness of this life, when it is tired with difficulties and opposition, when, every morning, day after day, it finds that its nest has been disturbed: every day, the obedient bird begins its work all over again with the same joy and meticulousness it displayed the first time.”

Human beings, on the other hand, are apt to complain:

“Finding themselves in the lily’s circumstance, they might question ‘why’ and ‘to what purpose’ – esteeming themselves too ‘lovely’ to be ignored, and thus withering from grief.”

Because, unfortunately, we are situated between the opposing forces of good and evil:

“No one can serve two masters; he must either love the one and hate the other, or hold fast to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon, not God and the world, not good and evil. Thus, there are two powers: God and the world, good and evil, and the reason a human being can only serve one master is certainly that these two powers – even though one power is infinitely stronger than the other – are in mortal combat with one another.”

And to succumb to one power, even in the slightest, is to wholly disregard the other:

“This enormous danger – a danger in which a human being is indeed situated by virtue of being a human being, a danger that the lily and the bird are spared in their unconditional obedience, which is happy innocence, for neither God and the world nor good and evil are fighting over them – this enormous danger, that ‘the human being’ is situated between these two enormous powers and the choice is left to him: this enormous danger is that one must either love or hate, that not to love is to hate, for these two powers are so hostile that the least inclination to one side is regarded by the other side as unconditional opposition.”


3. From the lily and the bird, we learn joy…

“To learn joy and how to be joyful, we must first understand how joy is taught – that is, how one teaches joy.”

And the best way one teaches joy is by being joyful himself – by being joy itself:

“…no one teaches joy better than a person who is joyful himself. The teacher of joy really has nothing other to do than to be joyful himself, or to be joy. However much he strains to communicate joy – if he himself is not joyful, the instruction is imperfect.”

Since human beings are hardly joyful all the time, we must look to the lily and the bird:

For “[joy] is, after all, within the lily and the bird.” 

But what are they joyful about?

The bird:

“What joy, when day is dawning and the bird awakens early to the joy of the day;…[w]hat joy, when the bird – not merely like a joyful worker who sings at his work, but whose essential work is singing – joyfully begins his song…And so it is throughout the bird’s entire life: everywhere and always it finds something – or, better, it finds enough – in which to take joy. It does not waste a single moment, but it would view as wasted every moment in which it was not joyful.”

The lily:

“–What joy, when the dew falls and refreshes the lily, which has now cooled off and prepares to rest; what joy, when after its bath, the lily sensually dries itself in the first ray of sunlight; and what joy, the long summer day!”

Unlike humans, who tend to make our happiness contingent upon external factors:

“Oh, the conditions for becoming joyful cause us human beings much trouble and concern – even if all the conditions were fulfilled, we perhaps would not become unconditionally joyful anyway…[n]o, only the person who is joy itself becomes unconditionally joyful, and only by becoming unconditionally joyful does one become joy itself.”

The lily and the bird are joyful unconditionally:

“for the very fact that what gives them such joy is so little is proof that they themselves are joy and joy itself…[i]f what one rejoiced over was nothing at all, and yet one truly was indescribably joyful, this would be the best proof that one is oneself joy and joy itself – and the lily and the bird, the joyful teachers of joy, who, precisely because they are unconditionally joyful, are joy itself.”

So, we should really try to imitate the philosophy that governs their lives:

“…their instruction in joy, which is in turn expressed by their lives, is quite briefly as follows: There is a today; it is. Indeed, an infinite emphasis is placed upon this is. There is a today – and there is no worry, absolutely none, about tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. This is not foolishness on the part of the lily and the bird, but is the joy of silence and obedience. For when you keep silent in the solemn silence of nature, then tomorrow does not exist, and when you obey as a creature obeys, then there exists no tomorrow, that unfortunate day that is the invention of garrulousness and disobedience. But when, owing to silence and obedience, tomorrow does not exist, then, in the silence and obedience, today is, it is – and then the joy is, as it is in the lily and the bird.”

Because there are so many things to be joyful about:

“…that you came into existence, that you exist, that ‘today’ you receive the necessities of existence…that you became a human being…that the sun shines for you and for your sake, that when it becomes weary, the moon begins to shine and the stars are lit; that it becomes winter, that al of nature disguises itself, pretends to be a stranger – and does so in order to delight you; that spring comes, that birds come in large flocks – and do so in order to bring you joy; that green plants spring forth, that the forest grows into beauty, has its nuptials – and does so in order to bring you joy; that autumn comes, that the birds fly away, not to make themselves precious and hard to get, oh, no, but so that you will not become bored with them..is this supposed to be nothing to rejoice over!”

It is not that the lily and the bird don’t have cares or sorrows of their own:

“Does not all of creation sigh under the perishability to which it has been subjected against its will? It is all subjected to perishability!…And even if it escapes the fate of being immediately cast into the oven, the lily must nevertheless wither after having already suffered one thing and another. And even if it were permitted to die of old age, at some point the bird must nevertheless die, separated from its beloved, after having already suffered one thing and another. Oh, it is all perishability, and everything will at some point become what it is, the prey of perishability.”

But that they maintain their joy in the face of such perishability:

“With the help of unconditional silence and unconditional obedience, they cast – indeed, as the most powerful catapult casts something away from itself, and with a passion like that which a person casts away what he most detests – all their sorrow away and cast it – with a sureness like that with which the most reliable of guns hits its mark, and with a faith and confidence like that one encounters only in the most practiced marksman – upon God. At that very instant – and this very instant is from the first moment, is today, is contemporaneous with the first moment it exists – at that very instant it is unconditionally joyful. Marvelous dexterity!”

Simply put, they exercise compliance:

“And one is to cast ‘all’ sorrow away; if one does not cast all sorrow away, then one of course retains much of it, some of it, a little of it – one does not become joyful; even less does one become unconditionally joyful. And if one does not cast it unconditionally upon God but somewhere else, then one is not unconditionally rid of it; then, one way or another, it comes back again, most often in the form of an even greater and more bitter sorrow.”

So let us remember:

“’Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory.’ Yes, his is the kingdom, and therefore you must unconditionally keep silent lest you direct disturbing attention to the fact of your existence – but through the solemnity of unconditional silence express that the kingdom is his.

And his is the power, and therefore you must unconditionally obey and be unconditionally obedience in submitting to everything, for his is the power.

And his is the glory, and therefore in everything you do and everything you suffer you have unconditionally one more thing to do, to give him the glory, for the glory is his.”

And hold fast to this:

“…that his is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever; then there is for you a ‘today’ that never ends, a today in which you can eternally remain present to yourself.

[…]

Consider what concerns you, if not as a human being, then as a Christian: that from a Christian standpoint even the danger of death is so insignificant to you that it is said: ‘this very day you are in paradise.’ And thus the transition from time to eternity – the greatest possible distance – is so swift that even if it were to take place through the destruction of everything, you are in paradise this very day, because from a Christian standpoint, you abide in God.”

For it is by abiding in God that we can exercise silence, practice obedience, live joyfully, and truly be…“anxious for nothing”:

“For if you abide in God, then whether you live or die, whether things go well or badly for you while you are alive; whether you die today or only after seventy years; and whether you find your death at the bottom of the sea, at its greatest depth, or you are exploded in the air: you still do not come to be outside of God, you abide – thus you remain present to yourself in God and therefore on the day of your death you are in paradise this very day.”


The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air: Three Godly Discourses is a dense, challenging read, but is full of insight that can be translated into practical tips for the anxious-minded.

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