Leo Tolstoy and the Lie Our Students Believe
There’s a rich tradition of gullibility that runs all the way through human history. The first two human beings believed the serpent when he said, “No, in fact, you will not die when you eat from the fruit of the tree from which God commanded you not to eat” (Gen. 3:4ff, my paraphrase), and it’s all been downhill from there. Many years later, Paul would write that the human condition means people “exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served the created things rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25).
As much as we’d like to think this isn’t the case, not much has changed since Paul’s day. Something about human beings after the Fall draws us to believe lies almost indiscriminately. Whether they’re lies that overestimate our abilities or lies that underestimate our worth, those that show us what we want to see or those that shield us from pain, lies are an unfortunate staple of our human experience.
Leo Tolstoy captures this ugly corner of human nature in his novella called The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Tolstoy’s protagonist Ivan Ilyich is an average, upper-middle class man. On the surface, he lives a decent life, earns an honorable living, and comes from a fine family, even if he distances himself from them.
All of that changes one day, however, when Ilyich contracts a progressively worsening sickness. As his symptoms get worse with each passing day, he’s eventually relegated to the couch. It’s clear that the situation is dire and that he’s not going to get better. Yet, in the face of this seemingly obvious fact, Ilyich’s family, friends, and even doctors continue to treat him as though everything is fine.
Tolstoy’s narrator gives us a look into Ilyich’s mind, saying that “The main torment for Ivan Ilyich was the lie, that lie for some reason acknowledged by everyone, that he was merely ill and not dying, and that he needed only to keep calm and be treated, and then something good would come of it.”
Ilyich’s experience is illustrative of our students’ experience in 2019. Although most of our students aren’t fighting against a life-threatening ailment, they are being sold a lie—albeit an attractive one wrapped up in beautiful paper with an ornate bow attached—but a lie nonetheless.
Our students (and even we as youth ministers) are catechized in the school of self-improvement, comparison, and perfection. Whether their eyes land upon magazine ads, commercials, or the window dressing of the boutique down the street, like Ivan Ilyich they’re told they are merely ill and that the power to heal themselves lies within their very soul. They only need to be thinner and stronger and smarter and funnier and more accomplished—and, thank goodness, the power to do all of this is in their own hands (so they’re told).
This lie says too little and too much at the same time. It tells us and it tells our students that we are merely ill rather than utterly dead. It doesn’t go far enough in its assessment of our natural state; at the same time, it goes too far in assuming our ability to cure this illness of imperfection and comparison.
Contra this lie, the truth is much more dire than our students are led to believe. They are not simply ill; rather, in their natural state, they’re dead (Eph. 2:1, Col. 2:13). They cannot cure themselves. No amount of striving or dieting or lifting or tweeting will give them the satisfaction they seek. What’s more, the cure for their condition is much sweeter than striving. Jesus Christ and His work on behalf of our students is the only thing that can satisfy their cravings for acceptance and worth. The law and the self are cruel masters, but Christ is a loving Savior.
Our students, on the whole, are more stressed than they’ve ever been. Like the lie told to Ivan Ilyich, the lie told to our students by society at large that they are merely ill and need only to take the prescribed social medicine in order to cure themselves only compounds that condition. The imperative to “Do!” does not relieve anxiety, but the indicative of “Done!” certainly can (Jn. 19:28ff).
As his sickness grows ever worse, Ivan Ilyich finds himself on his deathbed. He breathes his last, and he hears someone say, “It’s finished!” Then, our narrator says “He heard those words and repeated them in his soul. ‘Death is finished,’ he said to himself. ‘It is no more.’”
Praise be to God that when we preach or teach or speak to our students, we can tell them not only that “Death is finished…It is no more,” but also that their strivings, their chasing after the acceptance of others, and their desire to be loved are also in a sense finished: Christ satisfies those desires in the lives of our students through His work on the cross, and through His continued work in their lives.