I am always concerned by those who are notionally Orthodox, who attend Orthodox services still, for a variety of reasons, and yet just don’t connect with what is happening around them. There are a lot of people in Church in Sunday who are not really there at all in their hearts, and many others, too many others, who have slowly moved to the edges of a local congregation and then taken the first opportunity of slipping away while no-one was looking, or while no-one seemed to care. Some have even felt that they have been driven away. If you are hanging on in there but don’t know why, then I sympathise with you and pray that God will sustain you and lead you into a true experience of his divine life.
Why would you go to Church if you didn’t really believe in the way that others seem to? If you have been taught a false view of the Orthodox Faith then I am entirely sympathetic if you only keep attending services because of the pressures that other people put on you. Some of the false views that people pick up in our Churches are these…
i. That God is very angry with us. Many people, perhaps you yourself, think that God really doesn’t like us much, and is waiting for an opportunity to send us, to send you, to Hell. Such a God doesn’t deserve our love, but we either go through the motions in fear of what he might do to us, or because the expectations of our family, friends, marriage partner, servants and our priests weigh heavily upon us. If you do not believe in such a God, and find him repellent, then let me say that I do as well. I absolutely reject such a description of God. This is not what Orthodoxy teaches, even if is what some people in the Orthodox Church teach. We don’t do things, religious things, to try and stop God doing horrible things to us. God is love. The real God is love. He created us, he created you, in his love and for his love. The basis of the Christian life is to be transformed and transfigured by participation in this divine life and love so that we become filled with them and they pour out from our own hearts to others around us.
If you have not experienced this love, and if, on the contrary you have suffered at the hands of others in the Church, then do not give up on God or on Orthodoxy, the way to union with God. Forgive us, especially those of us who are priests, for not having discipled you into the love of God. Give us another chance. I want to post a series of articles that explain and describe what Orthodox Christianity really represents, and what it authentically teaches about the God of love.
ii. Perhaps you have come to understand Christianity as a set of moral rules and commands which you must keep as best you can because you think that you can only get to Heaven and avoid Hell if you do more good things than bad things. Is this enough to commit yourself to? Is such a God worth offering your life to? For many, maybe for you, this is not the case. A God who is just a supernatural policeman, or a divine accountant is not what Orthodoxy really teaches and is another false representation I reject and urge you to reject. Such a view is no different to the ancient Egyptian understanding that after death the heart of each person would be weighed by the god Thoth, and if it was heavier than a feather then the soul of the departed would be sent to Hell. If we are basing our life on such a false appreciation of the God of love then we are no different to our pagan ancestors.
iii. And finally, perhaps you do not have a close relationship with God, but in a fearful way you hope that by doing various religious activities you will require God to do good things for you. This is also an entirely false view of God and of Orthodox Christianity. If you find it inadequate it is because it is entirely so. It makes our Faith into a business transaction. Do you say sometimes – I prayed from the Agpeya or attended Liturgy, and still I didn’t get what I asked for? Does this make you wonder if God is there and if Christianity is true? Let me say that such a God is not there at all. He cannot be moved by the offer of favours and religious practices because he already loves you more than you could ever imagine or understand.
These three false understandings can only lead to giving up on Christianity, even if you still keep attending services. They can only lead to a very superficial experience of God, because none of the three descriptions of God which these false understandings teach are real. And they will lead us, they will lead you, into becoming a Pharisee and a hypocrite, always wearing a mask, never really saying what you mean and expressing your doubts about what you have learned.
Since the angry God, the moralising God and the vending machine God are not real, they should be rejected as not reflecting the truth about Orthodoxy at all. There is another authentically Orthodox way which leads to union with the God of love and an experience of his divine life. I am going to write about this in the next days and weeks. I am going to assume that you would like to enter into such a union, and discover such a life. I am speaking from my own experience. It is a way that I have already begun to travel. It leads to our becoming truly and authentically that person God created us uniquely to be, without masks, without self-deception and the deception of others. A life sustained by the interior presence of God by his indwelling Holy Spirit.
How should you begin this journey, even if you do not know what to believe, and only know that you do not believe what you have been taught. Begin with this simple and Scriptural prayer. Repeat if often. Stand before the God you have not yet properly met and cry out to him…
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
Repeat this often. He will hear it and will answer it. I will write more in due course. For God’s sake and for your own sake, abandon these false views of God. He loves you more than you can know and more than you have yet experienced. But the Orthodox way leads to union with God and to transfiguration in his love and life. This is a treasure that is worth giving all that we are and have to possess.