I recently read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s classic novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It honestly wasn’t an enjoyable read (then again, I don’t think it was supposed to be), but Solzhenitsyn is considered such a great thinker, I had to give it a shot.
He paints a pretty convincing portrait of the bleak life of a prisoner in a 1950s-era Siberian work camp in the Soviet Union. It’s freezing cold. The food they’re offered is unappetizing, to say the least. The most striking aspect of the novel, though, is Ivan’s attitude. More than once, he says something like, “This is the good life!” when he gets an extra hunk of bread or bowl of mush. And he takes pride in his work, even though he will get absolutely no benefit from it – just more mistreatment from the guards.
But the thing that hit home with me the most was a passage near the end of the book in which Ivan is speaking with a character called Alyoshka the Baptist. Here’s an excerpt:
“The thing is, you can pray as much as you like but they won’t take anything off your sentence and you’ll just have to sit it out, every day of it, from reveille to lights out.”
“You mustn’t pray for that.” Alyoshka was horrorstruck. “What d’you want your freedom for? What faith you have left will be choked in thorns. Rejoice that you are in prison. Here you can think of your soul. Paul the Apostle said: ‘What mean you to weep and to break my heart? For I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die for the name of the Lord Jesus.”
Ivan is without hope. He’s in prison for no good reason, and he doesn’t understand Alyoshka’s perspective. Ivan’s world was full of cruelty, self-preservation, and grief.
The cruelty of that society was summed up by Solzhenitsyn himself in a speech when he said, “We have forgotten God. That is why all this has happened.” The Soviet government had forgotten God. Therefore its only purpose was to create an order that served the nation’s power-mongering leaders. Since they only cared about themselves, their government could be as cruel, suspicious, and tyrannical as they wanted it to be.
Subsequently, the people of the Soviet Union forgot God and lost hope. That’s what we see here in the passage. Alyoshka hoped in the Lord. He knew there must be a purpose to his imprisonment even if he didn’t know what it was. He knew that Christ holds everything together, that all things work for good for those who love Him. If God wanted him to be imprisoned or even die, he was joyfully ready (hence his quotation of Acts 21:13). Ivan didn’t have this hope.
While we don’t see this level of cruelty and paranoia in the US, we can still see the effects of the same attitude. In its subtlest form it has invaded the church. The very thought of going to prison for the cause of Christ is foreign to us. True, that doesn’t happen in America, but think about this. If we attempt to do something for God and it ends badly, most commonly, we think, “It’s hard. God must not want me to do it.” So many of us believe God’s greatest goal for us is financial security. We avoid suffering at all costs. We don’t go to places like Haiti because the political environment is too volatile. It would be dangerous for us. And when someone decides to go to a dangerous place for the cause of Christ, we often criticize them.
We have no hope, no reason to risk, no thought that suffering could be the right thing to do. Why?
America has not become like the USSR, but it’s coming. Attitudes in this country have already shifted against Christ. And while we fight to change those attitudes (and I believe we should), our church is slipping further away from His teaching, and our nation is becoming less and less tolerant of us. (I believe those two are interconnected, by the way. See “Hated and Highly Regarded.”)
But maybe that’s what God wants. Look at places in our world where the church is persecuted. It is growing. The people are serious about Christ – in many instances serious to the point of their own death. This attitude is alien to American Christians. We are like Ivan – looking for an extra bowl of mush when the glory of God’s kingdom is waiting for us if we’ll only hope in Him and take a chance. So what if they put us in prison? So what if they kill us? They cannot kill the soul.
But instead, in this nation where we are more or less accepted, we have become content, complacent even. Possibly complicit in our own downfall.
Why are we this way? Because we have no hope. Because we have forgotten God.