In honor of the 125th anniversary of much-debated Lutheran theologian Rudolf Bultmann’s birthday, the following are excepts from a sermon he preached on August 4th, 1940.
“Psychology has shown us how the natural need for recognition, if suppressed, can assume morbid developments, and how a human life may be ruined and brought to disaster if this desire for recognition is repressed so that it results in a so-called inferiority complex… In fact the need for recognition for one’s value is something implanted in the very nature of man. We can only live and breathe freely in a circle where we are appreciated. We only feel ourselves to be uninhibited and secure when we have the feeling that we are esteemed at our full value.
“But the decisive thing in this matter is that the recognition which we all need can never be made the real aim of our action and conduct. It can accrue to us only as the by-product of our behavior, of our straightforward positive contribution, of our actual attitude toward our fellow men. Appreciation cannot be a goal to be striven after and attained with exertion and effort; it can only be given to us as a gift. The mistake made by so many is that they aim at appreciation as an end in itself, and they are anxious to attain it… This urge for recognition can afflict a human life like a disease.
“At bottom, we need appreciation because we wish to be certain of ourselves. In the last analysis every man feels that his existence is of questionable and dubious value; there lurks in the mind of every man the fear of nothingness and the void, and the fear that it may also be true of him to say: “Weighed in the balances and found wanting.” And the life of men consists largely in the effort to delude oneself about these inner realities, and to suppress these fears… Being aware of the emptiness of his inner life, he clings to the picture that others form of him… All human longing for recognition is ultimately aimed at providing an answer to that decisive question: am I, generally speaking, a creature of worth or am I worthless? If a man no longer recognizes God as the controlling force in his life, then he has only the judgment of his fellow-men in view.
“Men spoil their relationship to God because they are not prepared to confess what they truly are in the sight of God: worthless creatures who have nothing which they did not receive from Him, creatures who lives are without any content or meaning apart from His grace, and who must flee again and again to His grace in order to have any value, creatures who can receive from Him alone that meaningfulness which free them from the tense struggle to assert their value.
“It is just the confession of sin which frees man from the fetters of self – from himself as he is in his urge to assert his authority and in his pathetic self-deception; and it brings him back to his true self- as he receives himself from God’s hand: as the justified man, who in his spiritual freedom does not need to lower his eyes before any man since he has lowered them before God.”