I've been in a book club for years now, though I took a hiatus during my four years in Scotland. I missed it deeply during that time. I missed the people, the robust and silly discussions, the simple pleasure of read a book I would not have otherwise read.
I’m back now, and over the last three months, we trudged through a particularly dense and eccentric piece of literature, the rich and frustrating stroke of genius known as The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I’d like to pen a few thoughts on an early scene that struck me, a scene involving a man who got away with murder.
This man comes to a character in the novel named Father Zozima. After winning Zozima’s trust and affection over the course of several days, this gentle, respected man confesses something he has told no one else: “I . . . do you know . . . I murdered someone.” He had murdered a beautiful woman who had done him no wrong, murdered her in her sleep. Then he pinned the crime on a servant, who was sentenced to prison and died soon thereafter. Somehow, he got on with his life and actually made a name for himself in town, gaining something of a reputation as a philanthropist. But as the years wore on, he couldn’t shake his guilt. It grew. He tried to atone for his guilt by doing good works, giving money away and all that, but to no avail. The stain was too deep. It couldn’t be washed away. And all this he bore in silence. The story, part of a strange sort of interlude in the larger tale of the Karamazov brothers, ends happily, if gravely (you’ll have to read the book). Anyhow, the tale gripped me. Here’s why: it seemed to me a picture of our depravity, not only yours and mine but of every human who has walked this hard earth since the sin of Adam, every human save One of course.
Elsewhere Dostoevsky speaks of the sun and sand and birds and each blade of grass as servants of God which do His perfect bidding. Not us. We have gone our own way, chosen our own path, and it is a crooked one. So we are crooked, “bent” as Lewis puts it in his Space Trilogy—depraved. Like this murderer with a sterling reputation, like John Wayne Gacy, we pose nicely and seem neat and tidy. But only seem. Under the floorboards of our lives are dead men’s bones. This is our dirty secret: we are depraved. I am depraved, and deep down, under the thin surface in fact, I know it. But I make every effort to hide it well, even from myself.
This story struck a chord because it spoke to me so truly about my condition, about the human condition. It was, and is, hard to get around. No one knows. No one even suspects. We could go to our graves with our reputations in tact. But if we do, we will go to hell where we belong. Because God knows. And God cares. And God is just. So our best plan is to get honest, with ourselves and others—in that order of course—and to confess. The pain we experience will be severe, but the freedom we gain will prove the action worthwhile. In confessing, we admit our need of being made right, and thank God He has provided a mechanism for that to happen through the only spotless Lamb who was slain for us, the righteous Christ.
In the end, what does it matter if I have gained the respect and adulation of the world but gone to the grave a fraud? I will spend an eternity regretting, and feeding on, my cowardice (see Lewis’ The Great Divorce for a graphic depiction of this syndrome, or more graphically still, Dante’s Inferno). Better to confess the murder and cry for mercy. Mercy I will receive, and pardon I will find. Thank God these words are true.