Fyodor Dostoevsky: Active Love

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Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. 1 John 3:18

“In Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, a wealthy woman asks an elderly monk how she can know if God exists. He tells her no explanation or argument can achieve this, only the practice of “active love.” She then confesses that something she dreams about a life of loving service to others. At such times she thinks perhaps she will become a Sister of Mercy, live in holy poverty, and serve the poor in the humblest way. But then it crosses her mind how ungrateful some of the people she would serve are likely to be. They would probably complain that the soup she served wasn’t hot enough or that the bread wasn’t fresh enough or the bed was too hard. She confesses that she couldn’t bear such ingratitude — and so her dreams about serving other vanish, and once again she finds herself wondering if there is a God.

To this the wise monk responds, “Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labour and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science. But I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting farther from your goal instead of nearer to it — at that very moment I predict that you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov (Planet PDF ebook) 110-111 as recounted in part by Peter Scazzero in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014) 165.

As I reflect during a time of resting, I resonate very much with the notion that we can easily fall into the trap of loving in dreams rather than loving in action. Or as I have heard others put it, we must serve people not as we desire but according to their real needs. It’s not easy as it sounds.

It’s filled with empathy and compassion. Love in action is only possible with God’s help. And it is also the pathway to show the living God to a lost and broken world.

As you think about your generosity today, sit with God and consider what it would look like to put yourself and all the resources you steward to work in a manner that aims to serve the real needs of people around you. As God leads you, step into that space.

God will show up in a a powerful way. He will be with you and in you and in the work.