If our faith is going to be increasingly mocked and rejected, it will negatively affect our ability to speak in the public square. What we say will be distorted or ridiculed. Communication will be difficult.
So we’ll need to put more emphasis on connecting one to one, person to person. Not just learning how to talk cleverly about our faith, but actually living it in ways that other people can see.
The early Christians did this during the Roman persecution; they lived in ways different from their neighbors, and the church grew.
Like them, we’re going to need to let the light of Christ within us shine out.
At present, American Christians are not notably shiny. Our lives don’t look much different from those of the world. Well, it hardly seems worth it to try. Since everyone is forbidden to have an opinion about anyone else, why bother with anything morally challenging?
Advertising catechizes us, 24 hours a day, to prioritize comfort and amusement, and coaxes us to see our failings as excusable little foibles that we ought to indulge. In accepting those views, we’ve gotten out of step with our fellow Christians throughout time.
In talking about repentance, you have to talk about sin, and I wanted to recommend an understanding that is a little different, one that comes from my Eastern Orthodox tradition.
We don’t see sin as being like breaking a rule. It’s more organic than that, and more communal.
Sin is sickness. Though we’re born innocent, we have a genetic weakness, so to speak, and catch the infection in time. And as we grow, we add our own sins to the world’s store of misery.
So sin is infection, not infraction. It’s like air pollution; it’s something that we all contribute to, and we all suffer from.
That’s why resisting sin is important. That’s why it has urgency. Our sins poison us and those we love, and add to the dysfunction of the world.
But it is possible to resist. With practice, you can gain victory over one sin after another. This is a lifelong process, but the results are increasingly visible as time goes by. Like physical therapy, it’s a challenge, and sometimes it’s painful — but it keeps making you stronger.
Our life on earth has a goal; we’re not just waiting around to go to heaven. We were created to be filled with the presence of God — like the Burning Bush was filled with fire, like Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration was filled with light.
But because we are damaged and darkened by sin, we don’t shine that light very clearly. We are like lumps of coal, of no particular beauty. But coal can do one thing: it can burn. God created us able to bear His fiery presence. Repentance is the process of getting the impurities out of the coal, getting rid of everything that will not burn.
So that’s our starting point. Repentance is not self-hatred; it’s not an emotion at all. Repentance is just honesty — facing the truth about yourself and meeting the challenge to change. I like to say, “Everybody wants to be transformed, but nobody wants to change.” …
We do that by being faithful. We keep practicing the “workout routines” Scripture teaches: private prayer and bible study, corporate worship, fasting, care of the poor. One of the insights of Eastern Christianity is that sin starts with a thought (James 1:14-15). Sin begins with a thought, and habits like the ancient Jesus Prayer teach us how to recognize an unwanted thought — whether of pleasure or despair or fear — and turn it away. You don’t fight it — that can just backfire. But, standing beside the Lord at the entrance of your mind, you can recognize a thought and turn it away. The word for “repentance” in biblical Greek is metanoia, and it means the transformation of your nous. St. Paul said, “Be transformed by the renewal of your nous” (Romans 12:2).
This is a complex therapeutic process, and it is going to happen in the order God knows best — which might not be the order we expect.
Sins form an interlocking structure within our frail and foolish selves, and that framework has to be dismantled in the right order. A sin we especially want to get rid of might be held in place by a different sin, one that has to be removed first, even though we might not get the connection.
The process is like carefully removing the layers of an onion. You have to deal with the next layer that presents itself, even if you’d prefer to jump ahead. Jesus knows what we’re strong enough to bear at what point. He said, “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12).
But what does that have to do with times of persecution? …
When I first saw the Christ of Sinai, I thought, there is something wrong with the eyes. Then I realized that what the artist has done here is he has portrayed two different facial expressions side by side. The right side is the eye of a surgeon. It’s a diagnostic and a searching eye. It’s not comfortable under this gaze.
But there’s actually a bit of humor in this. In the crook of the eyebrow, a little lift at the corner of the mouth, is an expression that says, “Oh, I’ve got your number.” This is the eye that looks right through us, right through our darkness, and wills to fill it with light.
And the left side is the eye of compassion. All the shadows have fled away and the face is full of quiet light. It’s a patient eye, it’s a listening eye. It has all the time you need. And that’s a good thing because this process of healing is going to take a long time. It will probably take all your remaining time on earth.
Picture the face of a clock as if it represents the flow of history.
At noon, let’s put a time that was very friendly to Christians, like the 1950s. At the bottom of the dial, at 6 o’clock, let’s put a time when Christians suffered for their faith, like the days of the early martyrs. So the ‘50s are at noon, the Roman persecution at 6 o’clock. And where are we? I don’t know. Are we at 3 o’clock or 9 o’clock? Rising or falling? I don’t know.
But which time actually was the bad time? Christians suffered terribly in the early persecutions, but they also rose to great heights. Their lives radiated the life of Christ, and even when they were powerless and suffering, they drew many to the faith. We are still moved to the heart by their stories.
But on the other hand, the ‘50s saw a lot of perfunctory, bland Christianity. It was easy to be a Christian and not mean very much by it. That was hard and frustrating for those who felt that Christ challenges us to live a holy and a humble life, a transformed life that shines its light into the darkness, a light that is different from those in the world. The ‘50s couldn’t be thought of really as such a perfect time to raise kids because look what happened when those same kids hit the ‘60s.
History will continue to roll around and around that dial, but at all times, God is at the center. He is always fully present to every Christian, of every age, every era. Not even a whisper away. Whether we face our culture’s approval or disdain, God has placed us in the time that He thinks we are able to bear.
The early Christians didn’t have the power to do anything in the public square except die. But they did that with such grace that they drew the whole world to Christ. If we follow in their footsteps, we cannot go far wrong.
• Frederica Mathewes-Green is a prolific author, public speaker and expert on the Eastern Orthodox Church. This excerpt is from her April 9, 2016 remarks at the Wilberforce Weekend in Arlington, Virginia.
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