It always surprises me when someone comes to the Orthodox faith. Given the present age, there are so many versions of Christianity on offer. Many of them are in step with the values and hopes of the culture. Some offer a path of prosperity and comfort (whether they ever deliver is another issue). Some offer helpful hints for hurtful habits and demand little more while others teach the path of positive thinking. In some, the music is rousing and contemporary, but often the theology is not intellectually demanding.
Why then would someone want to join a Faith that asks you to be regular in your attendance instead of coming when it suits you; that you fast as a lifestyle; adopt a prayer rule instead of just praying what you want and when you want; tithe instead of dropping in the box whatever you have in your pocket; study to challenge your thinking instead of believing that all you have to do is “read and heed”; attend classes to learn from others, etc.
The reason is the Holy Spirit, of course, who draws rare souls and shows them that the Church is not a cruise ship, but a battleship. While the Church is called to be in the world and witness to the world, it is not called to be contemporary or relevant to any culture in which it finds itself. To be Orthodox is to struggle, not only with the problems that come with living, but with the world, the flesh, and the devil.
St. Paul understood this. In 2 Timothy 4, he said that he had fought the good fight and had run the race. Hear the verbs he uses – fight and run. These are not the words that describe an easy life in the Faith. I’ve only been in a few physical fights and I’ve been in some intellectual battles. I learned that if you want to be victorious, you should learn to fight well. This requires that you gain some fighting skills and it also requires that you know something about your opponent. A good runner has to train, and eat well, but above all he or she must have a good heart. To run well and to fight well involves body, mind, and soul.
In Orthodoxy, it is the same. The Faith requires body, mind, and soul. If you do not train the body, it will shipwreck your faith with its constant demands for pleasure and comfort. If you do not train the mind, the father of lies will deceive you and draw you away from the Faith. If you do not feed the soul, then when adversity comes, you will not have the strength to stand.
What about the finish? In my time as a minster and priest, I have seen many people come and go. They started with a lot of zeal but ended in failure. Paul said that the end of his fight and struggle was that he had finished the course and had kept the faith. Sadly, the end of the struggle for some is leaving the faith. Some Orthodox object to the idea that struggle is unavoidable or that the Faith should make any demands. They want what is called a “chapel of ease,” where they can come, light a candle, enjoy a nice service, have a nice cup of coffee, and then leave. Orthodoxy will not be much of a part of their daily life. If there is any sign of struggle in the Church family, they are gone, often for good.
Bishop Fulton Sheen said the following: Christianity is not passing away because it is too hard. It is passing away because it is too soft. Many will not fight and they cannot run and they find it impossible to keep the Faith. As St. Paul once said, they have the form of Christianity, but they do not have the power. I think of what the Spirit often said to the Churches in the book of Revelation: “to he who overcomes (who keeps the Faith), I will give him a crown- the 2nd death will not touch him- and so on. Those who wear the crowns are those who have won the battle.
Let me offer a final word of encouragement. I often feel weak and many times I have failed the Lord. What keeps me fighting and struggling is the limitless mercy and forgiveness of God. It is this mercy that makes the perseverance of the saints possible. I know that in any war, you may lose a few battles. Yet, if you remain obedient to the Commander, in the end you will win the war.
Fight, run, finish. To be Orthodox is to struggle not just to lose weight, or pay the bills, etc. It is a struggle to keep the Faith. After all, the Lord promised a cross to those who followed him. I think that on judgment day, the only thing the Lord will ask us is “did you struggle to keep the Faith?” If we did, then we have fought the good fight, we have run the course, and we have finished the race..