I was received into Orthodoxy through the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America on the Sunday after Theophany, 2015 (new Calendar). I have thus completed my third year in the orthodox church. I suppose this is a good time as any for some reflection.
I came across this thoughtful quote by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Gulag Archipelago
I feel that this quote encapsulates the most important ways my thinking has shifted, having lived in the orthodox way for these three years. Contemporary secular morality defaults to dividing between “good people” and “bad people” (prompting the Solzhenitsyn quote above) and protestant thinking divides between “saved” and “unsaved” in a similar way. The “lifeboat analogy” is a very common part of protestant teaching: the idea that Christians are on a lifeboat, and our calling is to convince the rest of the world to get on.
In Orthodoxy, the line between good and evil, between saved and unsaved is not between one person and another, but within each person’s heart. For these first three years, the most influential lines of the liturgy for me has been these words in the prayer before communion, taken from 1 Timothy 1:15:
I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief…
I am very grateful how the Orthodox faith has such a healthy attitude toward guilt. We talk of sin as if it were a sickness, and the work of overcoming sin as if it were therapy. Whereas as a Protestant I believed that Christ simply and immediately removes the sin of the Christian, in the Orthodox faith Christ’s work of salvation in us is slow, gradual, and happens with our participation. We participate by being alert to our failings and repenting continually from our sins. If we do this right, we are too focused on our own faults to have time to judge the wrongs of other people. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? A lot better to regard your own sins as much worse than the sins of those around you.
For these three years, Orthodox living has been a patient, painful process of spiritual growth: “destroying a piece of my heart” as Solzhenitsyn put it, or “dying to myself” as the New Testament says. I have slowly recognized the many ways in which I have been callous and hurtful to other people, and forced myself to confront the flimsy justifications I have made for awful behavior. I am beginning to see how I am often coldly dismissive of others’ hopes, needs and vulnerabilities, and how my desire to correct others’ faults comes not from a place of love, but self-righteousness and judgment. Lord have mercy on me, a sinner!
But these realizations do not lead to despair, but to hope. I continually repent, I continually surrender my broken self, I continually acknowledge my helplessness before the God who can do all things, and today I look forward to Christ’s victory over my yesterday failings.
It is not that I was unaware of these unhealthy tendencies before I became Orthodox. But as a Protestant my spiritual focus was outward- towards the unforgiven sin in the non-believers around me, towards the wickedness and injustice in society. I mostly saw repentance as something I did in the past, and I considered continually dwelling on my own sin after accepting Christ as something pathological.
I think I am in a healthier place now, but I am still very new to the Orthodox faith, and there is still a lot I don’t understand, and a lot that I am probably doing wrong. In particular, I hope in the next few years I will learn what it means to live an Orthodox Christian life in an unjust society. As a Protestant, I felt that I was more in tune with the plight of the poor and suffering. Now, all my energy and attention is focused towards my sin and my spiritual growth, and in building up the church in Malaysia. The author of Ecclesiastes writes that “in everything there is a season”, and perhaps my attention is focused inward just for this time. But in the lives of the Orthodox saints I see how so many of them sacrificed a great deal for the sake of the poor and oppressed, and how there was harmony, not contradiction between their inward spiritual formation and their outward action. I haven’t figured that out yet. By God’s grace maybe I will.