At the end of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the main character, Ivan, who has sought power and prestige his whole life, lies in bed in excruciating pain. When his physician arrives, Ilyich refuses any pain medication and throws the doctor out of his room, choosing instead to fully experience his final moments with clarity. Tolstoy observes:
It was true, as the doctor said, that Ivan Ilyich’s physical sufferings were terrible, but worse than the physical sufferings were his mental sufferings, which were his chief torture. His mental sufferings were due to the fact that that night . . . the question suddenly occurred to him: “What if my whole life has really been wrong?”
Then Tolstoy adds:
It occurred to him that what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might after all be true.
We read that and we tell ourselves that we would never allow ourselves to be in that position. But we shouldn’t be so presumptuous. One Saturday I saw a nature show with a king cobra swaying its head back and forth and staring at a rabbit. The commentator said that the cobra was hypnotizing his prey. As the cobra’s head moved back and forth, the rabbit just sat there, motionless and stunned. Then, without warning, the cobra struck with furious speed and killed the rabbit instantly.
That image reminds me of the Bible’s warning, “Do not love the world or anything in the world” (1 John 2:15). The Greek word the Bible uses for “world” in this verse is the Greek word kósmos, which means either “world” or “beauty,” depending on the context. We derive our English word cosmetics from it. In the first century kósmos was used to describe not only the order of the world but also the beautiful things in the world, such as stunning statues, beautiful people, and breathtaking natural wonders. Why, then, does the Bible in this context use kósmos negatively?
I think it’s because God knew we could easily fall into the hypnotic stare of our culture and waste our lives, just like the rabbit and just like Ivan Ilyich, seeking happiness from what was created rather than its creator. God’s gift to us then, in those lethal moments, is to send trials to shake us free from our culture’s grasp to see our situation for what it really is. This is crucial, because what writer Simone Weil once said is absolutely true: “If there were no affliction in this world we might think we were in paradise.”
Sign up HERE to get my articles delivered straight to your inbox.