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Lessons from Literature

Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there, If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the dawn, If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, Even there Your hand will lead me, And Your right hand will lay hold of me. If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me, And the light around me will be night,” Even the darkness is not dark to You, And the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to You. (Psalm 139:7-12 NASB)

Some years ago, a favorite missionary preached a sermon on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson. My friend probed the journey of the soul in life with God, and how dark choices lead to devastating darkness. He brought Scripture into his sermon, too, but I was amused when he’d say, “Let’s get back to the text,” and he was referring to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In the same way, some of the Lord’s most profound teachings come to me from literature. So many, in fact, that I rarely read fiction that doesn’t have some good gift for the soul.

I’d like to share a passage from a book I’m reading now: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a Russian writer from the 19th century and devout Christian of the Russian Orthodox branch. The three brothers Karamazov in the book represent faith, intellect, and passion, but as the book progresses, you see the likeness between them more and more.

Dmitry, the eldest of the three brothers, is facing trial for his father’s murder, contemplating what a guilty verdict could mean. At this point in the book, it is not yet known whether he did it, but actions stemming from his anger at his father have made a devastating case against him. Dmitry is speaking to his youngest brother, Alyosha, who has come to visit Dmitry in prison on the eve of his trial.

There’s so much I’ve been wanting to tell you so long, here, within these peeling walls, but I haven’t said a word about what matters most; the moment never seems to have come. Now I can wait no longer. I must pour out my heart to you. Brother, these last two months I’ve found in myself a new man. A new man has risen up in me. He was hidden in me, but would never have come to the surface, if it hadn’t been for this blow from heaven. I am afraid! And what do I care if I spend twenty years in the mines, breaking ore with a hammer? I am not a bit afraid of that—it’s something else I am afraid of now: that that new man may leave me. Even there, in the mines, under-ground, I may find a human heart in another convict and murderer by my side, and I may make friends with him, for even there one may live and love and suffer. One may thaw and revive a frozen heart in that convict, one may wait upon him for years, and at last bring up from the dark depths a lofty soul, a feeling, suffering creature; one may bring forth an angel, create a hero! There are numbers of them there, hundreds of them underground, with hammers in their hands. Oh, yes, we shall be in chains and there will be no freedom, but then, in our great sorrow, we shall rise again to joy, without which man cannot live nor God exist, for God gives joy: it’s His privilege—a grand one. Ah, man should be dissolved in prayer! What should I be underground there without God? Rakitin’s laughing! If they drive God from the earth, we shall shelter Him underground. One cannot exist in prison without God; it’s even more impossible than out of prison. And then we men underground will sing from the bowels of the earth a glorious hymn to God, with Whom is joy. Hail to God and His joy! I love Him!

Though our sins mar us and we reap consequences, sometimes crushing ones, God forges a path of love for us. We can blossom even in terrible soil. Where there are people, there is ministry for God’s people. May we be “dissolved in prayer”!

Jani can be reached by email here. The quotation is from Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (New York: The Lowell Press, 2016, translated from the Russian by Constance Garnett), 1546.

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