The serpent’s lie was that we could be self-determining. He questioned our standing as creatures under God and encouraged Adam and Eve to see themselves as equal to God, able to judge what is right from what is wrong. With our sin, we became estranged from God, kicked out of the Garden in Eden with a flaming sword blocking our return. We not only lost our place of being physically, but existentially as well. We were created to be creatures, under God’s authority, in relationship to God, in fellowship with one another, and in dominion over the earth. However, our sin disrupted those relationships, severing the grounding that mankind was meant to have in his relationship with God.
Our Fall had implications for interpersonal relationships as well. With the grounding we were meant to have in God lost, we have all sought to ground ourselves in other things and in other relationships. The problems with finding your grounding and self understanding in relationship to others are many. First of all, these other things that you seek to ground yourself in are finite. They will not last. It is the way of this fallen world for all things to pass away and when they do, your identity passes away with them. We’ve all seen the star high school athlete still wearing his letterman jacket into his twenties. Though the time and the glory of those days have passed, identity and grounding are so wrapped in those accomplishments and those relationships that the past is held onto with a death grip. However, those accolades are soon forgotten, leaving the man’s identity and his self understanding in question. Grounding our identity in things of this world is also unsatisfying because this world is a fallen world. People will disappoint you. Those who seek their identity and self understanding in relationships are going to be deeply hurt when the relationship is severed or it does not turn out as hoped. Whether it be a relationship that does not last or one that does, at some point along the way you will be disappointed in the other. Even in relationships that are not romantic, basing your identity on a job or a membership is tenuous, as those ties can be damaged or broken in a moment. You, as a sinner, are just as likely to hurt another as they are to hurt you, making it impossible to find any satisfying grounding in the people of this world. But ultimately these two examples are just small snapshots of the bigger issue, that we have exchanged our grounding in a transcendent, infinite God for grounding in the transitory, immanent things of this world. For a variety of reasons, that grounding will never be satisfying because, ultimately, those things are not ultimate. They are secondary at best and cannot serve the function of the one thing that is primary, God himself. Therefore, Kierkegaard is right to diagnose us all with the “sickness unto death,” despair. We despair because we are sinners, out of step with God and his purposes for us, and unable to truly understand ourselves because we view our grounding and self understanding in light of the transient things of this world.