Learning from Kierkegaard’s Three Godly Discourses on the Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air
Father in Heaven! That which we in the company of other people, especially in the throng of humanity, have such difficulty learning, and which, if we have learned it elsewhere, is so easily forgotten in the company of other people—what it is to be a human being and what, from a godly standpoint, is the requirement for being a human being—would that we might learn it, or, if it has been forgotten, that we might learn it anew from the lily and the bird; would that we might learn it, if not all at once, then learn at least something of it, little by little—would that on this occasion we might from the lily and the bird learn silence, obedience, joy!
A few weeks ago, I was attending a conference in Dallas, Texas for my work. At a Barnes & Noble near my hotel, I stumbled upon the small volume The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air: Three Godly Discourses by the Danish existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). In it, Kierkegaard expounds on the passage from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus uses the lily of the field and the bird of the air to teach Christians about not worrying.
I was by myself when I arrived at the conference. The other faculty members from my school had not yet arrived. Perhaps it was being alone with my thoughts, perhaps it was being away from my wife and 4-month-old son, or perhaps it was something else. Nevertheless, I was depressed. So I purchased this book as a way to keep my mind occupied—but it ended up speaking to my soul. It reminded me of C.S. Lewis’ words that “many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.”
Kierkegaard does not deal with Matthew 6:24-34 the way you might expect. The immediate context of the passage is the lesson that we cannot serve two masters, so we must choose: God or mammon. The lily of the field and the bird of the air serve as a model for what true trust in God looks like; the lily and bird do not worry about material concerns, yet God is faithful to provide for them. But Kierkegaard dives deeper into the passage, allowing nature to become our teacher. For Kierkegaard, the self is “a relation that relates itself to itself and in relating itself to itself relates itself to another…[to] the power that established it.” As Christians throughout time immemorial have believed, the power that establishes the self is God, the utterly transcendent being who is Being itself. The God of classical Christianity is the Creator of all that is and is knowable through his creation. So Kierkegaard allows the lily of the field and the bird of the air to become our teachers to show us more about our human selves and how it is that we are to relate to the power that established us, God. The three primary lessons we are taught by the lily and the bird are silence, obedience, and joy.
The first lesson we learn from the lily of the field and the bird of the air is silence. Kierkegaard begins this exposition by contrasting a fictitious poet with the lily and bird. The poet, who initially appears very pious, might say something like:
Oh, would that I were a bird, or would that I were like a bird, like the free bird, full of wanderlust, which flies far, far away over sea and land, so close to the sky, to far, faraway lands—alas for myself: I feel simply bound and yet again bound and nailed to the spot where daily worries and sufferings and difficulties make it clear to me that this is where I live—and for my whole life! Oh, would that I were a bird, or would that I were like a bird that, lighter than all earthly burdens, soars into the air, lighter than air—oh, would that I were like that light bird that, when it seeks a foothold, even builds its nest upon the surface of the sea—alas for myself, for whom even the least movement—if I merely move—makes me feel what a burden rests upon me! Oh, would that I were a bird or would that I were like a bird, free from all considerations, like the little songbird that humbly sings, even though no one listens to it—or that sings proudly, even though no one listens to it. Alas for myself: I have not a moment or anything for myself, but am parceled out and must serve thousands of considerations! Oh, would that I were a flower, or would that I were like the flower in the meadow, happily enamored of myself, period—alas for myself, who feel in my own heart that division of the human heart: neither to be capable of selfishly breaking with everything, nor capable of lovingly sacrificing everything!
As Kierkegaard admits, this poem sounds almost like an expression of the gospel. Yet his starting point, despair, makes his message incompatible with the gospel, because it drives him to seek a fleeting sense of solace in that which cannot comfort. The poet is caught in a catch-22: by expressing his discontent, he becomes increasingly fretful.
“The poet is the child of eternity,” claims Kierkegaard, “but lacks the earnestness of eternity.” The gospel does call us to be like the bird and it bids us to become like the lily. The call to live out the gospel is unflinching despite the eloquence of the poet’s words.
So the first lesson humans are to learn from the lily and the bird is silence, which Kierkegaard classifies as an art because of our ability—and tendency—to speak. The lily and the bird, our silent teachers, model “seek[ing] first God’s kingdom and his righteousness.” As Kierkegaard explains, “But then, in a certain sense is there in fact nothing I shall do? Yes, quite true, in a certain sense there is nothing. You shall in the deepest sense make yourself nothing, become nothing before God, learn to keep silent. In this silence is the beginning, which is first to seek God’s kingdom.”
Why is this silence essential? Because it is in silence that all our wishes, desires, and thoughts yield to the fear of God. Silence is the highest form of prayer because “to pray is not to listen to oneself speak, but is to come to keep silent, and to continue keeping silent, to wait, until the person who prays hears God.” As we find ourselves in God’s presence, we become keenly aware that we have little to say. It is in this moment that our disordered wills might be ordered to the Supreme Will. In this way, silence becomes its own form of expression; it boldly proclaims faith in God’s appointed time, or what Kierkegaard calls, “the moment.”
It is in this faith and confidence in God, as expressed through silence, that the conundrum of the poet is resolved. It is not as though silence is the balm to heal all pain and suffering. In fact, the bird will always suffer but, “the silent bird frees itself from what makes the suffering more burdensome: from the misunderstood sympathy of others; frees itself from what makes the suffering last longer: from all the talk of suffering; frees itself from what makes the suffering into something worse than suffering: from the sin of impatience and sadness.” Rather, silence is our solution because it makes us keenly aware that we are in the presence of the Almighty God. Unlike the poet who connects everything to his cry of pain, in silence we express confidence in God, fostering the fear of God—which is the beginning of wisdom.
Given the totalizing claims of the gospel, Kierkegaard described the choice facing each and every human in the stark dichotomy of either/or: either love God with all of your heart, soul, and mind, or hate him. There is no room for middle ground because “God is even closer to you, infinitely closer than two lovers are to one another—he, your Creator and Sustainer; he, in whom you live, move, and have your being; he, by the grace of whom you have everything.” As the Creator and Sustainer, it follows that the either/or he presents to all humans, the call of the of the gospel and the cost of discipleship, involves unconditional obedience.
Nature—both the lily and the bird—is utterly obedient to God’s will. While silence is an a priori condition to this obedience, it goes even further: God’s will “is the only thing.” The sparrow cannot fall to the ground apart from his will (Matt 10:29). In the obedience of the lily and the bird, we see that “they are so simple or so lofty that they believe that everything that happens is unconditionally God’s will, and that they have absolutely nothing to do in the world other than either to carry out God’s will in unconditional obedience or to submit to God’s will in unconditional obedience.” Drawing from their example, it is evident that we become what we are to be through unconditional obedience to the same will. God’s will shall be accomplished with or without our unconditional obedience, so it behooves us to submit to that will unconditionally.
Of course, as a “good” Lutheran, Kierkegaard understood that this does not come naturally to us, which is why he emphasizes the infinite patience of God and his immutability. The gospel comforts us when we are confronted with the reality that God’s patience is bigger than our failures, but still urges us forward in obedience so that our wills may be conformed to God’s will. Only through obedience do we learn to be more obedient. It is not through intellectual argumentation that we begin to understand what God’s will—also known as wisdom—looks like, it is “only by unconditionally obeying does a human being come to understand that what the gospel says is so.”
The third and final lesson we are to learn from the lily and the bird is that of joy. Joy is “to be present oneself; but truly to be present to oneself is this ‘today,’ this to be today, truly to be today…Joy is the present time, with the entire emphasis falling on the present time.”  To Kierkegaard, “joy is communicative” which means that one conveys joy by being joyful. In their silence before God and submission to the divine will, they become what they are designed to be and in that telos, they experience and simultaneously model joy to us humans.
Given human nature, we often overthink how we might be joyful by assessing our circumstances as if joy were dependent on external factors. Yet, if joy is contingent on one’s immediate situation, then joy is never fully actualized because it is purely conditional. Joy transcends circumstance.
Here again, we can look to the lily and the bird to show us specific lessons about joy. First of all, they are constantly joyful, even though they have much less to be joyful about compared to humans. Second, they still have cares, as “all creation groans” (Rom 8:19-23). They suffer the futility of life. Third, like all things, they are perishable. Even despite these external factors beyond their control, they are exemplars of what true, unconditional joy looks like. How much more, then, should we are Christians be joyful?
If the lily can be joyful no matter where it is placed, or the bird be joyful no matter where it flies, then the Christian must follow Peter’s command in 1 Peter 5:7 and “Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you.” In this statement, we find the heart that undergirds true worship: the audacity to believe that God cares about us no matter what circumstance in which we find ourselves. In fact, even in situations that appear difficult or even impossible, this statement that God cares about us becomes, in a certain sense, even more true. It is precisely in the moment where it feels like we can no longer keep going that he makes his presence truly felt. And joy should be the result of that reality.
As the founder of existentialism, Kierkegaard is often derided for “subjectivizing” the gospel message. Yet this critique is anachronistic because it reads back post-modern conceptions of subjectivism onto him when that was not what he was attempting to articulate. Kierkegaard’s message in his Three Godly Discourses is rooted in the objective reality of the gospel. Yet, especially because of his either/or approach, Kierkegaard forces the individual to confront the Truth on an individual level. In this sense, he weds the objective and subjective in a helpful way.
Silence. Obedience. Joy. These should not remain abstract ideas for us. These are things we each must encounter in our individual Christian walks. May you be still and quiet and know that he is God. May you submit wholly and totally to his will. May you find joy by becoming what God has made you to be.
 C.S. Lewis, “Introduction,” in On the Incarnation by Athanasius (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993), 8.
 Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, trans. and ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 13.
 Søren Kierkegaard, The Lily of the Field and the BIrd of the Air: Three Godly Discourses, trans. and ed. Bruce H. Kirmmse (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 9-10.
 Ibid., 12.
 Ibid., 17.
 Ibid., 19-20.
 Ibid., 26.
 Ibid., 43.
 Ibid., 48.
 Ibid., 51.
 Ibid., 69.
 Ibid., 77.
 Ibid., 71.