A Reason for the Pain: Dostoevsky's Answer to the Problem of Pain in The Brothers Karamazov
“In sorrow, seek happiness.” So says Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s literary homage to the problem of pain and suffering. A murder mystery extraordinaire, this novel traces the history of one Ivan Karamazov, eldest brother of the Karamazovs and an intellectual humanist. Frustrated by the problem of evil and its implications regarding the nature of God and His posture toward man, Ivan conceives of atheism as a kind of work around. He reasons that if there is no God, then there is no supreme moral law and no eternity. Without these, nothing exists to constrain man to consider others. In fact, in such a world the only rational way to live is selfishly, even to the extent of murder. In a world without God, there can be no such thing as injustice. Conseqently, while atheism does not end suffering, it does end suffering’s problematic implications regarding God. Through Ivan, Dostoevsky as much as says: No God. No problem. Just pain. His novel explores the rationality of this philosophy by putting it to the test in the laboratory of Ivan’s experience. As he encounters natural consequences for his actions, Ivan discovers that the existence of his own active conscience gives the lie to his ideas.
I find myself empathetic to Ivan’s plight. I hate suffering. I am disturbed by the images of global suffering that pop up on my newsfeed daily: refugee children drowned in their flight from militant jihadists, decapitated toddlers, cancer patients, friends weighed down by clinical depression, an unemployed neighbor who can’t support his six children, a single woman without family whose experience with dementia has left her dependent upon the charity of strangers for her daily needs, my son, who experiences hives intermittently for no known cause, my husband’s bleeding fingers, splitting from eczema the doctors can’t seem to cure, my children’s friends, whose parents’ divorce has left them wounded, insecure, and angry. The suffering around me is too numerous to list, and all of it is troubling. In my own life, suffering undoes me. I live as though I am strong and in control until a health concern reduces me to fear or a relationship backfires. In such moments, I ask with Ivan the fruitless question why?
We are not alone, Ivan and I. Job asked why, too, and he got an answer. Interestingly enough, it was an answer resonant with the one Dostoevsky’s novel offers. At the end of his suffering, Job discovers that his travail has come at the sovereign disposal of the Creator for the purpose of delivering him from false assumptions about the world, himself, and God. “I have heard of you by the hearing of the word, but now my eye has seen you, and I repent in dust and ashes,” he wails. According to Job’s God, this revelation makes him uniquely worthy to petition for the forgiveness of his cold comforters. Community springs up through this common dependence, this corporate need for grace.
Similarly, Dostoevsky describes the fruits of suffering through the words and actions of the religious character Father Zossima. In one of the story’s critical scenes, one of the brothers has a vision of Zossima celebrating at the wedding of Cana.
‘We are rejoicing,’ the little, thin old man went on. ‘We are drinking the new wine, the wine of new, great gladness; do you see how many guests? Here are the bride and bridegroom, here is the wise governor of the feast, he is tasting the new wine. Why do you wonder at me? I gave an onion to a beggar, so I, too, am here…’
Zossima explains that in extending the mercy he has received to others, giving “an onion to a beggar,” he has become a guest at the feast. Through allusion, Dostoevsky conflates the wedding at Cana with the marriage supper of the Lamb, likening Jesus’ miraculous wine to the symbolic New Wine of the gospel of grace. Zossima continues, directing the readers’ attention to the Host of the feast:
‘Do not fear Him. He is terrible in His greatness, awful in His sublimity, but infinitely merciful. He has made Himself like unto us from love and rejoices with us. He is changing the water into wine that the gladness of the guests may not be cut short. He is expecting new guests, He is calling new ones unceasingly for ever and ever…There they are bringing new wine. Do you see they are bringing the vessels…’ (199).
With an artistic slight of hand, Dostoevsky associates the guests to the vessels being brought for the new wine. In this way, he makes of suffering a corporate experience and infuses it with redemptive significance, cause enough for joyful celebration. Those called to participate in suffering fill up Christ’s own suffering, and become, in a sense, Christ to the world. Through their experiences, they encounter God’s fellowship in their humanity and learn empathy. As they extend this to the world of sufferers around them, community grows. New vessels are brought. Redemption is extended. Thus reads Dostoevsky’s theodicy, his reason for the sufferings of man.
While suffering often seems to isolate and alienate man, in truth, it is ubiquitous, a common feature of finite man’s experience in a world he cannot control. That the sovereign God would subject Himself to this to become our suffering servant is a supremely sublime truth. Although it does not rid me or my neighbor of the persistent pains of life, it offers us community in its midst – fellowship with Christ and with one another. Far from a Pollyanna, pat answer, Dostoevsky’s solution to the problem of pain leaves plenty of blood on the floor. Neither Ivan’s atheism nor Zossima’s faith can deny the reality of suffering. Where atheism, however, leaves one with nothing but the pain, faith leaves one with companions, comforters, empathisers who endure the pain corporately and in so doing, find a joy they couldn’t have imagined: God with us.
Dmitri, the scapegoat sufferer to whom Father Zossima bows mysteriously as if to the sacrament in the early pages of the story, concludes:
“Oh, yes, we shall be in chains and there will be no freedom, but then, in our great sorrow, we shall rise again to joy, without which man cannot live nor God exist, for God gives joy: it’s His privilege – a grand one. Ah, man should be dissolved in prayer! What should I be underground without God? …If they drive God from the earth, we shall shelter Him underground. One cannot exist in prison without God; it’s even more impossible than out of prison. And then we men underground will sing from the bowels of the earth a glorious hymn to God, with Whom is joy. Hail to God and His joy! I love Him!”
Like Dmitri, in my own moments of suffering, I find it hard to ignore my need of God. There, in my place of need with my fellow sufferers, let me sing out my praises to the God who is and with whom is joy, meaning, and fellowship in suffering. In sorrow, may we, together with Dostoevsky and Job and the infinite sea of sufferers that surround us, seek happiness and, in so doing, find Him who gives it freely.