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WHAT I BELIEVE


by Leo Tolstoy


◄Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3►




When I at last clearly comprehended that the words ‘do not resist evil’ do really mean that we are never to resist evil, my former ideas concerning the teaching of Christ underwent a complete change.  I wondered, not so much at my eyes being opened to the truth at last, but at the strange darkness that had, until then, enveloped my understanding.  I knew – we all know – that the foundation requirement of the Christian doctrine is love toward all men.  Isn’t all Christianity summed up in the words, ‘Love your enemies’?  I had known that from my earliest childhood.  How was it, then, that I had not hitherto taken in these words in all their simplicity, but rather had sought for some allegorical meaning in them?  ‘Do not resist evil’ means never to resist evil, i.e., never offer violence to anyone.  If a man reviles you, do not revile him in return; suffer, but do no violence.  While believing, or at least endeavoring to believe, that He who gave us this commandment was God, how did I come to say that I could not obey it in my own strength?  If my master were to say to me, ‘Go and cut wood,’ and I were to answer that I could not do it in my own strength, would it not show that either I had no faith in my master’s words, or that I did not choose to obey him?  God has given to us a commandment that He requires us to obey; He says that only those who keep His commandments shall enter life eternal; He fulfilled this commandment Himself, as offering us His example; and how could I then say that, though I never really tried to fulfill it, this injunction was one that it was impossible for a man to keep in his own strength, and without supernatural aid?

God became man for the securing of our salvation.  Salvation lies in the fact that the second person of the Trinity, God the Son, suffered for us men, redeemed us from sin, and gave us the Church through which the grace of God is transmitted to all believers.  Moreover, God the Son has left us this doctrine (teaching), and His own example, to show us the way of salvation.  And yet, I said that the rule of life given to us by Christ was not only a hard one, but also an impossible one, apart from supernatural aid.  Christ does not consider it as such.  On the contrary, He says definitely that we are to fulfill His commandments, and that he who does not shall not enter the kingdom of God.  He does not say that it is hard to keep this law; He says, on the contrary, ‘My yoke is easy and My burden is light.’  St. John the Evangelist says, ‘His commandments are not grievous.’  How was it, I said, that the express and positive commandment of God, which He Himself speaks of as being easy, the commandment which He Himself obeyed as a man, and which His first followers also fulfilled, was too hard for me, and even impossible for me, without supernatural aid?

If a man were to set all the faculties of his mind to the annulling of a given law, what more forcible argument could he use for its suppression than that it was an impracticable law, and that the legislator’s own opinion of it was that it could not be kept without supernatural aid?  And yet, this was exactly what I had thought about the commandment ‘not to resist evil.’  I tried to remember when and how the strange idea had first come into my mind, that the doctrine of Christ was divine in authority but impossible in practice.  On reviewing my past life, I discovered that this idea had never been transmitted to me in all its nakedness, for then it would have repelled me; but that I had imperceptibly imbibed it from my earliest childhood, and that the associations of my life had confirmed the strange error. 

I was taught from my childhood that Christ is God and that His teaching is divine and authoritative; while, on the other hand, I was also told to respect those institutions that, by means of violence, secured my safety from evil; I was taught to honor those institutions as being sacred.  I was taught to resist evil; and it was instilled into me that it was humiliating and dishonorable to submit to evil and to suffer from it; and that it was praiseworthy to resist evil.  I was taught to condemn and to execute.  I was taught to make war, i.e., to resist evil by murder.  The army, a member of which I was, was called a ‘Christ-loving’[1] army, and the Church consecrated its mission.  I was taught to resist an offender by violence and to avenge a private insult, or one against my native land, by violence.  All this was never regarded as wrong, but, on the contrary, I was told that it was perfectly right and in no way contrary to Christ’s doctrine.

All surrounding interests, such as the peace and safety of my family, my property, and myself were based on the law that was rejected by Christ – on the law of a ‘tooth for a tooth.’

Ecclesiastical teachers told me that the doctrine of Christ was divine, but that its observance was impossible on account of the weakness of human nature; and that the grace of God alone could enable us to keep this law.  Secular teachers told me, and the whole order of life proved, that the teaching of Christ was impracticable and ideal, and that we must, in fact, live contrary to His doctrine.  I imbibed such a notion of the practical impossibility of following the divine doctrine gradually and almost imperceptibly.  I was so accustomed to it, it coincided so well with all my animal feelings, that I had never observed the contradiction in which I lived.  I did not see that it was impossible to admit the Godhead of Christ – the basis of whose teaching is non-resistance of evil – and, at the same time, to work consciously and calmly for the institutions of property, courts of law, kingdoms, the army, and so on.  It could not be consistent for us to regulate our lives contrary to the doctrine of Christ, and then pray to the same Christ that we might be enabled to keep His commandments – to ‘forgive,’ and not to ‘resist evil.’  It did not then occur to me, as it does now, that it would be much simpler to regulate our lives according to the doctrine of Christ; and then, if courts of law, executions, and war were found to be indispensably necessary for our welfare, we might pray to have them too.

And I understood from where my error arose.  It arose from my professing Christ in words and denying Him in deed.

The precept ‘not to resist evil’ is one that contains the whole substance of Christ’s doctrine, if we consider it not only as a saying, but also as a law we are bound to obey.  It is like a latchkey that will open any door, but only if it is well inserted into the lock.  To consider this rule of life as a precept that cannot be obeyed without supernatural aid is to annihilate the whole doctrine of Christ completely.  How can a doctrine, the fundamental law of which is cast aside as impracticable, be considered practicable in any of its details?

This is what was done with Christ’s doctrine when we were taught that it was possible to be a Christian without fulfilling His law not to resist evil.

A few days ago I was reading the fifth chapter of St. Matthew to a Hebrew rabbi.  ‘That is in the Bible – that is in the Talmud too,’ he said at almost each saying, pointing out to me, in the Bible and the Talmud passages very much like those in the Sermon on the Mount.  But when I came to the verse that says, ‘do not resist evil,’ he did not say that is also in the Talmud; but only asked me with a smile, ‘Do Christians keep this law?  Do they turn the other cheek to be struck?’  I was silent.  What answer could I give, when I knew that Christians, in our days, far from turning the other cheek when struck, never let an opportunity escape of striking a Hebrew on both cheeks.  I was greatly interested to know if there was any law like this in the Talmud, and I inquired.  He answered, “No, there is nothing like it; but pray tell me, do Christians ever keep this law?’  His question showed me clearly that the existence of a precept in the law of Christ, which is not only left unobserved, but of which the fulfillment is considered impossible, is superfluous and irrational.

Now that I comprehend the true meaning of the doctrine, I see clearly the strange state of contradiction within my own self that I had permitted to arise.  I was confessing Christ as God, and His teaching as divine, and at the same time I was ordering my life contrary to His teaching.  What was left for me to do but to acknowledge the teaching as an impracticable one?  In word I acknowledged the teaching of Christ as sacred; but I did not carry out that teaching in deed, for I admitted and respected the unchristian institutions that surrounded me.

Throughout the Old Testament we find it said that the misfortunes of the Israelites arose from their believing in false gods, and not in the true God.  In the eighth and twelfth chapters of the first Book of Samuel, the prophet accuses the people of having chosen, instead of God, who was their King, a human king who, according to their opinion, was to save them.  ‘Do not believe in [tohu[2]] vain things,’ says Samuel to the people (1Sa.12:21).  ‘They will not help you and will not save you, for they are [tohu] vain.  In order not to perish with your king, believe in God alone.’

My faith in these ‘tohu,’ in these empty idols, hid the truth from my eyes.  In my way to Him these ‘tohu,’ which I did not have the strength to renounce, stood before me, obscuring His light.

One day, as I was passing through Borovitzki gate[3], I saw a crippled old beggar with his head bound up in a ragged cloth and sitting in a corner.  I had just taken out my purse to bestow a trifle upon him, when a bold, ruddy-faced young grenadier in a government fur coat came running down the Kremlin slope.  On seeing the soldier, the beggar sprang up with a look of terror and ran limping down toward the Alexander Garden.  The grenadier pursued him, but, not succeeding in overtaking him, stopped short and began to abuse the poor fellow for having dared to sit down near the entrance-gate in defiance of orders.  I waited until the grenadier came up to where I stood, and then asked if he could read.

‘Yes; what of that?’ was the answer.  ‘Have you ever read the gospel?’  ‘I have.’  ‘Do you know these words: “He who feeds the hungry …”?’ I repeated the text to him.  He listened attentively.  Two passers-by stopped.  It was evidently disagreeable to the grenadier that, while conscientiously discharging his duty by driving people away from the entrance-gate, as he was ordered to do, he unexpectedly found himself in the wrong.  He looked puzzled, and seemed to be searching for some excuse.  Suddenly his dark eyes brightened up with a look of intelligence, and, moving away as if about to return to his post, he asked, ‘Have you read the military code?’  I told him that I had not.  ‘Well, then, do not talk of what you do not understand,’ he said, with a triumphant shake of his head; and muffling himself up in his overcoat, he went back to his post.

He was the only man I have met in all my life who strictly, logically, solved the problem of our social institutions, which had stood before me, and still stands before each who calls himself a Christian.


◄Chapter 1

Table of Contents

Chapter 3►

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[1] Христолюбивое вопиство

[2] Transcriber’s note: This word appears here and elsewhere as toga in the Popoff’s original translation.

[3] In Moscow.