Sometimes inquirers and catechumens in the Holy Orthodox Church experience a lot of stress. I certainly experienced a great deal of stress when I was coming to Holy Orthodoxy. The stress often comes from a sincere desire to be in the Right Church. It comes from a false notion of God that says God will only save those who get into the Right Church, and who believe the Right Things about God. According to this false understanding, those who fail to get into the Right Church and believe the Right Things will be damned to hell forever. Of course, there are milder versions of this false notion about God, but basically in this scenario of things, salvation (or full salvation) all boils down to getting it right.
Many Orthodox converts struggle for years to shed some version of this false understanding of salvation. Recently I corresponded with an inquirer who spoke with the pastor of her church about her inquiry into Orthodoxy. The pastor made the case for his particular Protestant denomination, which by itself is not particularly stress inducing. (And I want to be clear that the Protestant pastor was not intentionally “instilling the fear of God” into the inquirer or threatening her with damnation.) The stress comes with a false paradigm, an over-arching false understanding of who God is: an assumption that God is somehow vindictive, waiting for us to get things right, to figure it out before we die, lest He smash us, or (in milder versions) lest He relegate us to some place of shame, some lesser place. This false paradigm, I think has less to do with any particular version of Christianity as it has to do with the North American culture, the broadly held understanding of God in much of North American culture–religious or otherwise, regardless of creed.
This is, I think, in most cases the god that most North American atheists don’t believe in. It is the notion of God that drives many who were raised in a church (almost any church, really) to leave church altogether.
Below is a bit of my correspondence with an inquirer who is experiencing stress because she is looking into Holy Orthodoxy and beginning to be critical of the church denomination where she has spent most of her life. Have I wasted my life? What if I’m wrong? What if I have been wrong? What if I don’t make the right choice? These are the sorts of worries that beset her, that beset me at the beginning of my inquire. In my response, I offer a new paradigm, I try to help her see that Salvation is not about being right so much as it is about coming to Christ. The God we believe in is not an accountant or a lawyer, but a Father.
The most important thing right now is for you to be at peace. You do believe. You do have faith. God is not a vindictive god, sitting in heaven waiting for us to make the right choice about which Christian body has the correct interpretation of the Book of Revelation. God is not waiting to condemn those who don’t make the right choice. No! That is not the God of Christianity. Be at peace. Remember the prodigal son. The Father went out to meet him as the son returned. We all who are sincere Christians are returning to the Father. Even if we are covered in the pigs’ stench of false beliefs, still the Father comes out to meet us. No Church is perfect, not even the Orthodox Church. Our salvation is based on the work of Christ, not on our ability to get everything right. We humbly accept Christ and his saving work for us and slowly throughout our lives we learn to repent, we learn to cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we are changed “from glory to glory.” You can thank God for your good experiences in the XYZ Church because they also helped you know God better and grow in your relationship with Christ—yes, even though there are some ideas in the XYZ Church that the early Church did not accept. Even though we are not perfect, God still loves us. God uses everything to draw us to Himself. Certainly, some Churches are closer than others to the original faith revealed to the Apostles and practiced by the early church; but God receives all who come to Him, even if they are mistaken on some important points. So you can be at peace. You are coming to God. “He who comes to me, I will in nowise cast out,” Jesus said. You are indeed coming to Christ, you will not be cast out.