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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