My Religion/Chapter IX

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My Religion by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Huntington Smith
Chapter IX


LET all the world practise the doctrine of Jesus, and the reign of God will come upon earth; if I alone practise it, I shall do what I can to better my own condition and the condition of those about me. There is no salvation aside from the fulfilment of the doctrine of Jesus. But who will give me the strength to practise it, to follow it without ceasing, and never to fail? "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief." The disciples called upon Jesus to strengthen their faith. "When I would do good," says the apostle Paul, "evil is present with me." It is hard to work out one's salvation.

A drowning man calls for aid. A rope is thrown to him, and he says: "Strengthen my belief that this rope will save me. I believe that the rope will save me; but help my unbelief." What is the mean ing of this? If a man will not seize upon his only means of safety, it is plain that he does not under stand his condition.

How can a Christian who professes to believe in the divinity of Jesus and of his doctrine, whatever may be the meaning that he attaches thereto, say that he wishes to believe, and that he cannot believe? God comes upon earth, and says, "Fire, torments, eternal darkness await you; and here is your tion--fulfil my doctrine." It is not possible that a believing Christian should not believe and profit by the salvation thus offered to him; it is not possible that he should say, " Help my unbelief." If a man says this, he not only does not believe in his perdi tion, but he -must be certain that he shall not perish.

A number of children have fallen from a boat into the water. For an instant their clothes and their feeble struggles keep them on the surface of the stream, and they do not realize their danger. Those in the boat throw out a rope. They warn the chil dren against their peril, and urge them to grasp the rope (the parables of the woman and the piece of silver, the shepherd and the lost sheep, the marriage feast, the prodigal son, all have this meaning), but the children do not believe; they refuse to believe, not in the rope, but that they are in danger of drowning. Children as frivolous as themselves have assured them that they can continue to float gaily along even when the boat is far away. The children do not believe; but when their clothes are saturated, the strength of their little arms exhausted, they will sink and perish. This they do not believe, and so they do not believe in the rope of safety.

Just as the children in the water will not grasp the rope that is thrown to them, persuaded that they will not perish, so men who believe in the resurrec tion of the soul, convinced that there is no danger, do not practise the commandments of Jesus. They do not believe in what is certain, simply because they do believe in what is uncertain. It is for this cause they cry, " Lord, strengthen our faith, lest we perish." But this is impossible. To have the faith that will save them from perishing, they must cease to do what will lead them to perdition, and they must begin to do something for their own safety; they must grasp the rope of safety. Now this is exactly what they do not wish to do; they wish to persuade themselves that they will not perish, al though they see their comrades perishing one after another before their very eyes. They wish to per suade themselves of the truth of what does not exist, and so they ask to be strengthened in faith. It is plain that they have not enough faith, and they wish for more.

When I understood the doctrine of Jesus, I saw that what these men call faith is the faith denounced by the apostle James: l

u What doth it profit, my brethren, if a man be lieve lie hath faith, but hath not works? can that faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked and in lack of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Go in peace, be ye warmed and filled; and yet ye give them not the things needful to the body; what doth it profit ? Even so faith, if it have not works, is dead in itself. But some one will say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: Shew me thy faith which is without icorks, and I, by my works, will show thee my

1 The epistle of James was for a long time rejected by the Church, and when accepted, was subjected to various altera tions: certain words are omitted, others are transposed, or translated in an arbitrary way, I have restored the defective passages after the text authorized by Tischeudorf. faith. Thou believest there is one God; thou doest well: the demons also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son upon the altar? Thou seest that faith wrought with his works, and by ivorks teas faith made perfect. ... Ye see that by works a man is justified, and not only by faith. . . . For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith is dead without ivorks." (James ii. 14-26.)

James says that the indication of faith is the acts that it inspires, and consequently that a faith which does not result in acts is of words merely, with which one cannot feed the hungry, or justify belief, or obtain salvation. A faith without acts is not faith. It is only a disposition to believe in something, a vain affirmation of belief in something in which one does not really believe. Faith, as the apostle James defines it, is the motive power of actions, and actions are a manifestation of faith.

The Jews said to Jesus: What signs shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? what dost thou work?" (John vi. 30. See also Mark xv. 32; Matt, xxvii. 42) . Jesus told them that their desire was vain, and that they could not be made to believe what they did not believe. " If 1 tell you," he said, "ye will not believe" (Luke xxii. 67); "/ told you, and ye believed not. . . . But ye believe not because ye are not of my sheep " (Johnx. 25, 26).

The Jews asked exactly what is asked by Chris tians brought up in the Church; they asked for some outward sign which should make them believe in the doctrine of Jesus. Jesus explained that this was impossible, and he told them why it was impos sible. He told them that they could not believe because they were not of his sheep; that is, they did not follow the road he had pointed out. He ex plained why some believed, and why others did not believe, and he told them what faith really was. He said: "How can ye believe ivhich receive your doctrine (Sd^a 1 ) one of another, and seek not the doc trine that cometh only from God?" (John v. ").

To believe, Jesus says, we must seek for the doc trine that comes from God alone.

ki He that spedketh of himself secketh (to extend) his own doctrine, Soav rrjv tStuv, but he that seeketh (to extend) the doctrine of him that sent him, the same is true, and no untruth is in him." (John vii. 18.)

The doctrine of life, 86a, is the foundation of faith, and actions result spontaneously from faith. But there are two doctrines of life: Jesus denies the one and aflirms the other. One of these doc trines, a source of all error, consists of the idea that the personal life is one of the essential and real attributes of man. This doctrine has been followed, and is still followed, by the majority of men; it is the source of divergent beliefs and acts. The other

1 Here, as in other passages, 5<^a has been incorrectly trans lated "honor"; 5<$a, from the verb 5oKe a>, means "manner of seeing, judgment, doctrine." doctrine, taught by Jesus and by all the prophets, affirms that our personal life has no meaning save through fulfilment of the will of God. If a man confess a doctrine that emphasizes his own personal life, he will consider that his personal welfare is the most important thing in the world, and he will con sider riches, honors, glory, pleasure, as true sources of happiness; he will have a faitli in accordance with his inclination, and his acts will always be in harmony with his faith. If a man confess a differ ent doctrine, if he find the essence of life in fulfil ment of the will of God in accordance with the example of Abraham and the teaching and example of Jesus, his faitli will accord with his principles, and his acts will be conformable to his faith. And so those who believe that true happiness is to be found in the personal life can never have faith in the doctrine of Jesus. All their efforts to fix their faith upon it will be always vain. To believe in the doctrine of Jesus, they must look at life in an en tirely different way. Their actions will coincide always with their faith and not with their intentions and their words.

In men who demand of Jesus that lie shall work miracles we may recognize a desire to believe in his doctrine; but this desire never can be realized in life, however arduous the efforts to obtain it. In vain they pray, and observe the sacraments, and give in charity, and build churches, and convert others; they cannot follow the example of Jesus because their acts are inspired by a faith based upon an entirely different doctrine from that which they confess. They could not sacrifice an only son as Abraham was ready to do, although Abraham had no hesita tion whatever as to what he should do, just as Jesus and his disciples were moved to give their lives for others, because such action alone constituted for them the true meaning of life. This incapacity to understand the substance of faith explains the strange moral state of men, who, acknowledging that they ought to live in accordance with the doctrine of Jesus, endeavor to live in opposition to this doctrine, con formably to their belief that the personal life is a sovereign good.

The basis of faith is the meaning that we derive from life, the meaning that determines whether we look upon life as important and good, or trivial and corrupt. Faith is the appreciation of good and of evil. Men with a faith based upon their own doc trines do not succeed at all in harmonizing this faith with the faith inspired by the doctrine of Jesus; and so it was with the early disciples. This misappre hension is frequently referred to in the Gospels in clear and decisive terms. Several times the disciples asked Jesus to strengthen their faith in his words (Matt. xx. 20-28; Mark x. 35-48). After the mes sage, so terrible to every man who believes in the personal life and who seeks his happiness in the riches of this world, after the words, " How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God" and after words still more terrible for men who believe only in the personal life, " Sell whatsoever ever thou hast and give to the poor; " after these warning words Peter asked, " Behold, we have for saken all and followed thee; what shall we have there fore ? " Then James and John and, according to the Gospel of Matthew, their mother, asked him that they might be allowed to sit with him in glory. They asked Jesus to strengthen their faith with a promise of future recompense. To Peter's question Jesus replied with a parable (Matt. xx. 1-16); to James he replied that they did not know what they asked; that they asked what was impossible; that they did not understand the doctrine, which meant a renun ciation of the personal life, while they demanded personal glory, a personal recompense; that they should drink the cup he drank of (that is, live as he lived) , but to sit upon his right hand and upon his left was not his to give. And Jesus added that the great of this world had their profit and enjoyment of glory and personal power only in the worldly life; but that his disciples ought to know that the true meaning of human life is not in personal happi ness, but in ministering to others; "the son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many." In reply to the unreasonable demands which revealed their slowness to understand his doctrine, Jesus did not command his disciples to have faith in his doctrine, that is, to modify the ideas inspired by their own doctrine (he knew that to be impossible), but he explained to them the meaning of that life which is the basis of true faith, that is, taught them how to discern good from evil? the important from the secondary. To Peter's question, " What shall we receive?" Jesus replies with the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matt. xx. 1-1 6), beginning with the words " For the Kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is a householder," and by this means Jesus explains to Peter that failure to understand the doctrine is the cause of lack of faith; and that remuneration in proportion to the amount of work done is important only from the point of view of the personal life.

This faith is based upon the presumption of certain imaginary rights; but a man has a right to nothing; he is under obligations for the good he has received, and so he can exact nothing. Even if he were to give up his whole life to the service of others, he could not pay the debt he has incurred, and so he cannot complain of injustice. If a man sets a value upon his rights to life, if he keeps a reckoning with the Overruling Power from whom he has received life, he proves simply that he does not understand the meaning of life. Men who have received a benefit act far otherwise. The laborers employed in the vineyard were found by the householder idle and unhappy; they did not possess life in the proper meaning of the term. And then the householder gave them the supreme welfare of life, work. They accepted the benefits offered, and were discontented because their remuneration was not graduated accord ing to their imaginary deserts. They did the work, believing in their false doctrine of life and work as a right, and consequently with an idea of the remuneration to which they were entitled. They did not un- derstand that work is the supreme good, and that they should be thankful for the opportunity to work, instead of exacting payment. And so all men who look upon life as these laborers looked upon it, never can possess true faith. This parable of the laborers, related by Jesus in response to the request by his disciples that he strengthen their faith, shows more clearly than ever the basis of the faith that Jesus taught.

When Jesus told his disciples that they must for give a brother who trespassed against them not only once, but seventy times seven times, the disciples were overwhelmed at the difficulty of observing this injunction, and said, " Increase our faith " just as a little while before they had asked, "Wliat shall we receive?" Now they uttered the language of would- be Christians: "We wish to believe, but cannot; strengthen our faith that we may be saved; make us believe " (as the Jews said to Jesus when they de manded miracles); " either by miracles or promises of recompense, make us to have faith in our sal vation."

The disciples said what we all say: " How pleasant it would be if we could live our selfish life, and at the same time believe that it is far better to practise the doctrine of God by living for others." This dis position of mind is common to us all; it is contrary to the meaning of the doctrine of Jesus, and yet we are astonished at our lack of faith. Jesus disposed of this misapprehension by means of a parable illus trating true faith. Faith cannot come of confidence in his words; faith can come only of a consciousness of our condition; faith is based only upon the dic tates of reason as to what is best to do in a given situation. He showed that this faith cannot be awakened in others by promises of recompense or threats of punishment, which can only arouse a feeble confidence that will fail at the first trial; but that the faith which removes mountains, the faith that noth ing can shatter, is inspired by the consciousness of our inevitable loss if we do not profit by the salvation that is offered.

To have faith, we must not count on any promise of recompense; we must understand that the only way of escape from a ruined life is a life conform able to the will of the Master. He who understands this will not ask to be strengthened in his faith, but will work out his salvation without the need of any exhortation. The householder, when he comes from the fields with his workman, does not ask the latter to sit down at once to dinner, but directs him to attend first to other duties and to wait upon him, the master, and then to take his place at the table and dine. This the workman does without any sense of being wronged; he does not boast of his labor nor does he demand recognition or recom pense, for he knows that labor is the inevitable con dition of his existence and the true welfare of his life. So Jesus says that when we have done all that we are commanded to do, we have only fulfilled our duty. He who understands his relations to his master will understand that he has life only as he obeys the master's will; he will know in what his welfare consists, and he will have a faith that does not demand the impossible. This is the faith taught by Jesus, which has for its foundation a thorough perception of the true meaning of life. The source of faith is light:

" That was the true light wldch lighteth every man that cometh into the world. lie was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the ivorld knew him not. He came unto his oivn, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he the right to become the children of God, even to them that believe on his name." (John i. 9-12.)

"And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth ill hateth the light, and cometh not to the light, lest his works should be reproved. But he that doeth the truth cometh to the light, that his ivorks may be made manifest, because they have been wrought in God." (John iii. 19-21.)

He who understands the doctrine of Jesus will not ask to be strengthened in his faith. The doc trine of Jesus teaches that faith is inspired by the light of truth. Jesus never asked men to have faith in his person; he called upon them to have faith in truth. To the Jews he said:

u Ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth tvhich I have heard of God." (John viii, 40.)

" Which of you convicteth me of sin? If I say truth, why do ye not believe me?" (John viii. 46.) " To this end have I been born, and to this end am I come into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice. 1 (John xviii. $7.)

To his disciples he said:

"/ am the way, and the truth, and the life." (John xiv. G.)

" The Father . . . shall give you another Comforter, that he may be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth: whom the ivorld cannot receive; for it behold- cth him not, neither knoweth him: ye know him; for he abideth with you, and shall be in you." (John xiv. 1C, 17.)

Jesus doctrine, then, is truth, and he himself is truth. The doctrine of Jesus is the doctrine of truth. Faith in Jesus is not belief in a system based upon his personality, but a consciousness of truth. No one can be persuaded to believe in the doctrine of Jesus, nor can any one be stimulated by any promised reward to practise it. He who under stands the doctrine of Jesus will have faith in him, because this doctrine is true. He who knows the truth indispensable to his happiness must believe in it, just as a man who knows that he is drowning grasps the rope of safet} r . Thus, the question, What must I do to believe ? is an indication that he who asks it does not understand the doctrine of Jesus.