The Zeal of the Convert

ImageI once read in a book about how St. Athanasius was known to go up to the Emperor, grab his horse by the reins, and proceed to tell him how his theology is wrong! I have always been able to relate to that tenacious zeal that St. Athanasius held. I would tell President Obama at the drop of a dime that his theology is wrong too (I say this with a lot of humor).

In all seriousness, I believe as a convert to the Orthodox Church that one does go through, and hopefully comes out of, a period of radical zeal for the Faith. In fact, this tends to be true of any person who leaves the Faith Tradition of their childhood and converts to a new Tradition.

For the person coming to Orthodox, it is as if one has discovered an incredible treasure.

A treasure beyond all value.

Priceless.

Invaluable.

Inestimable.

For the Orthodox convert, the depths of Orthodoxy are not only a vast ocean that one can spend a lifetime exploring, learning, and growing in, but also it is a welcoming journey of relief from the crazy theological worlds from which many of us come. For the Orthodox convert, discovering Orthodoxy makes one feel as if they had been lied to all their life! That this beautiful, mystical Church has been here for 2,000 years and for some, at least in my case, I had never been told about it. I felt as if I had been robbed. I felt like I had found the most beautiful thing in the world, so the need and desire to share it with everyone is strong.

However, I came across something to today that promoted much thought about how often we share our theology and faith and in what manner we do so. Our enthusiasm can, but not always, drive us to always be talking and sharing Orthodoxy, primarily with our other Christian friends, so much that it could push them away or cause them to be turned off by our zeal. They end up having nothing they want to learn about Orthodoxy.

In our haste, perhaps we assume that others want to learn when perhaps they do not.

In his book, “Gifts of the Desert”, Kyriakos Markides interviews Metropolitan Kallistos Ware about converts and how we can go about sharing our Faith, theology, worldview, etc. Father Kallistos says:

“We must surely engage in a dialogue with Western culture. Otherwise we are the betraying our roles as Orthodox placed here in the West as mediators and witnesses. God did not put me in 9th century Byzantium. He placed me in 21st century Oxford. There must be a reason for that. Moreover, what is asked of us Orthodox is to listen as well as speak. All too often we carry on an Orthodox monologue. But we need to hear the voice of the other. Somebody said to a friend of mine (my friend is a Christian the person speaking to her was not) ‘The trouble with you Christians is you want to give us the answer before you bother to find out what are questions are!’

Now I think we could apply that to Orthodoxy in the modern Western world. Before we give them all the Orthodox answers, which in any case we ourselves know so incompletely, we need to listen to what the questions are. We need to consider where these questions are coming from. What is the meaning of the whole experience of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Enlightenment? As a Westerner I should start from where they are.”

“A lot of people today who have strong convictions are not very civil and a lot of people who are civil don’t have very strong convictions. What we really need is convicted civility,” writes Richard Mouw. I believe that having a convicted civility involves our beginning to listen before we speak so much and so often. That is not to say we do not speak, but that we do so with discernment and wisdom.

Mouw also said, ”Too often in life we proceed with a hermeneutic of self-assuredness and criticism of those for whom we disagree rather than a hermeneutic of self-criticism and grace for others.” There’s a fine line between an Orthodox Christian, which says “right belief” in our very name, and knowing that we don’t know it all. That’s the beauty of Orthodoxy. There’s a tension between a Foundationalism and Post-Foundationalism so to speak with Orthodoxy. Tension between having right belief, but having mystery and paradox and not knowing it all. Orthodoxy has taught me that I do not know it all. It has taught me to first examine myself and my sins and to repent of them. It has taught me to focus on growing in Christ.

Speaking.

Tension.

Listening.

The tension between those two is quite strong. The tension between believing you are right, but living as if you could be wrong is high.

The best way to correct this zeal is to focus it inwards. In her blog, “I Hope That Some Of This Makes Sense,” fellow Orthodox blogger Molly Saborin discusses how, in her zeal, she spent much time defending Orthodox or over-sharing it with many, but at one point of her journey a transformation took place. She began to move away from the things the mind does and come into her heart; it was there she began to cease to defend and focus on her own salvation. She writes:

“Over time, however, as Orthodoxy began to take root in my heart and soul, I lost myself in the all-consuming journey of salvation as a mysterious process. Defending my decision ceased to matter to me much anymore, quite frankly. I had way bigger fish to fry, like chipping away at my pride, selfishness and impulsivity every minute of every day – like falling down and getting up again, every minute of every day. Somewhere along the line, Eastern Orthodox Christianity ceased being something I had done and evolved into everything I was/am…

As an Orthodox Christian, I’m concerned primarily with dying to my self-centered desires and urges, and serving, loving, never judging my neighbor. Orthodoxy is so, so…so humbling. Orthodoxy contains every tool I need to run this race with perseverance until I die.”

We converts tend to have a lot of zeal for the Truth, for the Faith, for the Orthodox Catholic Church. This zeal is not in and of itself bad at all. However, I am learning it is in how we use it that matters. We must learn to be gracious, self-critical, patient, and understanding of others. We must learn to let them speak, to let them ask questions as they want. This does not mean we do not talk about, discuss, or share Orthodoxy. It just means we learn to seek first to understand then to be understood.

I want to offer a few thoughts on how we can evangelize the lost and share the faith with other Christians in more meaningful ways (I do not believe in evangelizing other Christians. I will talk and discuss with them my journey and the Orthodox Church, but I do not seek to evangelize them. Those who are not Christians I do think we should evangelize and practice these means of evangelizing). This may appear to be a digression, but I promise it is not:

  1. Dying to one’s self- As we discussed earlier with Molly’s journey, we need to focus more on bearing our own Cross and working out our own salvation with fear and trembling. We are not in charge of working out the salvation of others. It’s hard enough to work out our own salvation. We need to be self-reflective, introspective, and focused in regards to these matters. Galatians 2:20 says, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” We witness and evangelize by our complete surrender, which changes us from the inside out. I Peter 2:12 says we do this so that those around us who are not Christians see how good works and living that they may praise our Father in heaven. We can evangelize and witness by coming into deep, abundant joy that only Theosis and Christ can bring about in us. That is what transforms us into beautiful people of God. Dostoyevsky said, “Beauty will save the world.” I do think that we can evangelize by showing the light of Christ to others in our lives. We radiate with His beauty.
  2. Being in God’s presence- We find this transfiguration of our hearts by coming to faith in Christ and being in His presence. In Luke 10:38-42, we see what it looks like to choose Christ. Mary wanted to be with Jesus not just around Him. She wanted to communion with Christ. We can evangelize and witness by sitting at His feet and learning, having communion with Him. We can evangelize and witness by, like Mary, desiring one thing, Jesus Christ. St. Paul said, “I desire to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified.” We come to know Christ by dying to ourselves and having communion with Him. This brings about transformation and joy in our lives that, as Jesus said, lets our lights shine before men.
  3. By being with others- James 2:14-18 speaks of how faith without works is indeed dead. As Orthodox Christians, we believe that our good works are indeed pleasing to the Lord. We believe that we are capable of doing good works that are righteous before the Lord. We do this by feeding the hungry, the poor, the destitute. We do this by caring for the widow, the loner, the grieving. We must become Christ to the world. We must be in their presence and get to know them. We share with them the light of Christ and the joy we have found by our good deeds and love for them. We evangelize by being His hands and feet. We relate with those in our lives and build relationships.

Now, I know that I may appear to have gone off topic, but I think that once we learn to focus our zeal inward that we become truly concerned with our own salvation and less judgmental and zealous about defending Orthodoxy. That allows for us to really evangelize the lost in this world, but these three ways I have presented are also means for us to share our faith with other Christians. As we are deified and transformed, we become more gracious, more attentive, more open to listening rather than speaking.

In closing, if you are Orthodox and reading, I pray that you and I both are challenged by this. I pray that we can take to heart the wisdom I have learned and shared with you.

If you are another Christian and I have in any way hurt you, annoyed you, pushed you away from Orthodoxy then I ask you for your forgiveness for I am a sinner, and I leave you with this closing from Molly’s blog:

My dear friends, forgive me my lack of clarity and far from perfect example of Orthodox Christianity lived out in the everyday. I am weak and forgetful, for sure, but nonetheless Christ and His Church is where I’m at, who I am, what I live for, love for, die for, create for, strive for and depend on.  Orthodox Christianity cannot be mastered or dissected,  only experienced. Far be it from me to try and convince anyone of anything; I am not the Holy Spirit. All that to say, I have not much else to say but, ‘Lord have mercy on us all!'”

About Joel

Joel is a 32 year old currently residing in the southeastern United States. His interests lay in philosophy and theology. He is a writer for The Christian Watershed.

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