What I believe, part 1
A Key to the Gospel Teaching*
I have told why I did not at first understand Christ's teachings, and how I now understand them, in two books. In them I looked at all that hides the truth of the Gospels from people, and I went through the four Gospels line by line.
|*Tolstoy wrote this part of this book in 1884, five years after he wrote "A Confession".|
I have been doing this for six years now. Each month I find new truths. Some of what I find agrees with what I have said earlier; but some shows where I was wrong, often because I was too enthusiastic or because I worked too quickly, without thinking things through clearly.
Those books are about my work on the Gospels. In this book I want to tell of a different work, one that has been going on inside me. It is not a step by step study of writings. Instead, it is about changes in my thinking… changes that forced me to throw away much that had earlier been hiding the light of truth from me and from others.
|Trying to put together the broken pieces of a statue
using a picture that is not at all like the true statue.
Trying to understand the Gospels has been like a person trying to put together the broken pieces of a statue using a picture that is not at all like the true statue. Because this person is using the wrong picture, the pieces will not go together in the way that he or she wants them to go together. But if he or she were to turn from the picture and just study the biggest pieces of the statue itself, from these would grow a clearer picture of what the statue should be. The pieces would then go together easily. That is what happened to me when I turned to the Gospels.
First I will tell how I found the key to understanding Christ's teachings in the teachings themselves… a key that made the truth so clear to me that I could not help but believe it.
I first read the Gospels when I was almost a child. Even at that time I was touched and moved by Christ's teachings about love, about being humble, about being good to people who are evil, and about giving up all that you have for him and for others. These teachings have always been, to me, the best part of Christianity. It was because of my love for these teachings that I joined with the poor working people in the Orthodox Church after going through a time of great sadness without faith of any kind. The Christian faith seemed to be the most true and most beautiful. That is why I chose it.
It was not long after joining the Church that I started to learn that what I liked most about the Christian faith was not at all important to the Church fathers. What is most important in Church teaching is the Church itself and how we should act in church meetings. At first I thought, "What of it? The Church is not against love and all that goes with it. I do not like all of the added talk about itself and all of the teaching about how important meetings are, but it does not hurt anyone."
Yet the longer I tried to follow the Church, the more I learned that what the Church was teaching really did hurt people very much. The Church did not take a stand against war, killing prisoners, or cruel actions against small groups who were different from most other people in the country. The sad truth is that the Church encouraged all of these things and was at times the leading force behind them.
I could see that something was wrong, but for some time I was confused, because the Church would always say that it agreed with the teachings of Christ. It would, from time to time, talk about showing love and being humble and all the other things that Christ taught; but it did so in such a way that always left me feeling it did not really believe these things were important. I was not happy with what it was saying.
I went from having no faith to joining the Church because I had only a rough understanding of the teachings of Christ. I believed the Church would help me to understand the difference between good and evil. I believed the Church would show me how to put the teachings of Christ into action in today's world. What happened was that the Church, far from helping me to follow Christ, worked at pulling me away from what I had believed was the best part of Christianity.
What I needed was a life built on the truths in the teachings of Christ; but I could not find that in the Church. The rules for life that I learned from the Church were very opposite to the rules Christ gave me. What I learned in the Church was a lot of rules about religion, and very little about the Christian life that Christ talked about.
On things like war and how to act toward people from other religions, the church always ended up on the side of the very things that Christ was against. With their lips they talked of being humble, not judging, forgiving and loving others, and giving up everything for Christ; but in their actions it seemed that they were moving in the opposite direction.
Was this happening because their understanding of the teachings of Christ was far above my own? I could not believe that. What I could see was that they were strong on Bible sayings that were not clear to me, and not clear at all on teachings from the Gospels, which, to me, were very clear. The Church would teach us every word and action that we needed to know to make meetings go smoothly; but in the important parts of our life, we were left to find our own way.
Is this really what Christ wanted? The answer had to be in the Gospels themselves. So I read them… again and again. Out of them all, I found that the best part was when Jesus preached to his followers from the top of a hill, in Matthew 5, 6, and 7. I studied these sayings more than any others. What Jesus said there, in his longest talk to so many people, is so clear and straight to the point, so easy to understand, that I believed the answer to my questions must be there.
It is in Matthew 5, 6, and 7 that Jesus talks about us turning the other cheek to those who hurt us, about giving our shirt to those who would take our coat, about living in peace with others, about loving our enemies. I loved these sayings; but I had a problem with them too. I had a feeling that these things would not work in the real world… that only Jesus himself could do them. Was I to believe that Jesus was serious in what he was saying? I turned to writings from the Church to see what they said. They argued that Jesus never planned for us to take these sayings seriously. They said that he told us to do things that we could never do, so that we would give up trying to follow him and follow what the church leaders were saying about just believing that God loves us and about just believing that it is not important to God that we obey him. I was not happy with this way of understanding the Gospels. It did not sound like something Christ would do. Why would he make the rules so very clear if he did not plan for us to follow them? In reading these rules, I always had the feeling that God was talking straight to me, and that he was telling me to do something that I could and should do. The Church told me to forget about the rules and just say more prayers. But I believed that God was asking me to do something myself to show that I believed Jesus when he said these things.
After reading all that I could find from the experts, I did what Christ told us to do in another place, and that is to "change and become like little children". I stopped trying to find an "expert" way to make it say what it was not saying, and I started reading it as I would if I was reading it for the first time, through the eyes of a child. The part that became my key in understanding it all was in Matthew 5:38-39: "You have heard that it was said, Take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; but I say to you, Do not fight against the evil person."
On reading this, the truth jumped out at me. Christ did mean for us to do just what he was saying here. But the words I had been blind to before were the words "Do not fight against the evil person." In the past I had only started from the words about turning the other cheek. By themselves, these words and the words that followed them sounded crazy. If I were to follow the words as they were written, I would give up everything and let others destroy me. What was the point of such an action? I was not strong enough to bring such pain on myself without a good reason. Now, after reading the words about not fighting against the evil person, I could see the reason. Christ was not telling us to go out of our way to bring pain on ourselves. He very clearly did mean for us to turn the other cheek or give up our shirt, but only because that might be the price we would have to pay for not fighting against the evil person.
He was saying that when we are doing our best not to fight against evil people, there will be times when they will hit us again and again. There will be times when they will take our coat and our shirt too. There will be times when they will ask us for things and not give them back. But in all of this, we should be clear that we will not hit back. We must not stop loving our enemies, for doing this is the only way to truly change the evil in the world. Seeing this made me believe that Jesus really did want us to obey this teaching.
It is like a father sending his son off on a long trip. He does not tell his son to go without sleep or to stop eating or to be wet or cold, but he does tell him that these things may happen, and if they do, he should not stop or give up. And so God does not choose for us to go through pain; but he knows that this will happen if we try to do what is right. When it happens, he does not want us to stop doing what is right. This was the piece of the statue that made all the other pieces go together for me. In the whole of the Gospels I could see that Christ was calling on us not to fight against the evil person. Taking up our cross to follow Christ is choosing to pay any price in obeying this rule. Christ himself knew that the price would be death on the cross, and he sent Peter away when Peter argued against such a price. He died without hitting back, and he told his followers that if they chose to live by the sword they would die by it. His first followers all lived their lives without returning evil for evil.
So Christ means what he says. You can say that what he said was difficult. You could say that you do not think people will be happy if they live that way. You can even say that what he said was stupid, and his followers were stupid for following him in doing it. But what you cannot say is that he did not mean it, or that he and his followers did not do it themselves.
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