One of the saddest books I read is the Church metrical book, the book containing the list of those baptized, married, and buried (or “hatched, matched and dispatched”, as one person put it). It can be a sad read because of the number of people once baptized and chrismated that no longer walk with the Lord. Most of course continue their journey of faith, but some do not. They began well enough as zealous converts to Orthodoxy, but now have lapsed, and have never been seen in church again. The question arises then, “How is it that a person begins an Orthodox life with all zeal and then falls away?” How does apostasy happen?
Certainly it does not happen suddenly. One does not awake one morning, having living as a zealous Orthodox disciple of Jesus for the previous months, look in the mirror and say, “Good heavens! I think I am a Scientologist!” and then lapse from Church. Rather, apostasy occurs as a process, as a kind of drifting away. That is why the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews writes, “We must pay the closer attention to what we have heard lest we drift away from it” (Heb. 2:1). Apostasy is a matter of drifting, of slow retreat from the way of life to which we have been committed. It will be helpful to mark the stages of this drift, so that we can avoid it.
The first stage in the drift from Jesus and from Orthodoxy is losing our spiritual edge. For as zealous disciples of the Lord, we retain a certain “edge”, a determination to serve the Lord, to continue growing in His knowledge and love. Every day He has new things to show us, new discoveries. We arise from bed every morning saying, “O Lord, I am Your servant, the son of Your handmaid; You have loosed my bonds” (Ps. 116:16). That is, we begin with an inner dedication to God, offering our life and the coming hours of our day to Him. In the first stage of drifting and apostasy, we lose this dedication. Dawn no longer finds us His servant. We simply arise from bed and look for breakfast. Almost imperceptibly, we retake control of our lives, wresting it from His gentle hands. This process of cooling off is so gradual we scarcely notice.
Then comes the second stage, more noticeable and rooted in the first stage. That is, we begin to decide whether or not we will go to church on Sunday morning, whether or not we will say our daily prayers, whether or not we will the keep the customary fasts. We may in fact finally decide to do these things, but that is scarcely the point. The point is that we feel we have the freedom to do it or not. In actual fact, we gave up this freedom when we decided to become Orthodox disciples of Jesus. In our baptism, when we (or our sponsors) renounced Satan and united ourselves to Christ, “bowing down before the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided”, we then gave up the freedom to decide for ourselves how we would spend our Sunday mornings, and whether or not we would say our daily prayers. We decided at our baptism, then and there, that Sunday morning would find us in church, and that we would pray to our God every day. From that moment on, we no longer belonged to ourselves, but to Jesus. In this second stage of apostasy, we feel that we in fact belong fundamentally to ourselves, and so possess the freedom to decide whether or not we will attend Liturgy and say our prayers.
In this second stage, we become particularly vulnerable to the devil, since we have defected from God in our hearts and voluntarily withdrawn ourselves from His protection. In this stage, arguments against the Christian Faith that once struck us as absurd now begin to make sense. Dan Brown in his The Da Vinci Code disquiets us, and we think that maybe Richard Dawkins makes some good points after all. Note: this is not a matter of one just beginning to sort out what he or she believes, but rather of someone who had decided that the case against the Faith was nonsense now beginning to doubt their first conclusion. And that doubt is not caused by anyone producing any stronger evidence against the Faith. Dawkins’ arguments remain as flimsy and nonsensical as ever. Rather, the doubt is rooted in the doubter’s own life, and in an unacknowledged desire to find reasons to abandon the Christian Faith with its restraints.
This leads to the third and disastrous stage, when one finally abandons the Christian Faith. One once considered the Christians to be “us”; now the Christians are “them”. In conversations by the office water-cooler, one no longer defends Christianity as one’s own Faith, but lets the others there deride it, and actually sides with them, either by one’s actual words of agreement or by one’s tacit silence. It is a terrible moment, and one which Heaven catches on its own eternal video-tape. That tape will be played back at the Last Day. There is no escaping it. The Lord said it: “Everyone who denies Me before men, I also will deny before My Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 10:33). That day of denial will have eternal consequences.
How then to avoid such an eternally catastrophic conclusion? By stopping the process before it begins, by greeting each waking morning with the determination to serve Jesus. As we stretch and yawn and look for the morning coffee pot, let this be our waking cry: “O Lord, I am Your servant, the son of Your handmaid; You have loosed my bonds”. We will be safe from fatal drifting if we cling to Jesus and keep our spiritual edge. Each day He has more things to show us, more things to learn, more ways in which we can grow. Monday is not simply the beginning of the week; it is another day of discovery in the Lord. If we begin Monday and every day with such a resolve, we will never drift. Death when it finally finds us will find us ready for joy. We will never slip slide away from Christ, but step boldly into His Kingdom. Now is the time to make the decision about how we will begin each day, and therefore about what we will find at our life’s end.