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  • Writer's pictureDr. Nathan T. Morton

A Parable About Purpose

Leo Tolstoy’s short story, “Three Questions” (1885) contains a message for anyone who is looking to find true purpose in life. His story is about a king who was determined to find the answers to what he believed were the 3 most important questions in life

1) How to tell the right time for every deed?

2) How to know who are the most essential people?

3) How to decide which pursuits are the most important?

The king was convinced that if he could answer these questions he would succeed in every endeavor of life. So he questioned the most educated people in his kingdom, but to no avail. In the end, he decided to ask a reclusive hermit who was widely reputed to be very wise.

Attempting to conceal his identity the king dressed in plain clothes, and dismissed his bodyguards at a distance, before meeting with the wise hermit. The king found the frail old man, digging a ditch in front of his hut and there the king asked him his three questions. The hermit ignored him and kept on digging. Feeling some compassion for the elderly man, the king grabbed the shovel and relieved the hermit of his work, expecting at some point the old man would eventually answer his questions—but he did not. After hours of working in silence the king said, “I came to you, wise sir, for answers to my questions, but if you can give me none, tell me so, and I will return home.”

At that same moment, the two men saw someone running towards them, clearly wounded. The runner came near collapsing at the king’s feet. Again, feeling compassion the king took the man into the hermit’s hut, dressed his wounds, and nursed him throughout the night. In the morning the wounded man awoke only to immediately began begging for the king’s forgiveness. Puzzled, the king questioned the man who soon confessed that he was an enemy, and had planned to assassinate the king after his meeting with the hermit. However, the king’s meeting with the hermit went so long it forced the would be assassin to emerge from his hiding place. When he did the king’s bodyguards recognized who he was and attacked him. The would be assassin escaped only to end up collapsing before the king and hermit.

The king, touched by the man’s sincere and honest confession, not only forgave him, but made arrangements for him to be taken care of by the king’s own personal physicians upon their return.

Before leaving, the king asked the wise hermit his three questions one last time. The hermit replied, “You have already answered them youself.”

He explained that had the king not stopped to help him dig, he most surely would have been killed by the assassin. “So the right time for any deed is when it is needed. The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion.” Because in reality the past cannot be changed and the future is still unknown.

The hermit continued, “Also, You helped me dig my ditch which not only saved your life, you attended to the attacker’s wounds which saved his life and allowed him to make peace with you. The most essential people are those you are with right now, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future.”

The hermit ended, “Attending to the attacker’s wounds was paramount, otherwise he would have died. So, the pursuits that are the most important are those which are most right and most necessary.”

In his short story Tolstoy illustrates that in attending to the hermit and his would be assassin the king not only saved his own life, but the life of another. Jesus put it this way, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. "For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matt. 16:24-26 NASB)

Discovering your purpose means doing right now what is most right and most necessary and continuing in that behavior, regardless of the cost or consequences because it is in the loss of that which is worthless that you will secure that which is priceless.

Missionary Jim Elliot said it this way, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”


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