Pride, Existential Collapse and Surrender: Tolstoy’s CONFESSIONS – A Perspective. 

The following are selected excerpts from Tolstoy’s little-known work, Confession, as translated by David Patterson. 

However, before launching into the text and enjoying some of the wrestle and journey this remarkable culture shaping artist went on, I wanted to share some reflections on not only the musings outlined in this important work, but also on some of the posture that emerged from this robust theosophical struggle. 

There are often many unstated, yet tacit attitudes that so often emit from those who have discovered what is truly best practice, yet do not (for reasons we will discover) really embrace it in practice. For this demographic, of which most of self-sufficient or fiscally secure are part, the potential for complete subscription is perpetually undermined – as I believe we will see in Tolstoy’s experience. 

Pride (as the author Daniel Defoe once quipped, is “The president and first peer of Hell”) makes them unwilling to surrender, and their means enables them to negotiate a different posture that saves the very thing that needs to be dethroned, the self-governing ego. 

However, a genuine quandary remains; an irrefutable awakening has happened and for the ‘negotiating’ soul, this new spiritual and now unavoidably intrusive enlightenment must be managed in a manner other than surrender, submission, and servanthood. 

So, the financially and academically enabled self-governor must craft a new ‘take’ on an issue – A theological or ecclesiological gymnastic that puts them ‘back in charge’ of their worldview and, I would argue, subsequently unable to take up the cross and truly follow. 

The burning (and it would appear, existential collapsing question) that drove Tolstoy – the intelligent, famous, wealthy, and popular hedonist – to turn his back on what has now come to epitomise utopian success in the west, was ‘What meaning does my life have that the inevitability of death did not destroy?” 

In short, and not to undervalue the journey, Tolstoy was unable to find in all those heady arenas of life, a meaning that would defy death. Even the consideration of his human and extensive (and clearly enduring) literary progeny, was unable to satisfy that existential ache. 

After spelunking academia, wealth, familial, hedonic, and artistic pursuits, he found the answer in the simple faith of the Russian peasant people – but what did that actually lead to? 

Yes, as you will read, it did affirm the anthropologically sound and historically validated Judeo-Christian worldview, but it would appear it also began to strip away all the vanities and externals that feed the ego, the centrality of self – which in the end is the essence of us; the ‘us’ that will be captured by either Heaven or Hell, but in absolute objective reality will never be out from under either one. 

King Saul – A Biblical Narrative that makes the point 

I would like to suggest that we see one of the single most cataclysmic and inexorable engagements around this issue in the Old Testament historical record. 

Samuel, arguably the most credentialled practitioner to ever serve the Creator, Samuel – who had three offices and roles; (like no other before or after) Prophet, Priest and Judge – in fulfilling those roles is directly speaking as God to the first God ordained King of Israel, Saul. 

For those who are familiar with Saul’s ascension to the throne, it was one of humility. Though endowed with many attractive qualities, his early heart was humble and self-deprecating, not deeming his obvious qualities as worthy of such unprecedented recognition.   

The same Samuel was called upon to choose and ordain the ‘king’ despite this being direct opposition to Creator God’s prescriptions – HE was their king, and this pursuit of governance, not leadership, from sources other than His perfect rule, was going to diminish them in every way. Yet, this Omniscient and Gracious God, saw this coming. The re-declaration of the divine law Deuteronomy 17 : 14-20  made provision for this inevitable frailty of a people whose culture was infected (instead of infecting) by nations around them. 

The rules around a Kingship were never meant to be about usurping the ultimate Authority or attempting to govern instead of God, potentially creating a self-declared Divine Despotism, which much of history has seen emerge. Rather, it is about leadership in the best-practice of the Holy God’s plan and purposes – servanthood postured collaboration that God always intended from the very Garden of Eden. It was never to be ‘instead of’, or ‘for’, but in and with. In fact one of the first requirements of an incoming King, according to divine prescriptions, was that new incumbent had to not only read, but completely copy the book of the law. Clearly, this is about ensuring, that at the very least, the new leader would not only know, but surrender to implementing best practice of the One who ultimately governs. 

And when it all boils down, that is it isn’t it?  We think we can govern, not just lead. 

There may be many leaders, and incredibly gifted ones, but they can and never will govern as perfectly as the Author of life and its best practice. We are supposed to surrender our capacities and agencies to that perfect model, so that our collaboration will be not only profoundly effective but deeply satisfying. God let us in on not just how it works best, but also making the best happen – that is a breathtaking privilege and one we should approach with complete and sober surrender. 

So, no big prize for guessing what may be the easiest way to mess up that perfect collaboration? In short when, our collaboration becomes control and our leadership becomes final governing license. 

Such proclivities did King Saul succumb too, and we take up the scene at that cataclysmic act that was the final straw in Saul disqualifying himself from the privileged position of God’s King of Gods people. 

Saul had failed completely in fulfilling a non-negotiable directive from the very lips of God about dealings with the Amalekites. He did so by deciding God’s directive was not quite right, it seemed not austere, rather wasteful, and he knew better. This failure would lead to, not only an immediate problem, but exacerbate an ongoing harassment by the descendants of the Amalekites – a nation which descendants perpetually harasses the children of Israel (See Study, ‘Help I Need a Real Holiness’ page 9) 

Without unpacking the entire event and the plethora of issues that surround this, suffice to say the indictment made against the king was a scathing and unequivocal one. Saul’s action were equal to witchcraft and idolatry. 

“Rebellion is as sinful as witchcraft, and stubbornness as bad as worshiping idols. So, because you have rejected the command of the LORD, he has rejected you as king.” (1 Samuel 15:23) 

It is the severity of this indictment sheds the full spotlight on what I have just written. When we shift in our collaboration from leader to governor, from servant to master, and fail in that assumed echelon, we are held to no less than God’s perfect standard. 

If you like, and I am using license… “If you are going to assume my role and choose to overturn my decisions, you had better make sure you get it perfectly right. For, if you do not you must give an account for acting as Me, not just for Me! “ 

Of course, this posture is witchcraft – manipulating the divine resources for our own ends! Of course, this posture is idolatry – placing the attention, authority and focus on other than the one true God! 

Severe? Reflect again, please? 

These two postures are more easily adopted than we imagine. The Adversary knows this all too well, and his seductive tongue may not coerce us, but will always seek to question as he did in the Garden… “Did God really say?” 

Self as God is always the centre of witchcraft and idolatry – being the final authority and getting what I want my way, is the essence and foundation of all sin – wrongdoing – mark missing conduct.  And it is this idolatry that is the breaching of the first three of the seminal and remarkable 10 commandments… There is only one God who can act as God perfectly, and it is not ‘man’. 

One could ‘go down this rabbit hole’ a long way, but suffice to say, you get the dangers of this space. Our wise, dedicated and honourable Creator, continues to work with the model He set in motion, as He does want His children to experience His best, but will hit the ‘reset button’ when necessary on both micro and macro levels to refresh our understanding of and surrender to His governance in our, capacity, agency and leadership. 

However, the wrestle will always be a part of the true servant narrative, because the more we grow in our walk with and yielding to God the greater our capacity, strength, agency and potential becomes; subsequently the more we need to surrender and re-surrender these to HIS governance. I’m reminded of a poignant insight by prominent Christian activist, thinker and Pastor, F.B. Meyer who disclosed, “I used to think that God’s gifts were on shelves – one above another – and the taller we grow, the easier we can reach them. Now I find that God’s gifts are on shelves – and the lower we stoop, the more we get.” 

The Enemy of our souls missed this and wants to spoil this divinely ordained collaboration. Our flesh, not to be reconciled, wants to assert its egocentricity. The world managed by fallen humanity is under the sway of the Evil one, so following the contrary Christ is indeed a narrow path, and cross in tow, it is only traversed by humbling oneself completely (Matthew 16:24). It is a call of descent into greatness, for it is only the humble, the meek and the servant who will truly rule and be lifted up. 

Like all those who have and who want to follow the Christ must do. 

It is my contention that, as for so many of us who are protected, prosperous, powerful and privileged it is this core issue that continued to undermine Tolstoy’s capacity to fully experience the transforming truths of Christianity. 

Beyond the appetising excerpt that follows here, I would encourage you to read the short book and see the ‘dance’ around denominations and doctrines that ensues. The inexorable critique of every structure, process or platform. Always a fault to be found by the ‘superior’ investigator and judge – postures that go beyond the discerning need to test and hold on to what is good, but rather defend the self from the divine imperative of surrendering all, even unto humiliation. This is the ‘I know better’ path that I also too often traversed, and to the detriment of others, not just myself. 

Mercy and Grace continue to follow me, and all who ultimately seek to surrender all, even if only in increments. It is the posture of final authority though that cannot yield, as it always senses itself as too wise to require abasement. 

Reader, by all means this is just a primer for you to read, reflect and draw your own conclusions from. May I encourage you to pray that as you read this remarkable work of Tolstoy, that you will be enriched, enabled and edified unto surrender to and service of The King – not endorsed and entitled to play at king. 


Shane W. Varcoe


I also realized that no matter how irrational and unattractive the answers given by faith, they have the advantage of bringing to every reply a relationship between the finite and the infinite, without which there can be no reply. However, I may put the question of how I am to live, the answer is: according to the law of God. Is there anything real that will come of my life? Eternal torment or eternal happiness. What meaning is there which is not destroyed by death? Union with the infinite God, paradise. 

Thus in addition to rational knowledge, which before had seemed to be the only knowledge, I was inevitably led to recognize a different type of knowledge, an irrational type, which all of humanity had: faith, which provides us with the possibility of living. As far as I was concerned, faith was as irrational as ever, but I could not fail to recognize that it alone provides humanity with an answer to the question of life, thus making it possible to live. 

Rational knowledge led me to the conclusion that life is meaningless; my life came to a halt, and I wanted to do away with myself. As I looked around at people, I saw that they were living, and I was convinced that they knew the meaning of life. Then I turned and looked at myself; as long as I knew the meaning of life, I lived. As it was with others, so it was with me: faith provided me with the meaning of life and the possibility of living. 

Faith is the knowledge of the meaning of human life, whereby the individual does not destroy himself but lives. Faith is the force of life. If a man lives, then he must have faith in something. If he did not believe that he had something he must live for, then he would not live. If he fails to see and understand the illusory nature of the finite, then he believes in the finite; if he understands the illusory nature of the finite, then he must believe in the infinite. Without faith it is impossible to live. 

I looked back on the course of my internal life and I was horrified. It was now clear to me that in order for a man to live he must either fail to see the infinite or he must have an explanation of the meaning of life by which the finite and the infinite would be equated. I had such an explanation, but I did not need it as long as I believed in the finite, and I began to use reason to test it out. And in the light of reason every bit of my former explanation crumbled into dust. B u t the time came when I no longer believed in the finite. And then, using the foundations of reason, I began to draw on what I knew to put together an explanation that would give life meaning; but nothing came of it. 

And what did I do when I searched for an answer in the experimental sciences? I wanted to find out why I lived, and to do that I studied everything that was outside of myself. To be sure, I was able to learn a great deal, but nothing of what I needed. And what did I do when I searched for an answer in the area of philosophy? I studied the thoughts of those who found themselves in the same situation as I, and they had no answer to the question of why I live. I was not able to learn anything here that I did not already know-namely, that it is impossible to know anything. 

What am I? A part of the infinite. Indeed, in these words lies the whole problem. Is it possible that man has only now raised this question? And can it be that no one before me has put this question to himself, a question so simple that it rests on the tip of the tongue of every intelligent child? 

No, this question has been asked ever since there have been people to ask it; since the beginning man has understood that to resolve the question by equating the finite with the finite is just as inadequate as equating the infinite with the infinite; since the beginning man has sought to articulate the relation between the finite and the infinite 

I did not think so at the time, but even then, the seeds of these thoughts had already been planted within me. I realized first of all that despite our wisdom, the position of Schopenhauer, Solomon, and myself was absurd: we considered life evil, and yet we lived. This is clearly absurd because if life is meaningless and if I love reason so much, then I must destroy life so there will be no one around to deny it. Secondly, I realized that all our arguments went round and round in a vicious circle, like a cog whose gears are out of sync. No matter how refined our reasoning, we could not come up with an answer…Finally, I began to realize that the most profound wisdom of man was rooted in the answers given by faith and that I did not have the right to deny them on the grounds of reason; above all, I realized that these answers alone can form a reply to the question of life. 

I understood this, but it did not make things any easier for me. I was now prepared to accept any faith, as long as it did not demand of me a direct denial of reason, for such a denial would be a lie. So, I studied the texts of Buddhism and Muhammadanism; and more than ever those of Christianity and the lives of Christians who lived around me. 

And I began to grow closer to the believers from among the poor, the simple, the uneducated folk, from among the pilgrims, the monks, the Raskolniks, * the peasants. The beliefs of those from among the people, like those of the pretentious believers from our class, were Christian…The whole life of the believers from our class was in opposition to their faith, while the whole life of the believers from the working people was a confirmation of that meaning of life which was the substance of their faith. So I began to examine the life and the teachings of these people, and the closer I looked, the more I was convinced that theirs was the true faith, that their faith was indispensable to them and that this faith alone provided them with the meaning and possibility of life. Contrary to what I saw among the people of our class, where life was possible without faith and scarcely one in a thousand was a believer, among these people there was scarcely one in a thousand who was not a believer. 

Contrary to what I saw among the people of our class, where a lifetime is passed in idleness, amusement, and dissatisfaction with life, these people spent their lives at hard labor and were less dissatisfied with life than the wealthy. Contrary to the people of our class who resist and are unhappy with the hardship and suffering of the)r lot, these people endure sickness and tribulation without question or resistance-peacefully, and in the firm conviction that this is as it should be, cannot be otherwise, and is good. Contrary to the fact that the greater our intellect, the less we understand the meaning of life and the more we see some kind of evil joke in our suffering and death, these people live, suffer, and draw near to death peacefully and, more often than not, joyfully. Contrary to peaceful death-death without horror and despair, which is the rarest exception in our class-it is the tormenting, unyielding, and sorrowful death that is the rarest exception among the people. And these people, who are deprived of everything that for Solomon and me constituted the only good in life, yet who nonetheless enjoy the greatest happiness, form the overwhelming majority of mankind. 

The life of our class, of the wealthy and the learned, was not only repulsive to me but had lost all meaning. The sum of our action and thinking, of our science and art, all of it struck me as the overindulgences of a spoiled child. I realized that meaning was not to be sought here. The actions of the laboring people, of those who create life, began to appear to me as the one true way. I realized that the meaning provided by this life was truth, and I embraced it. 

I understood the truth that I later found in the Gospel, the truth that people clung to darkness and shunned the light because their deeds were evil. For he who does evil hates the light and will not venture into the light, lest his deeds be revealed. I realized that in order to understand the meaning of life, it is necessary first of all that life not be evil and meaningless, and then one must have the power of reason to understand it. I realized why I had been wandering around such an obvious truth for so long and that in order to think and speak about the life of humankind, one must speak and think about the life of humankind and not about the life of a few parasites. This truth has always been the truth, like 2 x 2 = 4, but I had not acknowledged it, for in acknowledging that 2 X 2 = 4, I would have had to admit that I was not a good man. And it was more important and more pressing for me to feel that I was a good man than to admit that 2 X 2 = 4. But I came to love good people and to hate myself, I acknowledged the truth. Now it all became clear to me. 

What, indeed, had I done in all my thirty years of conscious life? Not only had I failed to live my life for the sake of all, but I had not even lived it for myself. I had lived as a parasite, and once I had asked myself why I lived, the answer I received was: for nothing. If the meaning of human life lies in the way it is lived, then how could I, who had ruining spent thirty years not living life but it for myself and others, receive any reply other than this, that my life was meaningless and evil? I t was indeed meaningless and evil. 

Thus, the simple, uneducated working people, whom we look upon as animals, do the will of their master without ever reproaching him. But we, the wise, consume everything the master provides without doing what he asks of us; instead, we sit in a circle and speculate on why we should do something so stupid as moving this lever up and down. And we have hit upon an answer. We have figured it out that either the master is stupid, or he does not exist, while we alone are wise; only we feel that we are good for nothing and that we must somehow get rid of ourselves. 

Recognizing the errors of rational knowledge helped me to free myself from the temptations of idle reflection. The conviction that a knowledge of the truth can be found only in life led me to doubt that my own life was as it should be; and the one thing that saved me was that I was able to tear myself from my isolation, look at the true life of the simple working people, and realize that this alone is the true life. I realized that if I wanted to understand life and its meaning, I would have to live not the life of a parasite but the genuine life; and once I have accepted the meaning that is given to life by the real humanity that makes up life, I would have to test it out. 

This is what happened to me at the time: in the course of a whole year, when almost every minute I was asking myself whether I should end it all with a rope or a bullet, when I was occupied with the thoughts and observations I have described, my heart was tormented with an agonizing feeling. This feeling I can only describe as a search for God. 

I say that this search for God was born not of reason but of an emotion because it was a search that arose not from my thought process-indeed, it was in direct opposition to my thinking-but from my heart. I t was a feeling of dread, of loneliness, of forlornness in the midst of all that was alien to me; and it was a feeling of hope for someone's help. 

It is clear that I do not live whenever I lose my faith in the existence of God, and I would have killed myself long ago if I did not have some vague hope of finding God. I truly live only whenever I am conscious of him and seek him. "What, then, do I seek?" a voice cried out within me. "He is there, the one without whom there could be no life." To know God and to live come to one and the same thing. God is life 

"Live, seeking Cod, for there can be no life without Cod." And more powerfully than ever a light shone within me and all around me, and this light has not abandoned me since. Thus, I was saved from suicide. 

I returned to the conviction that I could find the expression of this will in something long hidden from me, something that all of humanity had worked out for its own guidance; in short, I returned to a belief in Cod, in moral perfection, and in a tradition that instils life with meaning. The only difference was that I had once accepted all this on an unconscious level, while now I knew that I could not live without it. 

Pages 60-75 – Tolstoy’s CONFESSION