Faith implications from Tolstoy’s journey.

Leo Tolstoy, the Russian author, born in 1828, in his book “A Confession” tells of his own spiritual journey. He grew up in an aristocratic, Russian Orthodox family. He was raised in the church but as a young adult moved away from the church and pursued his writing career and intellectual pursuits.

In this pursuit he found great success, but like Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes, and Schopenhaur, Tolstoy came to the conclusion that life without meaning cannot be lived. He obsessed over suicide for years. In his search for meaning, he found that faith must hold the key. But not any faith – a faith that is real.

Read some of his journey here:

“I was now ready to accept any faith if only it did not demand of me a direct denial of reason – which would be a falsehood. And I studied Buddhism and Mohammedanism from books, and most of all I studied Christianity both from books and from the people around me.

“Naturally I, first of all, turned to the orthodox of my circle, to people who were learned: to Church theologians, monks, to theologians of the newest shade, and even to Evangelicals, who profess salvation by belief in the Redemption. And I seized on these believers and questioned them as to their beliefs and their understanding of the meaning of life.

“…I could not accept the faith of these people. I saw that what they gave out as their faith didn’t explain the meaning of life but obscured it…

“The more fully they explained to me their doctrines, the more clearly did I perceive their error and realized that my hope of finding in their belief an explanation of the meaning of life was vain.

“…I was repelled by the fact that these people’s lives were like my own, with only one difference -that such a life did not correspond to the principles they expounded in their teachings. I clearly felt that they deceived themselves and that they, like myself found no other meaning in life than to live while life lasts, taking all one’s hands can seize. …these believers of our circle, just like myself, living in sufficiency and superfluity, tried to increase or preserve them, feared privations, suffering, and death, and just like myself and all of us unbelievers, lived to satisfy their desires, and lived just as badly, if not worse, than the unbelievers.

“And I understood that the belief of these people was not the faith I sought, and that their faith is not a real faith but an epicurean consolation in life.

“For all humanity to be able to live, and continue to live attributing a meaning to life, they, those milliards, must have a different, a real, knowledge of faith.…

“And I began to draw near to the believers among the poor, simple, unlettered folk: pilgrims, monks sectarians, and peasants. The faith of these common people was the same Christian faith as was professed by the pseudo-believers of our circle.… The whole life of believers in our circles as a contradiction of their faith, but the whole life of working-folk believers was a confirmation of the meaning of life which their faith gave them. And I began to look well into the life and faith of these people, and the more I considered it the more I became convinced that they have real faith which is a necessity to them and alone gives their life a meaning and makes it possible for them to live….

“In contrast with what I had seen in our circle, where the whole of life is passed in idleness, amusement, and dissatisfaction, I saw that the whole life of these people was passed in heavy labor, and that they were content with life. In contradistinction to the way in which people of our circle oppose fate and complain of it on account of deprivations and sufferings, these people accepted illness and sorrow without any perplexity or opposition, and with a quiet and firm conviction that all is good… these folk live and suffer, and they approach death and suffering with tranquility and in most cases gladly. …And such people, lacking all that for us and for Solomon is only good of life and yet experiencing the greatest happiness, are a great multitude. …And they all – endlessly different in their manners, minds, education, and position, as they were – all alike, in complete contrast to my ignorance, knew the meaning of life and death, labored quietly, endured deprivations and sufferings, and lived and died seeing therein not vanity but good.

“And I learnt to love these people. …the more I loved them the easier it became for me to live. …All our actions, discussions, science and art, presented itself to me in a new light. I understood that it all is merely self-indulgence, and that to find meaning in it is impossible; while the life of the whole laboring people, the whole of mankind who produce life, appeared to me in its true significance. I understood that that is life itself, and that the meaning given to that life is true: and I accepted it.” (A Confession, pp.49-52)

Questions about my faith and witness

As I read this I was confronted with some questions about my faith and the impact it has on others…

  1. Could my life exist without faith? Is my life so constructed that faith in Christ is an “epicurean” add-on? Epicureans were committed to the pursuit of pleasure. Faith can be that for us. It can be the salve on a wounded conscience. It can be the hug we need on a lonely day. Tolstoy, as an unbeliever saw the contradiction of those who claimed faith and used it for their own comfort, rather than surrendering themselves to it as the breath of life.
  2. Am I pursuing life, or am I trying to improve the comforts of life now? Pursuing life means I recognize there is something eternal happening all around us. It means I live loosely holding the things around me. It means I live everyday surrendered to a purpose that is beyond me, or my family, and our comfort.
  3. How am I handling discomfort, pain, and disappointment? Do I have a conviction that “all is good”, not because it is painless, but because Christ is working his work even in that pain? So, do I rebel against my hardship? Or do I accept it as a gift that adds another layer of meaning to life?
  4. What do others see? Tolstoy was tired of seeing the contradictions of those who claimed faith but lived otherwise. For them, faith was a piece of their lives. He had tried that. He had been raised in that and it led him to complete despair. Because that faith produced a life that he already had as an unbeliever. What awakened him to the journey of faith and meaning, were the ordinary people who found meaning and purpose in the pains of life on this globe. They faced the human condition with hope and assurance. They embraced their pain with joy because they were convinced something and Someone was at work and they were part of it.

Are you on a search? Find someone for whom faith in Christ is not an add-on. You may find meaning there.

Are you in the circle of Tolstoy’s friends? Living the form without the meaning? If you are, you offer no one hope for this life, or the next.

Are you living a life of meaning, where your faith in Christ is all you have and all you need to find hope and joy?

Wherever you are on the journey, remember there may be someone watching who is searching for a reason to live.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to leave comments and share this with others.

NOTE: This passage is from “A Confession” by Leo Tolstoy. 1882. Translated by Alymer Maude and Louise Maude.