“I am a sick man … I am a spiteful man.”
-The Underground Man
Sometimes we are tempted to gloss over the parts of the New Testament that talk about our own propensity towards sin. We know that there are acts of unspeakable evil happening in the world, but it is another thing entirely to say that the seeds that give birth to such evil can be found in each of our hearts. The writings of Paul make it clear, however, that there is something wrong inside of us—a wrongness that infects our relationships and inner life, turning out discord and spite instead of love and grace.
“I am a sick man … I am a spiteful man.” These words are the opening lines of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, a novel that takes the form of the morbidly self-conscious rambling of a man trapped in a figurative “underground” of misery. In the novel, the reader follows him through his convoluted thoughts and watches as he brings his inner torment to bear on everyone he meets. His acts of spite, meticulously planned and executed, inevitably end up underlining and increasing his own pettiness and isolation.
The man in the novel exemplifies two contradictory but ever-present human traits: self-awareness of depravity and an intractable, destructive arrogance. The two are held together by a deep bitterness—resentment that projects itself equally onto self and others. In Dostoevsky’s novel, the lower that the "underground" man falls in his own estimation, the greater his desire to drag others into the mire. He tries to cause pain, not because it makes him feel better but because it makes him feel worse; and in this he finds a twisted justification.
Although we may not be as obviously self-destructive as the man in the underground, we each have what Paul referred to as the “sinful nature,” a sickness that will overtake us if left unchecked. Where there is love to be sown, we will choose disdain. When we have a chance to celebrate others, we will envy them; when we can be thankful we will turn our attention inward, fostering both pride and self-loathing. Sin spreads, putting down its roots into our very personalities.
Dostoevsky reminds us, however, that awareness of our condition is not enough to free us from our tendency to let wrongness permeate our thoughts and actions. The main character in the novel knows what sort of a net he has entangled himself in—the problem is that he cannot, and spitefully refuses to, find a way out. The extent of our sin can either overwhelm us or cause us to perceive our actual need for a Savior, someone to lead us out of bondage. Jesus is not a bonus offer, declaring us eligible for heaven; he reaches into the mess we are in and pulls us out, rescuing us from something we cannot escape on our own. We can be free not only from the consequences of sin but from sin itself.
It is difficult for us to admit any sort of need, but sin needs to be pulled up from the roots, not just trimmed; personalities bound up with selfishness and pride need to be overhauled. This work of the Spirit is difficult, and it is long-term; it comes only as God’s grace works within us through the many years of our lives.
“I am a sick man … I am a spiteful man.” We must realize that this declaration of the underground man is potentially our own, even while we put our trust in a stronger truth—that God can set us free from our slavery to sin.