Thank you for your inquiry and for reaching out. It is part of our Christian lives to share joys and trials with one another for encouragement and growth in the life of faith.
You are quite right that the first issue for the Christian is one’s own life in Christ. I am pretty certain that each one of us has been conflicted one time or another and felt, as you say, the difficulty of being ourselves and being truly a Christian. We may feel that our authentic self and Christian self are not one and united, but rather two and in conflict with one another.
Here it is important to ponder a distinction between a properly “authentic” self, our ideal self of faith in Christ, and an actual “desiring” and “feeling” self who may have certain ideas and dispositions different and even contrary to the ideal Christian self. The ideal “authentic” self is the one striving to live according to the Bible’s teaching that we are created in the image and likeness of God and strive to live by the virtues of faith, love, truth, goodness, forgiveness, justice, and the like, all of which are the attributes of the true Christian self, seeking to grow in the likeness of Christ.
On the other hand, there is the “desiring” or “feeling” self, to whom we sometimes refer to as the “authentic” self because we think those desires and feelings are sincere and represent our actual self. Of course, they may be sincere, but sincerity does not necessarily signify uprightness or goodness, that is, a life that is truly genuine and authentic in the eyes of God. Sincere feelings and desires may actually be impediments to a true Christian understanding and a Christian path to a truly authentic life. Sincere feelings may in fact be wrong, immoral and even criminal, as in the case of a bank robber who may sincerely seek to obtain money by means of a hold-up but that would be very bad for him and everyone else too.
Do not be surprised to find it difficult to be a Christian and that you experience the difficulty of being led by obligation rather than by love as a Christian. I have experienced that all of my life too when love did not prevail in my heart. But then I always said to myself, better to be a Christian by obligation than not being one at all. Christ has called us to travel the narrow and hard path to true life. He has charged us to carry the Cross of humility, obedience and self-sacrifice.
In the Gospels the Lord speaks of three kinds of Christians according to the interpretation of the saints. At the beginning level are those who do the will of God out of fear of punishment and are called douloi or “slaves.” Then they are those who do the will of God because they seek reward and are called misthôtoi or “hirelings. At the highest spiritual level are those who do the will of God out of love for God and are called huioi or “true sons and daughters” of God. The saints teach us that all three categories of Christians are acceptable in the eyes of God and will be saved. However, the saints also teach us that a person can progress from one stage to another through faith, prayer and purposeful Christian living.
Therefore, by all means, continue in your struggle to be a Christian even as an obligation, if not also as joy and out of love for God. But then ask yourself, why–by what motives, actions or experiences–are you not moved by love and what you can do about it in order to change disposition about your Christian walk. Reflect on moments when you have acted being motivated by love and try to repeat those moments with purposeful courage. Seek to move beyond obligation to gratitude and joy in your life of faith.
It all begins with our deepest desires and the personal act of faith. Do we really desire to affirm that there is really a loving God, for whom we hunger and thirst, and who is a living God and calls us to love? Have we ever really experienced deep expressions of love in family life, in friendships, in prayer or worship with others? Even if we do not recall many such moments or expressions of love, we can here and now, and in the future, commit to such a loving God by an act of faith, looking to the Lord Jesus as the example and criterion of life.
Christ has taught us and showed us the way, above all by service to others, and testifying to what is true and right, and eventually facing the Cross for being a witness to God’s truth. The symbol of Christianity is the Cross, which signifies indeed that the “straight and narrow” way is difficult and taken by the few, as Jesus said. The saints also teach us to follow the way of love, and do it even when we don’t want to, which is what counts the most. If you can walk the way of love, that’s wonderful, what a blessing! But if you cannot walk the way of love, so the saints teach, then do it on your knees and even bleed if necessary, speaking metaphorically of course.
For myself, I cannot see or find a better way than that of a loving God as taught by Christ, rather than by any other ideology or philosophy or group, floating in society. Therefore, I have committed my life to the way of Christ and do it whether at times I like it or not, find it easy or not. Christ said: I am the way, the truth and the life. I stake my life on His words. I have found that this approach to the life of faith changes my sense of obligation into a loving and joyous effort, and I wish that my whole life was like that.
The second core issue is how to relate to others, especially other Christians, and work with them for the salvation of souls. The answer here is simpler and less conflicting. Relate to others and to Christians to the degree that you are able to with loving care, but without losing your own sense of peace, without getting to a point of being confused, conflicted or drained by such relationships. The minute you start losing peace, balance and love, you may have to draw back into your own faith and prayers, and cultivate love for Christ, asking Him for mercy and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Remember that all other Christians are struggling with similar issues in their own lives but often hesitate to share them and find the true path, helping each other.
Finally, I share with you the experience that there are times when we do not feel loved, accepted and supported by the community of the Church herself. I confess my own traumatic experience in that regard when, as a priest and professor, some twenty-five years ago, I was dismissed for two years from my post at the Seminary. Why? Because I spoke the truth about certain events at the School, and the higher Church authorities, the Archbishop himself at that time, dismissed me from my post without objective investigation of the case. And even soon after, when an appointed bishop examined the case and vindicated the truth of my position, there was no restoration.
Regrettably, all of the bishops kept their silence over the injustice, although some of them wrote to me privately in support and encouragement. It was a time of anguish and despair especially because the wrongful acts were being done within the life of the Church and by the leaders of the Church. In fact one of the bishops, instead of standing up for justice, threatened my priesthood in case I appealed to the public courts for justice! I felt mostly deeply the grief of my widowed mother who gave her son to the Church, only to see him suffer such humiliation and pain in the hands of the Church.
Nevertheless, the Lord Jesus saw me through. After a lot of struggles in myself and in the Church, the chief actor in the wrongful events was forced to resign and leave the country, and even the bishops had turned publicly against him. I was able to return to my post from which I retired peaceably. The experience however was traumatic and still impacts on my soul. It was a lesson that the Holy Orthodox Church, the Church of God on earth and the Body of Christ, is also a human community which can be very human and cruel at times.
But Christ is all the difference. Every morning after waking up and washing, I approach my place of prayer and say, “Good morning Lord! Glory to You! Glory to You! Thank You, thank You, thank You for this day! Be with me and guide me in all things!” Then I conduct my morning prayers and go on with a prayerful awareness that the Lord is with me. What can people or the devil do against me? The Lord is Savior and King over all things. I will follow Him and only Him, and His gospel message, as the true and authentic way of life. That is my commitment and that is my testimony.
Dear ___________, think about these things. I would be happy to continue our conversation. The Lord be with you and surround you with His loving care and the shelter of the Angels. Be well in the Lord!