« Prev Key To The Gospel Teaching Next »


From: "What I Believe"

Was it possible that the teaching of' Christ was such that contradictions were inevitable? I could not believe it. Moreover, what always seemed to me surprising was that, as far as my knowledge of the Gospels went, those passages on which the definite Church dogmas were based were the most obscure, while those from which one derived the practical teaching were the clearest and most definite. Yet the dogmas and those Christian obligations which result from them were defined by the Church in the clearest and most precise manner, while of the practical fulfillment of the teaching mention was made in the most indefinite, foggy, mystical way. Could Christ possibly have wished this when delivering his teaching? A solution of my doubts could only be found in the Gospels. So I read and re-read them. Out of them all, the Sermon on the Mount always stood out for me as something special, and I read it more often than anything else. Nowhere else did Christ speak with such authority-nowhere else does he give so many clear, intelligible, moral rules directly appealing to the heart of every man. Nowhere did he speak to a larger crowd of the common people. If there were any clear, definite Christian rules, they ought to be expressed here. In these three chapters of Matthew I sought a solution of my perplexity. Often and often did I re-read the Sermon on the Mount and experienced the same feeling every time: a thrill of exaltation at the verses about turning the other cheek, surrendering one's cloak, reconciliation with all men, love of one's enemies, but also a dissatisfied feeling. The words of God addressed to all lacked clearness. A too impossible renunciation of everything was demanded, destroying all life as I understood it, and therefore it seemed to me that such renunciation could not be the obligatory condition of salvation; but if that were not so, then there was nothing definite and clear. I read not the Sermon on the Mount alone, but all the Gospels, as well as all the theological commentaries on them. The theological explanation that the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount are indications of the perfection towards which men should strive, but that fallen man, immersed in sin, cannot by his own strength attain this perfection, and that his safety lies in faith, prayer, and the Sacraments-such explanations did not satisfy me.
I did not agree with this because it always seemed strange to me why Christ, knowing in advance that the fulfillment of his teaching was unattainable by man's individual strength, gave such clear and admirable rules relating directly to each individual man. In reading these rules it always seemed to me that they related directly to me and demanded my personal fulfillment. Reading them, I always experienced a joyous confidence that I could immediately, from that very hour, fulfill them all, and I wished and endeavored to do this. But as soon as I experienced difficulty in doing this, I involuntarily remembered the Church's teaching that man is weak and cannot do these things by his own strength, and I weakened.
They told me we must believe and pray.
But I felt I had little faith, and therefore could not pray. They told me one must pray God to give faith-the very faith that gives the prayer that gives the faith that gives the prayer-and so on to infinity.
But both reason and experience showed me that only my efforts to fulfill Christ's teaching could be effective.
And so, after many, many vain seekings and studyings of what was written in proof and disproof of the Divinity of this teaching, and after many doubts and much suffering, I was again left alone with my heart and the mysterious book. I could not give it the meaning others gave it, could not find any other meaning for it, and could not reject it. And only after disbelieving equally all the explanations of the learned critics and all the explanations of the learned theologians, and after rejecting them all (in accord with Christ's words, 'Except ye turn and become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven'), I suddenly understood what I had not formerly understood. I understood it not as a result of some artificial, recondite transposition, harmonization, or reinterpretation; on the contrary, everything revealed itself to me because I forgot all the interpretations. The passage which served me as key to the whole was Matt. v. 38, 39: 'Ye have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, Resist not him that is evil.' And suddenly, for the first time, I understood this verse simply and directly. I understood that Christ says just what he says, and what immediately happened was not that something new revealed itself, but that everything that obscured the truth fell away, and the truth arose before me in its full meaning. 'Ye have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, Resist not him that is evil.' These words suddenly appeared to me as something quite new, as if I had never read them before. Previously when reading that passage I had always, by some strange blindness, omitted the words, 'But I say unto you, Resist not him that is evil', just as if those words had not been there, or as if they had no definite meaning.
Subsequently, in my talks with many and many Christians familiar with the Gospels, I often had occasion to note the same blindness as to those words. No one remembered them, and often when speaking about that passage Christians referred to the Gospels to verify the fact that the words were really there. In the same way I had missed those words and had begun understanding, the passage only from the words which follow, 'But whosoever smiteth thee on thy right check, turn to him the other also. . .' and so fortli; and these words always appeared to me to be a demand to endure sufferings and deprivations that are unnatural to man. The words touched me, and I felt that it would be admirable to act up to them; but I also felt that I should never be strong enough to fulfill them merely in order to suffer. I said to myself, 'Very well, I will turn the other cheek, and I shall again be struck. I will give what is demanded and everything will be taken from me. I shall have no life-but life was given me, so why should I be deprived of it? It cannot be that Christ demands it.' That was what I formerly said to myself, imagining that in these words Christ extolled sufferings and deprivations, and extolling them, spoke with exaggeration and therefore inexactly and obscurely. But now, when I had understood the words about not resisting him that is evil, it became plain to me that Christ was not exaggerating nor demanding any suffering for the sake of suffering, but was only very definitely and clearly saying what he said. He says: 'Do not resist him that is evil, and while doing this know in advance that you may meet people who, having struck you on one cheek and not met with resistance, will strike you on the other, and having taken away your coat will take your cloak also; who, having availed themselves of your work, will oblige you to do more work, and will not repay what they borrow ... should this be so, continue nevertheless to abstain from resisting the evil man. Continue, in spite of all this, to do good to those who will beat you and insult you.' And when I understood these words as they are said, at once all that was obscure became clear, and what had seemed exaggerated became quite exact. I understood for the first time that the center of gravity of the whole thought lies in the words, 'Resist not him that is evil', and that what follows is only an explanation of that first proposition. I understood that Christ does not command us to present the cheek and to give up the cloak in order to suffer, but commands us not to resist him that is evil, and adds that this may involve having to suffer. It is just like a father sending his son off on a distant voyage, who does not order the son not to sleep at night and not to eat enough, and to be drenched and to freeze, but says to him, 'Go your road, and if you have to be drenched and to freeze, continue your journey nevertheless'. Christ does not say, offer your cloak and suffer', but he says, 'Resist not him that is evil, and no matter what befalls you do not resist him'. These words, 'Resist not evil', or 'Resist not him that is evil', understood in their direct meaning, were for me truly a key opening everything else, and it became surprising to me that I could so radically have misunderstood the clear and definite words: 'It was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, Resist not him that is evil, and no matter what he does to You, Suffer and surrender, but resist him not.' What can be clearer, more intelligible, and more indubitable than that? And I only needed to understand these words simply and directly as they were said and at once Christ's whole teaching, not only in the Sermon on the Mount but in the whole of the Gospels, everything that had been confused, became intelligible; what had been contradictory became harmonious, and, above all, what had appeared superfluous became essential. All merged into one whole, and one thing indubitably confirmed another like the pieces of a broken statue when they are replaced in their true position. In this Sermon and in the whole of the Gospels everything confirmed the same teaching of non-resistance to evil. In this Sermon, as everywhere else, Christ never represents his disciples-that is to say, the people who fulfill the law of non-resistance to evil otherwise than as turning the cheek to the smiter, giving up the cloak, persecuted, beaten, and destitute. Everywhere Christ repeatedly says that only he can be his disciple who takes up his cross and abandons everything; that is to say, only he who is ready to endure all consequences that result from the fulfillment of the law of non-resistance to evil. To his disciples Christ says: 'Be beggars; be ready without resisting evil to accept persecution, suffering, and death.' He himself prepares for suffering and death without resisting evil, and sends Peter away because he complains of this. He himself dies forbidding resistance to evil, and without deviating from his teaching. All his first disciples fulfilled this commandment of nonresistance, and passed their lives in poverty and persecutions, never returning evil for evil.
So Christ says what he says. It is possible to affirm that it is very difficult always to obey this rule. It is possible not to agree with the statement that every man will be happy if he obeys this rule. It may be said that it is stupid, as unbelievers say that Christ was a dreamer and an idealist who enunciated impracticable rules which his disciples followed stupidity. But it is quite impossible not to admit that Christ said very clearly and definitely just what he meant to say, namely that according to his teaching man should not resist evil, and that therefore whoever accepts his teaching must not resist evil. And yet neither believers nor unbelievers understand this simple, clear meaning of Christ's words.

« Prev Key To The Gospel Teaching Next »


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |