What I Believe/ IX.


WHAT I BELIEVE (1886) by Leo Tolstoy
Translated by Constantine Popoff.

Chapter 9



We're all to fulfill Christ's doctrine, the kingdom of God would be on earth. If I fulfill it, I do what is best for all mankind and myself. I should be helping that kingdom to come.

But where shall I find the faith that will enable me to obey Christ's teaching, to practice it, and never to swerve from it? 'I believe, Lord; help my unbelief.'

The apostles begged Christ to confirm their faith. 'I desire to do good, yet I do evil,' says Paul the apostle.

'It is hard to be saved.' This is what each says and thinks.

A drowning man calls for help. A rope is thrown him. It could save him; but the drowning man cries, 'Confirm my belief that this rope can save me.' 'I believe,' says the man, 'that it can save me; but help my unbelief.'

What does that mean? If a man does not take hold of what alone can save him, doesn't it prove that he is unaware of the danger he is in?

How can a Christian who professes to believe in the divinity of Christ and of His doctrine say that he would believe if he could? God Himself, when on earth, said, 'You are on the eve of eternal torment and fire, of complete, eternal darkness. I bring you salvation; do as I tell you, and you shall be saved.' Can a Christian reject the salvation offered him — remain unmindful of his Savior's words, and say, 'Help my unbelief?'

If a man spoke thus, would it not seem as if he not only refused to believe that destruction awaited him, but was convinced he should not perish?

Some children have leaped overboard into the water. The current, for a time, upholds them before their clothes are entirely soaked through. They swim about, unconscious of danger. A rope is thrown to them from the ship. They are entreated by those on board to take hold of the rope. (We find the same meaning in the parables of the woman who had found a farthing, of the shepherd who found the sheep that was lost, and in the parables of the supper and of the prodigal son.) But the children will not believe; not because they think the rope is an unsafe one, but because they do not believe that they are about to perish. Thoughtless children, like themselves, have told them that they will go on bathing merrily, even when the ship sails away. The children do not believe that the time is near when their clothes will be wet through, their little arms tired out; when they will begin to lose breath, and that then they will choke and drown. They do not believe that, and therefore they do not believe in the rope of salvation.

Men are like the children who have jumped overboard, and are sure they will not perish. Therefore they do not take hold of the rope. They believe in the immortality of the soul and are convinced that they will not perish, and therefore they do not fulfill the doctrine of Christ-God. They do not believe in what is indubitable, only because they believe in what is beyond all possibility of belief.

And they cry, "confirm our belief that we are not perishing."

But that is impossible. For them to believe they will be saved they must cease to do what brings destruction, and begin to do what will save them; they must take hold of the rope of salvation. But they do not choose to do this; they wish to be assured that they are not perishing, though their companions perish, one after another, before their eyes. And that desire to grow sure of what is not, they call 'faith.' No wonder, then, that they have little faith and that they long for more.

It was only when I understood Christ's doctrine that I saw that what such men call 'faith' is not faith. It is only the false faith that the apostle James opposes in his epistle. The Church did not accept that epistle for a long time; and when it was accepted it underwent several changes. Some words were removed, and others transposed or incorrectly translated. I here give the accepted translation, only correcting what is inexact, according to Tischendorf's text.

James 2:14-26: 'What does it profit, my brethren, if a man supposes that he has faith, and does not have works? Faith cannot save him. If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Depart in peace, be warmed and filled," but you do not give them those things that they need; what good is that? Even so faith, if it does not have works, is dead, being alone. Yes, a man may say, "You have faith, and I have works." Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God; you do well. The devils also believe, and tremble. But will you know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Wasn't Abraham our father justified by works when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? See how faith worked with his deeds, and by his deeds his faith was made perfect? ... You see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith alone. ... For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.'

The apostle says that the only proof of faith is in the works that proceed from it; and that faith from which no works proceed is but a word, with which we can neither feed any, nor justify ourselves and be saved. And therefore the faith that is not accompanied by works is not faith. It is only a wish to believe; it is only a mistaken assertion that I believe when I do not really believe.

According to this definition, faith must be allied to works, and works make faith perfect, i.e., true.

The Jews said to Christ (Mark 15:32. Matt. 27:42, John 6:30), 'What sign will you give us, that we may see and believe you? What will you do?' The same men said to Him when He was on the cross, 'Let Him descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe.' (Mark 15:32)

Matt. 27:42: 'He saved others, but Himself He cannot save! If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him.'

In answer to their prayer that He may 'increase their faith,' Christ says that the wish is vain; that they cannot be forced to believe (Luke 22:67). He says, 'If I tell you, you will not believe' (John 10:25-26). 'I told you, and you have not believed. You do not believe because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you.'

The Jews required some outward token to enforce their belief in the doctrine of Christ, just as the Christian followers of the Church do now. And He answers that it cannot be given to them, and explains why it is impossible to do so. He says that they cannot believe because they are not of His sheep, or, they do not follow the path of life that He points out to His flock. He explains (John 5:44) wherein lies the difference between His sheep and those who are not of His flock. He explains the reason why some believe and others do not, and tells them what the basis of faith is. 'How can you believe,' He says, 'when you accept each other's δοξα,[13] teaching, and do not seek the teaching that comes from God alone?'

In order to believe, Christ says we must seek the doctrine that comes from God.  'He who speaks from himself, seeks his own doctrine (δοξαν την ιδιαν); but he who seeks the doctrine of Him who sent Him, the same is true, and no unrighteousness is in Him'  (John 7:18).

The doctrine of life, δοξα, is the basis of faith.

All our actions proceed from faith. Faith proceeds from the δοξα of the light in which we consider life.  There may be innumerable deeds and numerous beliefs, but there are only two doctrines of life (δοξα).  Christ rejects one of them, and acknowledges the other.  The one that Christ rejects is that of the existence of individual life, as belonging to man.  It is the doctrine that was then, and is still, maintained by the majority of men, and from which proceeds all the various beliefs of men, and all their deeds.

The other doctrine is the one taught by Christ and the prophets:  that our individual life has a purpose only when we fulfill the will of God.

If a man has the δοξα that his individuality is of more importance than all else, he will consider his individual happiness as the chief and most desirable object in life; and according as he finds that happiness in the purchase of landed property, in fame, in glory, or in the satisfaction of his lusts, his faith will coincide with his views of life, and all his actions will be guided by it.

If the δοξα of a man is not such, if he understands the true purpose of life to lie in fulfilling the will of God, as Abraham understood it, and as Christ taught it, his actions will coincide with his faith in what he knows to be the will of God.

This is the reason why those who believe in the happiness of an individual life cannot believe in the doctrine of Christ. All their endeavors to do so will be in vain.  In order to believe, they must change their views of life.  Until they have done so, their actions will coincide with their creed, and not with their desires or their words.

The desire to believe in the doctrine of Christ, both of those who asked Him for some token, and of the believers of the present time, does not coincide with their lives, nor can it ever do so, however hard they may try to fit them together.  They may pray to Christ-God, attend the Holy Communion, do good to mankind, build churches, convert others, and yet, with all this, they cannot really work for Christ; because that can proceed only from faith, which is based on a very different doctrine (δοξα) to the one that they profess.  They cannot sacrifice the life of their only son, as Abraham did, who did not doubt for a moment that it was his duty to offer up his son as a sacrifice to God, to the God who alone gave importance to his life.  And in the same way, Christ and His disciples could not help giving up their lives to others, because in that alone lay the object and blessing of their lives.

It is from men's thus misunderstanding the substance of faith that their strange longing arises. They make themselves believe that it would be better to live up to the doctrine of Christ; and all the while they firmly believe in the individual life, and therefore choose to live contrary to Christ's doctrine.

The foundation of faith is a true comprehension of life, which enables man to distinguish what is important and good in life from what is unimportant and bad. Faith is a correct appreciation of all the manifestations of life. At the present time men, whose faith is grounded on a doctrine of their own, cannot make it agree with the faith that flows out of the doctrine of Christ any more than the disciples could. And we find this misunderstanding more than once clearly and definitely spoken of in the gospel. In the gospel according to St. Matthew 20:20-28, and in that according to Mark 10:35-45, after saying, that the 'rich man cannot enter the kingdom of God,' and after the still more awful saying that 'he who does not leave all, who does not give up his life for Christ's sake, shall not be saved,' Peter asks, 'What, then, shall we have, who have left all and followed You?' In the gospel according to Mark we read that James and John (or, according to Matthew, their mother) ask that 'they should sit, one on His right hand, the other on His left, in His glory.' They beg Him to confirm their faith by the promise of a reward. Christ answers Peter's question by a parable (Matt. 20:1-16); and in answer to James He says, 'You do not know what you ask,' i.e., 'you ask for what cannot be. You do not understand my doctrine. My doctrine is the renunciation of individual life, and you ask for individual honor, and individual reward. You may 'drink of my cup' or live; but to sit on my right hand, or my left, or to be equal to me, cannot be given to you.' And then Christ says that it is only in this world that the powerful of the world think much of the glory and power of individual life, and rejoice in it; but you, who are my disciples, ought to know that the true life does not lie in individual happiness, but in ministering to all, in humbling ourselves before all. Man does not live to be ministered to, but to minister to all, and to give up his individual life as a ransom for all. In answer to His disciples' request, which showed Him how little they understood His doctrine, Christ does not command them to believe, i.e., to change their appreciation of good and evil, which arose from the teaching they had imbibed before Him (He knows that it is impossible); but He explains what the true life is, on which faith is based, and shows that it is a true estimation of good and bad, important and unimportant.

Christ answers Peter's question, 'What reward shall we have for having left all, and following You?' with the parable of the laborers who were hired at different times, and who received the same pay (Matt. 20:1-16). He explains to Peter the error he is in with respect to His doctrine, and that his lack of faith proceeds from his error. Christ says it is only in individual life that reward is important in proportion to the work done. A belief in the necessity of reward being proportionate to the work itself proceeds from the doctrine of individual life. This belief is based on a hypothesis and on rights, which we imagine that we have; but man has no rights and can never have any rights; he is only a debtor for the happiness given to him, and therefore he has no right to expect anything. Even if he gives up his whole life, he cannot give back what he has received, and therefore the master cannot be unjust. If a man declares that he has a right to his own life, and requires compensation from the Author of all — from Him who entrusted him with life — he only shows that he does not understand the true purpose for which life was given to him.

Men, having obtained happiness, require more. These men stood unoccupied and miserable in the market place, and did not live. The master hired them and gave them the greatest good in life: labor. They accepted the master's gracious gift, and then grew dissatisfied. They were dissatisfied because they had no clear consciousness of their state. They came to their work with the false idea that they had a right to their own lives and to their own work, and that, therefore, their work was to be rewarded. They did not understand that work itself was the greatest good given to them, in return for which they were to do good to others, but that they could claim no reward. And men cannot have a just and true faith as long as they possess the same erroneous idea of life as these laborers had.

Christ answers the direct demand of His disciples to confirm, to increase, their faith by the parable of the master and the laborers, and explains still more clearly the groundwork of the faith he taught them.

Luke 17:3-10: The precept given by Christ to forgive our brother not only once, but seventy times seven, fills the disciples with awe at the difficulty that they would experience in putting such a precept into practice, and they say, 'Yes but... to fulfill it we must believe. Increase, and confirm our faith.' As they had asked before, 'What shall we have for it?' so do they again say, just as all who call themselves Christians say, 'I would believe, but I cannot. Strengthen my faith.' They say, 'Make us believe,' just as the disciples did when they asked for a miracle. 'Make us believe in our salvation by miracles and promises of reward.'

The disciples spoke just as we do. It would be well if, while continuing to lead our individual, willful lives, we could be made to believe that by fulfilling God's commandments we should be all the happier. We all ask for what is contrary to the whole spirit of Christ's doctrine, and we are surprised that we can by no means believe. And Christ answers the misunderstanding, which existed then, and still exists, by a parable in which He shows what true faith is. Faith cannot proceed from trust in what He says[14]; faith comes only from a consciousness of our state. Faith is based only on the rational consciousness of what is best for us. He shows that it is impossible to rouse faith in men by promises of rewards and by threats of punishments; that it will be but a very weak trust that will be destroyed at the first temptation; that the faith that moves mountains, the faith that nothing can shake, is based on the consciousness of our inevitable peril, and of the sole salvation possible for us.

Faith needs no promises of reward. It is only necessary to understand that salvation from inevitable destruction lies in a general life for all humanity according to the will of the Master. He who has once understood this will seek no confirmation of his faith, but will be saved without his requiring any exhortation.

When the disciples beg Him to confirm their faith, Christ says, 'When the master comes home with his laborer from the field, he does not tell him to sit down and eat immediately, but first orders him to pen the cattle and to serve him; and, this done, the laborer sits down to his food and eats. The laborer obeys, and does not think himself ill used, neither does he pride himself on his work, nor require thanks or a reward for it. He knows that it must be so, and that he has only done his duty; that is all that is required of him by his service, but just this is, at the same time, for his own good. In like manner, when you have done all you are bound to do, think that you have only done what was given to you to do.' He who understands his duty toward his Master will see that it is only by submitting to his Master's will that he can have life, and can know wherein lies the blessing of his life. And he will have faith — the faith that Christ teaches us. Faith, according to the doctrine of Christ, is based on a rational consciousness of the purpose of life.

The foundation of faith, according to the doctrine of Christ, is light.

John 1:9-12: 'That was the true light, which lights every man who comes into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. And as many as received Him and believed in His name, to them He gave power to become the sons of God.' John 3:19-21: 'And this is the judgment[15], that light has come into the world; and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, neither does he come to the light, lest his deeds should be seen and disapproved, because they are evil. But he who does truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, because they are done through God.'

He who has understood the doctrine of Christ can require no strengthening of his faith. Faith, according to Christ, is based on the light, on the truth. Not once does Christ call upon men to have faith in Him; He calls upon them to have faith in the truth.

John 8:40,46: He says to the Jews, 'You seek to kill Me, a Man who has told you the truth, which I have heard from God. Which of you convicts Me of untruth? And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe Me?' John 18:37: Christ says, 'To this end I was born, and for this cause I came into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.'

John 14:6: He says, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life.'

Further on, in the same chapter, Christ says to His disciples, 'The Father shall give you another Comforter, and He may abide with you forever. He is the spirit of truth, who the world does not see and does not know; but you know him, for he dwells in you and shall be in you.'

He says that His whole doctrine is truth, that He Himself is truth.

The doctrine of Christ is the doctrine of truth, and, therefore, faith in Christ is not a trust in anything that refers to Jesus, but a knowledge of the truth. It is impossible to persuade or bribe a man to fulfill it. He who understands the doctrine of Christ will have faith in Him, because His doctrine is truth. He who knows the truth cannot refuse to believe in it. Therefore, if a man feels himself to be sinking, he cannot refuse to take hold of the rope of salvation, and the question, 'What shall we do to believe?' is one that shows a total misunderstanding of Christ's doctrine.


[13] δοξα has been incorrectly translated by the word 'honor'; δοξα comes from δοχεω, and signifies opinion, teaching.

[14] Faith cannot proceed from trust in promises he might make.

[15] Χρισις signifies judgment and not condemnation, as it is sometimes translated.

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