Tolstoy is wrong

You have probably heard the quote from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The quote has everything a good quote needs: relevance (we all have families), pithiness, and the appearance of wisdom. But that doesn’t make it accurate. In fact, I think that Tolstoy got it exactly wrong, at least in the part that matters most.

Tolstoy is probably right from the standpoint of causes of happiness and unhappiness in families. The things that can cause unhappiness in families are manifold: selfishness, addictions, alcoholism, workaholism, marital disharmony, verbal, emotional, and sexual abuse, violence, isolation, suicide, bitterness, unforgiveness, ungratefulness, etc. Families can fail any number of ways. Families may have more than one of these, but often one is enough.

By contrast, those things that make for happy families are generally shared in common: humility, forgiveness, respect, stability, discipline, gratitude, sharing, praise, etc. Most happy families will evidence nearly all of these characteristics.

So by the standard of that which causes happy and unhappy families, Tolstoy may be correct. However, when one considers what happy and unhappy families produce he is dead wrong.

The variety of causes of familial unhappiness incompletely enumerated above may be diverse but they are remarkably consistent in what they produce: misery. Misery is relatively without character. Though the paths to the misery may be varied, the destination is the same.

By contrast, the characteristics common among happy families produce any number of unique effects. Some families are of the jovial, back-slapping, joke telling variety in their happiness. Others express their familial harmony in various artistic manners. In other homes the family happiness creates space for quiet reflection and study.

I would like to suggest that this is a richer, Christian and theological assessment than Tolstoy’s pithy maxim offers. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, the devil cannot create; he can only parody. What ‘creativity’ he has is spent in bending the varied tools on offer to him to his ultimate goal of spreading misery and death.

The grace of Christ, however, is endlessly creative. Resurrection brings life and life brings fruit. Happy, joy-filled families produce people that create and bless in all sorts of beautiful ways, not least in often creating still more happy homes. This is the essence of grace.

By manifold devices the devil creates a single effect: misery.

By a single effect—grace—the Savior creates manifold delights.

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Going up?

Perhaps no image captures the concept of impatience better than that of someone repeatedly and agitatedly assaulting an elevator button. The delay between pressing the button and the elevator’s arrival presses the limits of our patience. What is going ON up there?

We are used to there being a close relationship between our acts and their effects. We realize that they can’t all be instantaneous, of course, but our experience teaches us to expect something to happen when we press buttons, whether literal or figurative.

This expectation is confounded in the kingdom. Kingdom realities, spiritual realities, eternal realities do not operate on a simple cause and effect principle. Yet we often want them to and are frustrated when they don’t. We pray and want there to be some discernible outcome from the effort expended. We serve and want to experience a commensurate return. We ask God, “What is going ON up there?”

But the kingdom works on a “secret” principle (Mt. 6:4). John Yoder says it powerfully, “The relationship between the obedience of God’s people and the triumph of God’s cause is not a relationship between cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection.”

What does this mean? Kingdom causes like prayer, fasting, worship, etc. do not mechanistically trigger kingdom outcomes. We cannot bring the kingdom ourselves, even by dedicating ourselves to “kingdom” activities like prayer and fasting. Rather, prayer, fasting, giving, service, humility, etc. are each little “deaths”, little “crosses.” Deaths and crosses in and of themselves have no creative effect. They are dead ends. They rely upon the gracious resurrecting, life-giving act of God to become anything more. We must die to the idea that our actions in and of themselves bring good and in faith hope for the resurrection power of God to bring his kingdom.

This is a hard saying. It runs counter to our human expectations. It runs counter to the way we want the world to work. It even runs counter to the way many people preach about the gospel and the Christian life. But it is precisely that counter-intuitiveness that suggests to me that it is true.

“Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”