By George Aramath
Want to know how to be an instantaneous Christian? Want to know how to fully know God right now? Want to live like Christ in a few easy steps?
This sounds like an ad that you might see on TV. Like most ads, essentially it’s not possible. I’m beginning to realize this fact even after being a Christian by name for many years. Christianity is not a quick fix; it’s a gradual step-by-step growth. This is hard for many to accept, including myself. We fall into the trap of those who claim otherwise. They claim to have the ingredients. Just look around us. Many fall prey to the idea that Christ can completely change you right now, instantaneously. They tell us, “accept Him now”. But what happens thereafter?
I remember as a young boy wanting to buy a Nintendo system. My parents couldn’t afford it and didn’t see the need for it. But I wanted it more than anything else. Eventually my cousins got a Super Nintendo so they gave us their Nintendo system. It was the greatest gift. I didn’t care that it was out-of-date. The next day I must have played “Mario” and “Super Tecmo Bowl” for countless hours. I had to beat the games no matter how long it took. The point is, as many of you can attest to, after a few weeks, the games got boring and lost its flavor. I needed something else. I went to the nearest store and traded two of these games for another. The intensity began again; and so did this pattern. Your experience may not be with video games. It may have occurred after getting a car, computer, job, wife, etc. All we can think about is that one thing. Our life revolves around it. But does it last?
This is how we sometimes see Christianity. We have times when we go through a “spiritual high”. Maybe we attended a charismatic meeting, just watched the “Passion of the Christ”, or heard a breathtaking sermon. We then want to make a change. We promise that we’ll turn our lifestyle around; dedicate it to Jesus. We’re told to pray that we “accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior”. And the speaker tells us that if we do this, we’re changed. Wow! Sounds like a quick fix. But will it last?
From my experience, it did not. I’m beginning to understand that this is not ‘true’ Christianity. Christianity is a process, a gradual step-by-step process. We don’t hear it like this because it wouldn’t be popular. For instance, if someone discovers a diet that promises that you’ll lose weight gradually with many, many months of exercise, I’m sure that it wouldn’t sell. Just look at the medications we take. We don’t have regular strength anymore. It’s “Extra Strength”; and if that’s not enough, “Maximum Strength”. We want it now; no time for waiting.
But the plain truth is that there is no quick fix with religion. Jesus talks about this in the parable of the sower in Matthew 13. A farmer sowed his seeds. Some fell on the wayside and the birds ate it; some fell on places with not much soil where it grew but eventually withered because it had no root. Others got choked up by thorns surrounding it; and still others fell on good soil, “where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown” (13:8). Most of the time, we are like the seed that fell on places with not much soil. We “hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since it has no root, it lasts only a short time” (13:20-1).
Jesus then speaks about the parable of weeds and finally of the mustard seed. In all these parables, He cleverly uses the analogy of a farmer sowing his seeds because of a greater meaning. Do you think that the seed that fell on good soil produced crop the next day? Common sense tells us that it took many months. My father plants seeds in our backyard during the beginning of springtime. I see him everyday watering and nurturing it like a baby. Sometimes I joke around saying that he cares more about his seeds than us! But after a few months, the seeds eventually produce crop. This is also true with Christianity.
Our forefathers understood this. Only later did I begin to grasp the value and wisdom of our Orthodox faith. We don’t claim to have the quick fix. Tradition is important for us because it’s our root and it’s been proven to succeed. There’s a reason for everything: why we should pray at least two times a day, continually confess in front of a priest, routinely take the Eucharist, observe Lent 105 days of a year, etc. It’s because the Orthodox Church understands that Christianity is a step-by-step process. This is why Timothy writes to constantly “exercise yourself towards godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7).
Let’s examine how Jesus approached it. We always hear about the miracles that He performed: giving sight to the blind, casting out demons, raising the dead. These are the instantaneous fixes that our flesh desires. But our church recognized the value of this verse: “He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray” (Matt. 14:23). I must emphasize the words “by Himself”. He didn’t conduct public prayers, showing off his godly powers. He spent many, many hours in pray by Himself. If God did this, what about us?
What does all this mean? Many times we want a quick fix. I hear parents telling the priest or Sunday School teachers to try and “fix” their children. The congregation looks towards the sermon to uplift them. But we must not compare God to our new car or video game. The Orthodox Church emphasizes worship and the Holy Qurbana because it’s all part of a continual, growing process. If we live like an Orthodox, meaning praying daily, sincerely confessing, taking the Holy Qurbana, observing the Lents, etc., we will become the seed that eventually produces crop.
Yes, like me, we may fall at times and need to start over, but the point is, this time, we learned from our past. We start anew with confession. This does not mean that we can keep on sinning. We always hear the pleasant and popular idea that God is loving and merciful. But we must remember that our God is also the God of “judgment” (1 John 4:17). We should turn from our sins and become a new creation, not thinking of the past but the future, with the utmost confidence in the power granted through God of our ordained priest to absolve our sins.
This process of gradual spiritual growth may seem like a heavy cross to some, but to those who understand true Christianity, it should bring utter joy. Some believe that when Jesus tells us to “take up his cross” (Matt. 16:24), He’s telling us that being a Christian means distress and pain. But He also tells us to “have confidence, be of good cheer” (John 16:33). If we see our Orthodox Church as one with many rules and long worship, then we miss the point. We may find temporary “spiritual highs” elsewhere, but it won’t last.
Our church holds the distinction of being formed by the early fathers of Christianity. Who knows God more than those who spent time with Him or those that knew the Disciples of Christ? For instance, the liturgy book and prayers that we use today is based upon the original text of St. James. The liturgy book is commonly known as the “Anaphora of St. James”. Our Eucharist is also based upon the texts of other Disciples, such as St. Peter and St. John. Our third Patriarch, St. Ignatius, who was a disciple of St. Peter, wrote about the organizational structure of the church. We belong to this church. It did not start a few years back. It’s the same church from the beginnings of Christianity. It’s the church that Jesus envisioned. Who else would grasp the process necessary to know God than those who knew Him intimately? What better source to look towards than those who actually lived with God for many years? Let us remember that the Orthodox Church is distinctly based on the beliefs and teachings of these forefathers.
It must be noted here that our church and diocese play an important role in making some minimal changes for our young generation. For instance, our American diocese needs to help in this process by, for instance, providing English translations for all our prayers and services. Our leaders should routinely educate our members about the value and worth of Orthodoxy. There needs to be an appreciation and pride amongst our members for our church.
This gradual growth needs to build upon a routine. Essentially, building a routine is very important. Pray everyday; make it to church early every Sunday; observe all the Lents. Our church is build upon these consistencies and routines for the purpose of our spiritual growth. These sacraments should be partaken with an open heart, not blindly or nonchalantly. But this only starts with the individual. We usually want others to get us going. We want to hear the awe-inspiring sermon that changes us. But, in the end, we only can take the first step. We must have the desire to continually learn and grow in the faith. Just like an exercise routine, we must keep it going in order to see results. The Orthodox Church offers the complete system; we just need to utilize it. Trust me, sincerely following these routines set up by our forefathers will bring joy to our life and make us practicing Orthodox Christians. James instructs us, “faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works” (2:22). Our church offers the daily works that we need for growth and perfection. We must grow together to understand and share this fact with others. Orthodoxy offers the lasting solution that can’t be found elsewhere.