Skip to main content

Big Brother Karamazov

The whole world, it seems, is talking about Dostoevsky's 'The Brothers Karamazov'. It is one of those 'quote for every occasion' type books, and manages to turn up in every other talk or sermon I hear - be it on suffering, or the existence of God, or free will, or the nature of self. So I thought I'd check it out myself. So far, it doesn't disappoint. But it's a bit close to the bone sometimes:
"I love mankind," he said, "but I am amazed at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons. In my dreams," he said, "I often went so far as to think passionately of serving mankind, and, it may be, would really have gone to the cross for people if it were somehow suddenly necessary, and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days, this I know from experience. As soon as someone is there, close to me, his personality oppresses my self-esteem and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I can begin to hate even the best of men: one because he takes too long eating his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose. I become the enemy of people the moment they touch me," he said. "On the other hand, it has always happened that the more I hate people individually, the more ardent becomes my love for humanity as a whole."
Just over a decade ago, some bright spark decided it would be interesting to investigate, live on national television, precisely how 'incapable of living in the same room' people can be, and invented Big Brother. The contestants are expertly chosen to maximise mutual distress for viewer entertainment. Nonetheless, they are only enacting in caricatured microcosm what is played out daily and globally in the real world as they work themselves into a frenzy of irrational tantrums, overblown resentments, confused blame games and arguments about arguments about arguments about nothing.

Not me. I do none of these things. I have become expert at minimising actual encounter with people so as to preserve to myself the illusion of my own noble sentiment towards them. This is particularly the case, I am ashamed to say, with other Christians - my 'brothers and sisters in Christ'. Only, the last few months especially, I have more and more come to realise that this just isn't an option if my desire to follow Jesus is to have any shred of sincerity. The whole New Testament is absolutely full of this 'love' stuff - and not just love at a distance, but love in community, in fellowship, in action.

Chapters 13 to 17 of John's Gospel record the events just before Jesus' arrest. He, knowing what was ahead (13:21,33, 16:16,32), seeks to instruct and encourage his disciples about how to live when he is no longer physically among them. They are to be a community characterised by love for one another (13:34-35); they are to follow his example in serving one another (13:14-15), willing even to lay down their lives (15:12-13); they are to abide in his love and keep his commandments (15:9-11). And he prays for 'those who will believe [in him] through their word'…hey, that includes me!: 'that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me' (17:20-26). It is pretty inescapable that my relationship with God should find expression in love for my 'brothers and sisters' and that that in itself is an act of 'witness' to the world.

So I force myself into situations I would rather avoid. I go to homegroup on a Thursday night when I'd rather be reading in bed, and I chat during the 'teas and coffees' instead of running away straight after the service on a Sunday. And I hate myself, cos I know that all the frustration and impatience which so quickly threatens to surface originates with me, and not in the poor, oblivious victims of my suppressed vitriol. I am the one with the problem, but I only come face-to-face with it when I come face-to-face with others. I want to blame them, but I can't, and so I want to blame them for their blamelessness.

It hurts, but it's the only way. Love can't be learned in the abstract: it must have an object. And it must be practiced, and acquired incrementally: "…make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love." (2 Peter 1:5-8) Normally, it's around about 'godliness' I start to want to give up all together.

The abundance of instruction in the New Testament is, I think, reflective not just of the importance of love but of the hardness of it. (By comparison, it is important not to murder, but it's also relatively easy to avoid - hence the instruction hardly needs repeating). BUT - and here is the crucial 'grace' bit - God does not abandon us to our own struggles and failings.

Going back to John 13-17, there seem to be at least 4 (intertwining) ways in which God equips us to begin to obey the seemingly impossible commandment. 1) He inspires us with the example of Jesus' humble and self-sacrificing love (see also Phil 2:1-11). 2) He breaks the condemnation and consequences of our failure to love through the work of the cross (that's rather glossing over some pretty massive theological concepts…better explained, I imagine, by the likes of John Stott in 'The Cross of Christ' though I've not read this yet). 3) He sends us a Helper - the Holy Spirit (see also, for example, Galatians 5:16-25). 4) Underpinning all of these - He loves us! (see also 1 John 3:1-2). The more we grasp this, the less we look to others to meet our needs and the less easily we feel let down or resentful: we are freed to love them without seeking a return. It is His perfect love for us that we learn to reflect back in faltering love for Him and for those He's put around us.

If I really believe all this, then I guess at some point it has to start affecting my behaviour...which is why every conversation-in-the-coffee-time is, for me, an act of faith.