A deeply flawed man
A HARSH AND DREADFUL LOVE
In his classic novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky tells a story involving a Russian monk. People pour in from nearby cities, seeking the elder's spiritual counsel. One day, a woman arrives at his cell. She has a problem, she confesses. Over the course of time, she has lost her faith, and therefore, her reason to live. The woman demands that Father Zossima give her a reason to believe again, or she will kill herself.
“I think I can help,” he says. Go home, and every day, do something concrete to love the people around you. You will find, slowly but surely, that you won’t be able to help but believe.”
The woman seeking his advice was skeptical, “That’s it? All I have to do is love the people around me?”
To this, the monk utters one of the most famous lines in the novel: “Ah”, he says, “love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams. It may very well kill you."
A DEEPLY FLAWED MAN
On any list of the world's greatest novelists, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's name can be found near the very top. His understanding of the human soul is truly profound. Dostoevsky knew, from his own personal experience, just how difficult love is. As great a writer as he was, Dostoyevsky was also a deeply flawed man (maybe the two go hand-in-hand?).
This internal war between the believer and the skeptic waged within Dostoyevsky's soul his entire life, both theologically and morally. One of Tolstoy's friends said, "I cannot consider Dostoyevsky either a good or happy man. He was wicked, envious, vicious, and spent the whole of his life in emotions and irritations.… In Switzerland he treated his servant, in my presence, so abominably that the offended servant cried out, 'I too am a human being!'" The writer Turgeniev once called him "the most evil Christian I have ever met in my life.
Last week I read the very candid story of a husband's struggle to care for his wife after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Mike's story is long (30 pages), but I assure you that, if you take the time to read it, it will drive home the point that Dostoyevsky made when he wrote that love is a harsh and dreadful thing. (Mike's story is doubly meaningful to me; he is a retired LCMS pastor.)
At the suggestion of a friend, I checked out a copy of Still Alice by Lisa Genova, a book that portrayed a woman’s descent into the shadowy world of early-onset Alzheimer’s. It was a sobering splash of reality in my face. Though fictional, the story of Professor Alice Howland’s progression into her illness described some of what I observed with Sue. It felt like a preview of what was coming at us in the years ahead. I prayed frightened prayers.
In 1999 Rebecca DeMauro’s 12-year-old daughter, Andria, was murdered in Arkansas. Devastated and broken by the event, it was only when she chanced to watch the trial of the Green River Killer on TV that her feelings of loathing and vengeance shifted.
A decade or so ago, I came across a most unusual website: The Forgiveness Project. This British-based organization is secular; however, the many stories found on its site are among the most powerful I've ever read, including this one:
If you've scrolled down to this point without clicking on a single link, please take time to stop and read this one. It will only take a minute or two. Like a series of body blows a boxer receives in the ring, Barham's very short stories will leave your soul painfully sore.
As I think about the harsh and dreadful reality of love, I'm reminded of this, the most provocative, of Jesus' many parables. (It also happens to be the most gracious; at least, for me.)
When Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.
THE FINAL ACT
As a deeply flawed man myself, I am in desperate need of daily grace. I need it as a husband and as a father, as a son and as a brother, as a pastor and as a neighbor.
What does the harsh and dreadful love of God look like? Jesus leaves us in no doubt:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.