A Monk’s Advice to a Widow

World Challenge Staff

One of the most persistent searches among humankind is for love, and yet few of us are willing to give that which we so desire.

In The Brothers Karamazov, a monk named Zosima attends to a wealthy widow. The woman tells him that she has considered becoming a nun, taking a vow of poverty and serving the poor. One matter has stopped her, however.

She confesses, “I shut my eyes and ask myself, 'Would you persevere long on that path? And if the patient whose wounds you are washing did not meet you with gratitude, but…began abusing you and rudely commanding you, and complaining to the superior authorities of you (which often happens when people are in great suffering) — what then? Would you persevere in your love, or not?'

“And do you know, I came with horror to the conclusion that, if anything could dissipate my love to humanity, it would be ingratitude. In short, I am a hired servant, I expect my payment at once — that is, praise, and the repayment of love with love. Otherwise I am incapable of loving anyone.'…

“But what's to be done? What can one do in such a case? Must one despair?”

Zosima thoughtfully responds, “No. It is enough that you are distressed at it. Do what you can, and it will be reckoned unto you…. I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you, for love in action 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 labor and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science.”

Truly loving anyone is not an easy task. In fact, it may be near impossible without the help of the Holy Spirit.

The Harsh and Dreadful Thing

The woman’s confession to Zosima is disturbing in one sense. How shallow must someone be to openly admit that they wouldn’t love anyone who wasn’t bursting with gratitude for the smallest act of service, especially if it was their job?

On the other hand, at least she was aware of the fatal flaw in her ‘love.’ How many people walk into marriage blithely assuming, “Of course I will always adore my spouse! I would never vacuum or clean the kitchen and then be bitter because my partner didn’t bubble over with ecstasy and adulation. I will never resent them or be disgusted by them or just plain tired of them.”   

People walk into a job, assuming, “I’m an excellent worker. I never let personal issues get in the way of a hard day’s work. None of my coworkers will have any cause to complain about me. Even if they do, I’ll take it calmly and only respond with the greatest equanimity. Naturally, I’m very good at taking criticism.”

People habitually over-estimate their own ability to love well, and some of the worst offenders are Christians.

In his sermon “A Baptism of Love,” David Wilkerson challenged his listeners, saying, “You can speak with tongues and still be a bigot. You can boast about being full of the Holy Ghost but still be exposed as a person full of prejudice, envy and hatred.

“You can tell someone to their face that you love them and be telling the biggest lie you ever told in your life…. You can watch television, news reports and shudder as you hear them pour out their torments of hatred and blasphemy and filth. You watch the National Democratic Convention, and you hear the stories of them cursing the police, calling them fascists…. We wonder how these people could have become so bitter. Where's the source of their hatred? …but you can be just as guilty as they are by harboring bitterness in your heart, in your home, listening to gossip in the church and dirty slander on the job where you work.”

We know that the Bible commands us to love our enemies and bless those who hate us. However, we want to believe that our own generic feelings of benevolence toward an enemy are love. We pick up an apple that’s dropped on the floor in the produce section of the grocery store and feel like Mother Teresa. We often mistake kind thoughts and basic civility for sacrificial love.

Here, the monk Zosima’s words ring like a steel bell with a solemn toll, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.”

The Mark of True Love

Most believers are at least passingly familiar with the apostle Paul’s famous description of love to the Corinthian church.

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8, ESV).

It’s a lovely verse. At least, it is until we start considering how this practically works out in our daily relationships. Love bears all things? Could we define what ‘all things’ means? Surely that doesn’t include the obnoxious neighbor who plays loud music until past midnight and then lets their five dogs poop in my front yard every morning?

David Wilkerson noted, “I've often thought how much more should Christians give out of their love, in spite of the fact that people grudge you, in spite of the fact that people talk about you or misuse you or mishandle you.

“You ought to love, even though you're being spitefully used without getting anything in return. To say, ‘I love you, even though the more I love you, the less I am loved.’ That's the baptism of the Holy Ghost.

“Now answer this, when certain individuals really hurt you and say and do unloving things, what kind of reaction do you have? Do you still spend your love on them, or do you take it back? The Lord himself revealed a great truth. He said that love is better when given than when received…. I've heard the saying that love is give and take. Not according to the scripture. Love is a process of giving with no concern about receiving. Now you young couples who want to know about real love, if each individual determines in his own mind to get nothing back but just to give, imagine what kind of love we would have in our homes.”

To love others well is rarely simple, straightforward or easy. There is no guidebook for how to love another person in every circumstance. What may be right and loving for one individual might not be for another. Sometimes love involves allowing someone to feel the consequences of repeated bad behavior while also not withdrawing or abandoning them. At times, love means forgiving someone who has wounded us in such a way that we may limp for the rest of our lives. Regularly love can be gently saying no and accepting the other party’s frustration and fury. Often love is repeatedly taking care of others in ways that they may never acknowledge.

The Firstfruits of the Spirit

In The Brothers Karamazov, near the end of the monk Zosima’s time with the widow, she begins to weep in despair at his words, and he comments, “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.”

In our work to develop this first-fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23), we cannot allow failure to stop us in our tracks. Every time we fall, we must pick ourselves up and pray for God’s merciful Spirit to continue his work in our hearts.   

David asked his listeners, “Have you ever stopped to look at yourself? Have you ever stopped to think that that critical tongue that you have when run down the church, you run down people? You judge people, the way they act, the way they dress and you see that you are Christian, that you're baptized with the Holy Ghost and that tongue of yours has been dipped in gall and bitterness. Oh God, help us to dip that tongue in love.”

He cried out, “God wants to take out of our hearts that bitterness, that criticism and give us a baptism of Holy Ghost love.

“Take it out, Lord, because bitterness and sweetness cannot pour out of the same fountain. If we've been baptized with the Holy Ghost, our tongue should be dipped in oil. Oh God, take out the bitterness. Help us, Lord, to speak a good word in season to the weary heart. Help us to encourage and edify and exalt and lift up others.”

Love will show itself in thankless patience with blundering inconsideration and the shrill impatience of pain. Love is a labor that will break us down, reveal our selfishness and unveil our frailty.

Genuine love is often a cross we must pick up over and over as we follow Christ.