By Father Benjamin Tucci
The Orthodox Church is having a really tough time battling modern day thinking in the United States. Christians in general are being slapped in the political scene with the phrase “Who are you to tell me how to live my life?” School systems are teaching principles that go against the gospel and its practice. Christian way of thinking has been seen as outdated and definitely something for the foolish to believe in. Although there are many scientists, scholars, and the educated who do believe, you can encounter many of them who do what they can to discredit people of faith. Every now and then some new “lost book of the bible” is discovered, going against what the church has taught for centuries. Christianity itself is fragmented and we live in a situation where all Christians do not believe in the same tenets of faith. Given this backdrop, it is amazing that there are still people left in our churches at all. What keeps us there? What keeps us going?
If we doubt, certainly we are among the many believers and nonbelievers who struggle. It goes something like this in our minds. Do we believe that Christianity is the truth? Ok. If we accept Christianity, do we side toward evangelical Christianity, other charismatic Christian groups, or a more traditional form? If we side on a traditional form of Christianity, which one do we choose? All of our faithful people who are born, raised, and educated in this country and who have grown up in the Church have to go through this process at some point. They have to constantly make choices if they want to be Christian and Orthodox. These choices are particularly important – and difficult – on matters of social behavior.
The Church has a number of teachings that, when judged by today’s standards, seem ultra-conservative, outdated, excessive, unrealistic, and, well, you name the critique. For the past generation or so, the Church’s stance on sexuality (including pre- or extra-marital sexual relations, homosexuality, and birth control) has been attacked, but the Apostle Paul is no more tolerant of any number of social behaviors. He mentions fornication (Gal 5:19), and also drunkenness (Rom 13:13), slander (col 3:8), anger (Gal 5:20), greed (Eph 5:3), and arrogance (1 Cor 13:4). Instead, we are repeatedly encouraged to love one another, and behave virtuously at all times (Rom 13:13, Gal 5:22, Col 3:12, etc). These are scriptural teaching, and the Church, in her wisdom, is reticent to contradict these precepts, and glacially slow when she does choose to move in a different direction. This will never change in our church. We have to accept that fact. We have to live with it and still go to church and continue our commitment to the Lord. Does it shake our faith? I’ll bet it does to many of us. Whether we’re frustrated with the Church’s teachings, or the slow pace of change, this problem in our minds is not going to just go away.
The Orthodox faithful need to know about their Church in order to survive these times of doubt. There is nothing new under the sun, and the Church’s teachings have always conflicted with so-called “popular” beliefs. Always. Because of this, doubt and negative thoughts have always existed throughout time. But the way out is not jurisprudence, but faith and hope in the experience of salvation; the experience of God.
The Orthodox Church believes strongly in the experience of God. Those people who have rightly experienced God (our saints) testify of the greatness of this particular experience. This experience only comes to people who are obedient to God’s will. The people who are obedient to God’s will are the only ones who get to experience the greatness of God which goes beyond any human experience one can encounter. What is usually asked of a person in doubt is what type of life experience do they want? If their life achievement or goal is merely to be rich, comfortable, and to explore all their passions and desires to the fullest, then they are not on the right track according to the tradition and teaching of the Orthodox Church. The experience of God is totally different than experiencing the world. And true happiness – one might say paradise – can only be achieved through struggle against the passions and a denial of the self. Our Christian path to happiness is also steeped with an understanding to pick up our crosses and follow Christ. The personal journey of faith is to go to one’s own crucifixion and death, whether literally or ascetically, in order to experience the joys of the Resurrected Lord. To the Orthodox Christian, any other way to achieve “happiness” in life is foolish. The person is merely gratifying their own self and their own self want. How can that make them happy? They will continue to desire more and more and experience the hell of never having enough and never feeling satisfied. The church views sexual lust of the flesh and all forms of sinful behavior in the same light. We sin because we are selfish and want to please our own will or are curious how it will make us feel. We get stuck in sinful behavior patterns by never being able to rightly gratify our desires and wants – much like the alcoholic who needs to drink more and more. But the experience of God is what we desire most. Unlike a Snickers bar (though quite tasty!), our encounter with God is the only thing that can satisfy us to the fullest.
This experience of God is the natural state of all humanity. The Orthodox believe that all sin enters the mind first in the form of thought. It is not sinful to think. The problem begins when we start to play or toy with negative thoughts. The thoughts then can become strong and cloud our sense of reasoning in the heart. An overwhelming amount of negative thoughts that we allow in to affect us can cut off our spiritual life from God, and we can no longer taste of the blessedness of this experience. When we are cut off from God through our own decision not to remain with Him, we seek other things to satisfy us; we seek a different way of life. We grow dark and unable to see. The Church offers tools or sacraments to help us get back on the right track. The sacraments and liturgical life of the Church have a way to heal our clouded mind and heart and to restore us to the natural state of being in communion with God.
Here are a few more thoughts to ponder about sin and doubt in our time:
- Even saintly people have experienced levels of doubt.
- Doubt is to be challenged. If we doubt, it is ok to question.
- If we constantly doubt, God still loves us. There is no way to escape God no matter how much we try. We are still welcome and even encouraged to go to church.
- Just be a sinner (one who repents) and go to church. We are all sinners and God welcomes us into His church.
- The church is a hospital for sinners.
- It is not clear if doubt = sin. Sometimes doubt can work in our favor and bring us closer to God if we allow it to work that way.
- Something true and holy stands the tests of time. Many issues today that bring about doubt in the church are very new.
- Just because everyone around us believes something is true, does not make it true. This is particularly true with popular, modern thought.
- There seems to be an attempt to usurp the old way of thinking into a new way of thinking, believing, and doing. Maybe this generation is not as “holy” as the previous generations. Maybe they are. How do we know?
- Are we beyond doubt? Are we angry that the church can still feel or think the way it does? We need to resolve the anger before we can attempt the doubt behind it.
- Nothing is perfect in this world. Don’t expect ourselves to be “perfect” believers without the help of God. Simply pray and ask God to help your unbelief.
In the litanies of every liturgical service, The Orthodox Church asks us “to commit ourselves, and our whole lives unto Christ our God.” Maybe this commitment has nothing to do with thinking or doubting at all. What matters is not how we think or feel, but what we choose to do. If we continue to be attacked by the world of modern thinking, yet still go to church and do the right things just because Christ tells us to, it shows us to be full of character and hope for better things to come. We await and hope for the blessings to come from God. In this way, all doubt disappears and we say to ourselves like the father of the possessed boy “I believe; help my unbelief (Mark 9:24)!”