3 Questions

I read a children’s book, inspired by a Leo Tolstoy short story, that wondered: What are the three most important questions?

I think of Leo Tolstoy, who wrote “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina,” as a writer of lengthy, complex novels. However he could not only write the grand epic spanning many characters and generations, but a brief to-the-point short story. Here are Tolstoy’s three questions:

When is the right time to do something?
Who is the most important person?
What is the right thing to do?

I think those questions are breathtaking. However, asking these questions is often easier than answering them. And yet, if we do try to ask and answer them at the decision points of our life, we will likely deepen our faith.

If you think about the great accounts of the Bible that give us insight into people who struggled mightily with their faith, these three questions often influenced their decisions and actions.

When was the “right time” for Moses to do something? After all, he was running away from a murder rap and mostly trying to lay low when the bush burned. Then bad times became the right time.

For Jacob, who had swiped his brother’s birthright, who was the most important person when Jacob desired to seek reconciliation? Jacob, who had a knack for putting himself first, finally was able to see past himself and risk a reunion with his brother Esau.

Peter, following Jesus’ resurrection, was still—even after spending all that time with Jesus—convinced that eating kosher was the only way for a person of faith. Was that really the “right” action? And then, between a dream and an invitation (see Acts 10), Peter finally gets it: it’s not what you put in your mouth that matters, but what comes from your mouth; it is what is from your heart and your hope that makes all the difference.

The list of Biblical examples trying to answer these questions are legion. From the complicated story of King David that covers scores of chapters to Jesus’ singular conversation with Zacchaeus (summed up in a handful of verses in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 19), these questions invite new or renewed faith.

Our life examples would be endless. I think of the anguish I experienced in trying to answer these questions during the time of my divorce. And I also can sense the presence of these questions when I remember making a decision to attend seminary and set in motion a new and joyful journey in my life.

Tolstoy got it right.

However, let’s be honest about the asking versus the answering of these questions. For the most part, when we are faced with decisions, we won’t know the consequences of our actions for a long time. Maybe never.

In the now safe emotional and spiritual distance of my divorce, I realize how critical Tolstoy’s second question was . . . “who is the most important person?” Without giving you any of the gory, tear-strewn details, it was hard for me to realize that I was the most important person. One of the most healing, and faith-based actions, I took during the time of my divorce was to directly ask several key friends to check in with me every day. I gave them permission to ask me how I was truly doing.

We zoom by folks every day and ask, “How ya doing?”

“Just fine,” we often lie with a smile on our two-faced faces. And the asker and the answerer keep on moving in different directions.

Who is the most important person? I had, for a few moments of my life, the courage to admit that I might be that “important” person. Don’t let me walk by without making sure I was fine. And my friends asked. And waited. And listened.

But I didn’t much know how much it mattered then. It was a guess. It was an uncertain desire to seek healing when all there seemed to be was pain and pain and more pain.

When? Who? What? They are the first words of some of the best questions we have. In the roar and blur of our lives, I fear that sometimes we don’t think we have to time to ask questions that matter. But I think we do have the time. And I think we must take the time to ask . . . and to answer.

All of us, at some point, are Moses at the burning bush, hearing our name called. Or Zacchaeus, up in a sycamore tree, trying to see a new future. Or Mary Magdalene, in a garden near the tomb where Jesus’ body had been taken, and we only want to grasp the past because it seems so much safer.

Ask those three questions. What are your answers? They will be life-giving. Faith-renewing.

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1 Comment

  1. Immanuel Kant posed a similar trio of questions:
    What can I believe?
    How should I live?
    What do I hope?
    This is printed on the cover of Walter Kaufmann’s book “The Faith of a Heretic”. This is the book which lead me to study philosophy. The questions, according to Kaufmann, come from Kant’s most important work, “The Critique of Pure Reason”, although he does not cite chapter and verse, and the vagarities of translation being what they are, I cannot easily find this quote (nor do I remember it when I studied this Critique.) This is roughly parallel to Kant’s three “critiques” of “Pure Reason”, “Practical Reason”, and “Judgment”.
    Kaufmann follows that with a quote from Nietzsche (doesn’t much matter which one. Virtually every sentence Nietzsche wrote is “quotable”) which contrasts a quiet life with one of stress, lonliness, and alienation. (Kaufmann was a world class expert on Nietzsche.)
    What really fills things out among Kaufmann’s quotes is one from Wittgenstein “What is the use of studying philosophy if …”
    Are we to expect studying philosophy will lead to calm or to discord? Do we follow Kant or Nietzsche or Tolstoy… and is that not the point of one of Tolstoy’s questions.
    Regarding hope, I always recall what are purported to be Wittgenstein’s dying words, after a tumultuous life through two World Wars (he was a prisoner of war in WW I)
    “I have had a wonderful life.”

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