by Father Peter Gillquist
Among the memorable highlights on my journey to Orthodoxy was an after noon visit with a highly respected bishop.
The subject of personal commitment to Christ came up. “After years of serving God,” he said, “I have come to believe that we need to issue a strong call for adult conversion in the Orthodox Church ."
I was a bit startled to hear the statement being made so directly and openly. But the fact is, every group has its lukewarm members. My son was a high school wrestler, and there were guys on his team who came to practice only intermittently, and then just to complain and stand around watching. Rotary and Kiwanis have people on the rolls who are there for public relations in the community, but aren’t really into the programs.
And the Church has marginal people as well. Thinking back through my own life, there were years when I attended church as a plastic Christian minimal to the core. The Orthodox Church is no exception to this problem. We have people who show up on Pascha and perhaps to a few weddings or parish dinners. But the toughest ones to spot are those who show up most every Sunday but whose hearts have grown strangely cold. Church is only a habit. There is a form of godliness, but not the real thing.
Has Love for the Church become a memory, worship something you do if you don't sleep in, or play 18 rounds, or catch the NFL double-header on Sunday?
Let’s face it. Our rolls hold numerous people afflicted with what Saint John Chrysostom calls “most utter dullness . “ Who knows why—maybe moral problems, or putting a career ahead of Christ, or deciding to be one of the boys instead of a soldier of righteousness. But the reality is, spiritual lifelessness results. And what is the remedy? A personal re- introduction to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Look, I’m not a judge. I cannot look into a person’s heart and conveniently size up what is there—or not there. But let’s suppose that you are one who finds yourself lukewarm, possibly considering dropping the Church and heading out the door. Or you’re an Orthodox person who already has packed it in, years ago, and who honestly needs recommitment.
What can you do? Will God really listen to you if you call on Him for help and forgiveness? Let me encourage you—the answer is an unqualified yes.
I think back to a college student I met out East a couple of years ago. He was at an Orthodox conference with his mother, who had politely forced him to attend with her.
“Things just go from bad to worse for me,” he complained on the second day over lunch. “As a kid I was really into being a Christian. I helped at the altar, and even talked about our Faith with my friends. Now. I’ll try Church for awhile, mess up. go to confession, mess up again, and after all that I'm not even sure I want to change anymore. It seems the more I try the worse it gets. It’s been like this for a long time."
The more we talked, the clearer it became. "If you won’t get mad at me, I think I can tell you what’s wrong . “ I offered .
“Tell me,” he said.
“Somewhere along the way. the pull of the world—your buddies, sports, the ladies—has gotten to you. Things get worse because you've shoved God aside, and you’re trying to do things on your own. You've taken over your life and Jesus Christ has become activity No. 19 in your Top Twenty list of priorities."
“How did you know that?" my friend asked . “Because I did the same thing when I was your age,” I said. “And if you want. I’d be willing to help you come back to the Lord.
“Later that day, after the lunch crowd had left, we prayed together in the dining hall and this young man made a new start in his spiritual life. For the rest of the conference, he had a smile on his face that had not been there before. Even Mom could tell the difference. His new commitment to Christ, his specific re-embracing of what he had been granted in baptism, may prove to be the turning point he has so sorely needed.
Why do we grow cold?
The reason we grow cold toward God, His Kingdom, His Church is very simple: our sin. Our sin makes us fall away.
You say, “Wait a minute! I haven’t done any thing that bad. You should sec some of my friends!”
We can all find people who are worse than we are. But that isn't the issue. God doesn’t grade on the curve. His standard of righteousness is absolute. That is why Saint Paul can say, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). And this is why the Church has always looked to the Sermon on the Mount as the mark by which we are measured.
For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.
- James 2:10
There are obvious sins: immorality, renouncing Christ, or murder. But there are more subtle sins as well. Like unbelief. Could it be that you have refused to believe that you can make it as a Christian, that Christ can truly transform you? Or, what about pride? Perhaps the people in your parish are not acceptable enough to you socially to be your life-long friends and spiritual family.
Closely tied to these matters could be inner anger or unresolved hatred. “I’m not going to give Father the satisfaction of seeing me in church . “ Or, “As long as the Smiths are part of the parish, you can count me out.
“How do we get this way? The Scriptures and the Fathers tell us there are at least three things that energize our sin, that draw us into indifference toward God:
1) The World.
Saint John wrote, “Do not love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2:15). The world, in this case, is not the trees, rivers, or mountains. It’s the world system—things like money, acceptance by important people, intellectualism, a house in the right neighborhood. While we live in the world, we must fight constantly to love God far more, with all our hearts. Otherwise, the world system draws us in, and by default the Lord is pushed aside in our lives.
2) The Passions
Enemy number two is the flesh—those passions that rise up within us. It’s amazing how people will sacrifice the eternal on the altar of the temporary. A girl can be doing fine with God, and then meet “Mr. Right." Suddenly sex is more important than salvation. A young man may abruptly decide that punching out his rival in a fit of rage is more satisfying than praying for him. A person in business feels economically shortchanged, and the passion of greed prompts him to cheat on his 1040 or steal from the company.
3) The Devil
Then, there is our enemy the devil. Saint Theophan the Recluse calls our battles against him the “unseen warfare . “ This adversary is no cartoon figure, running around in long red-flannel underwear with horns and a pitchfork. Saint Peter called him a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
Back to Our Baptism
When we are baptized into Christ, the priest or bishop prays that God will send us a guardian angel. One of the important reasons for this angelic companion is that he will deliver us “from every snare of the adversary, from encounter with evil, from the demon of the noonday, and from evil visions."
What an assessment of the devil’s game-plan in that one prayer! Satan tries to ensnare us in temptation so we will yield to sin. He sets up encounters with evil, he comes against us in broad daylight in our nine-to-five routines, and he activates evil imaginations in us.
The good news is that as we rely on Christ we’ll prevail in our defense. For “He who is in you [Christ] is greater than he who is in the world [Satan]” (1 John 4:4). But there’s bad news. If we ignore the shield of our holy baptism and strike out on our own, we become fair game for hell itself—which is why life away from Christ and His Church is, literally, a pit.
Given the presence of the world, the passions, the devil, how do we live? Does a man trying to be holy and pure cave in at the newsstand and buy a copy of Playboy, for example? Forget it. You’re busted before you start. Does a woman striving to be humble and godly head to the mall for a needless buying spree, or to the icon comer for prayer, when frustration or depression pays a call? If an unexpected windfall comes our way, do we first give thanks to God by providing food for the hungry or a gift to the parish—or is it another round of E Pluribus Me with an indulgent quick fix at the new car showroom? When we live that way, we are miserable.
Let me ask point-blank: are you spiritually un-motivated? Do you know that your heart has gotten cold, that Jesus Christ is at best just a distant friend Has Love for the Church become a memory, worship something you do if you don't sleep in, or play 18 rounds, or catch the NFL double-header on Sunday? Do you sincerely want to get back on track? If so, God will help you.
In the last book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation, Jesus Christ speaks to a group of Christians in a city called Laodicea. Like so many of us, their hearts had grown indifferent toward God. Jesus called them “lukewarm . “ They had become so repulsive in their lethargy, Jesus warned them, “I will vomit you out of My mouth” (Revelation 3:16).
Then Jesus comforts us as to the severity of His warning. “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten” (Revelation 3:19). It is because God loves us that He tells us the truth. Remember, even if you have turned your back on Christ—and thought you had done so for good—He still loves you! “Therefore,” Jesus says in the same verse, “be zealous and repent."
Next, He extends to us a promise, an invitation. The word picture of Revelation 3:20 is incredible. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me ."
Here is the situation. In our haste to make it without God—voluntarily or involuntarily--we’ve become lukewarm in our commitment to Christ and His Church We may not be ice cold, in that we don’t purposefully hate the Holy Trinity. But we know we’re not hot. We’ve pushed the Lord outside the door, away from His home in our hearts.
Now He has come to call. He stands outside the door, knocking. If you listen, you will hear Him If you open the door, He will come in. He will dine with you, and you with Him: this is the Lord's Supper, the Eucharist. He will bring you back to His Holy Table! You will begin to know Him and love Him again.
God’s part is to knock at the door. Your part is to invite Him in. Together, you and Christ will renew your friendship. How can you make that commitment? Let me suggest this prayer:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner. I sincerely repent of my sins and lukewarmness before Thee. I open unto Thee the door of my heart and life, and commit myself and all my life to Thee, O Christ. I thank Thee for hearing me and my request that Thou receivest me back to Thy Holy Table. For Thou art holy, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen ."
Years ago, Saint Herman of Alaska said, “From this day forth, from this hour, from this minute, let us love God above all else ." This is precisely the resolve Christ has called us to make.
If you have asked Jesus Christ to make His re-entry into your life, your next step is to contact your priest. For being an Orthodox Christian is not just a one-time decision: it is a life. Tell him of your new commitment and ask that he hear your confession and receive you back into full communion with the Church. God's part is to knock at the door. Your part is to invite Him in. Together, you and Christ will renew your friendship. Then, roll up your sleeves, as it were, and begin to serve the Lord with all your heart, in peace and continual repentance.
A Time for Us
I believe the years ahead hold the potential of being the most fruitful era for Orthodox Christianity in the West that we have ever known. Our Faith is established here, and countless numbers of people around us who believe in Christ and read the Scriptures are searching for a Church that will not change.
Beloved, by God’s grace, we are that Church. But Orthodox people living lukewarm lives will never attract those who seek this precious Faith which Christ delivered once for all to His followers. It is time for us to surrender each day fully to Christ, to bring our gifts and offerings gladly to His store house, and to worship joyfully with one true voice the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We must make our love for God our first priority.
The important thing is that we begin right now.