/ happiness / Jeffrey A Stivason

Anna Karenina, David, & Happiness

I have nearly finished reading Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and I think that it should be read by every seminarian. Why? Because Tolstoy, like many older authors, made human nature a lifelong study. Their description and analysis of characters makes for good pastoral case studies. Take, for example, the notion of happiness in Anna Karenina. When Anna arrives in Moscow, she is loved by everyone. She is moral. She is proper. She is upright. She is fun. Just ask her nieces and nephews! And she is married.

However, while in Moscow she meets Vronsky. They fall in love with one another but Anna knows her feelings are wrong and so she departs for her home in Petersburg earlier than she had planned. Her husband, Alexei, is the first face to catch her attention. But she asks herself a strange question, “What’s happened to his ears?” (p. 104). Several pages later she reflects, “But why do his ears stick out so oddly? Did he have his hair cut?” (p. 112). And on page 204, “his ears sticking out” and on page 207, “the round hat that pressed down the tops of his ears.” What is Tolstoy saying? Anna has been smitten by another man and imperceptibly she had begun to find fault with her husband. She needed reasons to distance herself from him. Only the smallest things first.

Is this not true in life? Alexei’s ears were always like that. They had not changed. But Anna needed them. She needed to find fault. She needed to despise them. Pastor’s see spouses doing this very thing today.  It may not be ears, but it’s something ear-like.

Anna then moves from fondness to flirtation to fornication with Vronsky. Tolstoy does not describe the sinful act, but he does paint the effect in detail. Anna

bent her once proud gay, but now shame-stricken head, and she became limp falling from the divan where she had been sitting to the floor at his (Vronsky) feet; she would have fallen on the carpet if he had not held her. “My God! Forgive me!” she said, sobbing, pressing his hands to her breast.

She felt herself criminal and full of shame. But what is striking is how Vronsky describes the moment. He describes it as “happiness” to which Anna retorts with loathing and horror, “What happiness?”

However, after Anna falls deeper and deeper into a life layered in lies and falsehoods fabricated from whole cloth, Vronsky eventually says to her, “I can’t forgive myself that you are unhappy.” To which Anna replies, “I’m unhappy? She tells Vronsky that she is like a starving man who is without food, cold, and without clothes and ashamed. But then she adds, “I’m unhappy? No, this is my happiness…” She has exchanged the truth for a lie.

This is a picture of Proverbs 2:13-15.  It describes those “[who] forsake the paths of uprightness to walk in the ways of darkness, who rejoice in doing evil and delight in the perverseness of evil, men whose paths are crooked, and who are devious in their ways.” Anna had clearly forsaken the path of uprightness for darkness.  Happiness, for Anna, was now unhappiness.

The result? At one point, she kept repeating, “My God! My God!” But Tolstoy writes, “[neither] the ‘my’ nor the ‘God’ had any meaning for her.” The woman who had once cried out to be forgiven was now, says Tolstoy, seeing double in her soul. David was like that. He was seeing double in his soul when Nathan came to speak to him (II Samuel 12). But that confrontation was enough to help David to see. And he wrote about it in Psalm 32:1-2,

Blessed (or happy) is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

David recognized true happiness. It was forgiveness. Such was not the case with Anna. She had allowed herself to become desensitized to her sin. She was unable to discern what was true. Perhaps a better way of putting it is she despised truth, after all, she would later say of her husband, "I hate him for his virtues. I cannot live with him" (p. 427). Perhaps we might compare Anna to the young person who learns the Bible and the catechism before heading off to a college which tries to undermine his beliefs.  He is stuck in two worlds. He will begin to despise the one and love the other. But in truth, there is only one happiness. It is found in the One who invites us to experience fullness of joy and the forgiveness of our sins. Of course, this One is the Lord Jesus.

Jeffrey A Stivason

Jeffrey A Stivason

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is a pastor (Grace RPC, graceingibsonia.org) and NT professor at RPTS in Pittsburgh, PA. He is also editor at placefortruth.com.

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