Choosing to live each day as an Orthodox Christian involves being willing to see the world differently, to have a different perspective than we might want to initially.
When I went off to college, I became acutely aware that I was probably the only Orthodox Christian most of my friends would ever meet. This realization made me more sensitive to how I presented myself, how I spoke about the Church, and how I represented Christ. I knew that something should be different about me as a Christian; after all, Jesus tells us “you are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). At times that felt like an unrealistic expectation, like something I would just never live up to.
But as I worked to balance being an Orthodox Christian and still present in the world, I saw that the Church helps to cultivate a unique way of seeing the world and the issues I face. It helps me to discern how I can bring a bit of light into my relationships, if only I can have a change of perspective.
Though we might be inclined towards being judgemental or distrusting, Christ calls us to look instead at ourselves and to first question our own prejudices. We’re called to “not be conformed to this world, but [to] be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
So what are some ways that Orthodox Christians are called to have this transformation and renewal of our mind? How does the Church give us this change in our perspective?
1. Looking past the bad to find the good
The world can feel like a really negative place sometimes. Whether it’s on a national level during and after an election season or on a more personal level after being hurt by someone, it’s hard to stay positive. But unless we struggle with depression, we really do have a choice to look toward the good instead of focusing on the bad.
I was reminded of this choice to change my perspective as we celebrated the life of Saint Paisios last week. By the way, this is the saint who inspired Y2AM to create Be the Bee! His words really speak to us today as we struggle with the negativity we see each day:
Some people tell me that they are scandalized because they see many things wrong in the Church. I tell them that if you ask a fly, “Are there any flowers in this area?” it will say, “I don’t know about flowers, but over there in that heap of rubbish you can find all the filth you want.” And it will go on to list all the unclean things it has been to.Now, if you ask a honeybee, “Have you seen any unclean things in this area?” it will reply, “Unclean things? No, I have not seen any; the place here is full of the most fragrant flowers.” And it will go on to name all the flowers of the garden or the meadow.You see, the fly only knows where the unclean things are, while the honeybee knows where the beautiful iris or hyacinth is.
As I have come to understand, some people resemble the honeybee and some resemble the fly. Those who resemble the fly seek to find evil in every circumstance and are preoccupied with it; they see no good anywhere. But those who resemble the honeybee only see the good in everything they see. The stupid person thinks stupidly and takes everything in the wrong way, whereas the person who has good thoughts, no matter what he sees, no matter what you tell him, maintains a positive and good thought. (“Good and Evil Thoughts,” Spiritual Counsels III: Spiritual Struggle)
So whether the bad I see is in the Church, in my relationships, or in our society, I have a decision to make today. Will I be like a bee and direct my attention toward the good, remembering to live with gratitude and to give thanks even in trying times, or will I be like the fly and focus on my doubts and the specks of bad in my life?
2. Living in a Non-Orthodox world
Being an Orthodox Christian in the United States brings its own challenges. As a minority faith, we often struggle being either overly prideful of our faith or we essentially hide it. We focus either on all that separates us from others, or we gloss over the differences. We try to stand out or we try to blend in.
All of this juggling can make us distrustful of the outside world, including the political and educational landscape around us. We might be tempted to isolate ourselves into Orthodox bubbles, content with ignoring the non-Orthodox around us. But is that a reasonable response when we look at the Church Fathers? Here’s what St Gregory the Theologian has to say about secular education:
I take it as admitted by men of sense that the first of our advantages is education...even that external culture which many Christians ill-judgingly abhor, as treacherous and dangerous, and keeping us afar from God. For as we ought not to neglect the heavens, and earth, and air, and all such things, because some have wrongly seized upon them, and honor God's works instead of God: but to reap what advantage we can from them for our life and enjoyment, while we avoid their dangers...so from secular literature we have received principles of inquiry and speculation, while we have rejected their idolatry, terror, and pit of destruction. Nay, even these have aided us in our religion, by our perception of the contrast between what is worse and what is better, and by gaining strength for our doctrine from the weakness of theirs. We must not then dishonor education, because some men are pleased to do so, but rather suppose such men to be boorish and uneducated, desiring all men to be as they themselves are, in order to hide themselves in the general, and escape the detection of their want of culture. (St Gregory the Theologian on St Basil the Great, Oration 43:11)
In the early centuries of the Church, before and after it was first legalized, Christians were wary of the outside world. They were scared they'd be negatively influenced and thus become pagans. But instead of rejecting outright what his people were wary of, St Gregory directed them to have a change of perspective. We too can find good in our secular society today. It just takes the work of discernment, and the trust that God truly can redeem and even transfigure the world.
3. Sin and temptation
A major perspective change that the Church works to inspire in us is in how we view temptation, sin, and repentance. Instead of viewing the Church in terms of some grand court tribunal, the Church views itself as a hospital with Jesus being our doctor. That means that sin is not a broken law, but rather a disease that needs healing. And as a consequence, repentance and the live of the Christian are seen as part of a life-long process of healing and transformation.
Our Orthodox vision of sin and repentance is one thing which makes so much sense to me that I mention it when others ask why I’m an Orthodox Christian. When my sin and brokenness stops being about me being a bad person and becomes more of an opportunity to grow closer to Christ, I have less reason to despair. With a new perspective, I see potential instead of failure. When I see that I’m not alone when a temptation comes, but that I can call out to Jesus to save and strengthen me, I see that I don’t fight alone. Or as Saint Porphyrios might say, I don’t need to fight at all; I just need to run toward Christ. This is a change in perspective that I need on a daily, hourly, moment-by-moment basis.
After all, repentance itself is about having a change of mind, a change of heart, a change of perspective. Instead of continuing forward as I had been, I take a new direction which leads me towards Jesus.
The Christian life is a life of transformation, of continually putting off the old man and choosing to live for Christ. As we participate in the sacraments regularly, our perspective changes and we start to see the world through the eyes of Christ. This perspective change is what some refer to as the Orthodox worldview or the Orthodox phronema. Being a Christian is fundamentally about a change in our perspective: a willingness to live a life radically devoted to Christ and neighbor. This requires of me more than a simple improvement in my personal ethics, but a total transformation of who I am as a person in relation to others. This comes about as I start to see the world with a new perspective, as through new eyes: to look for the good instead of the bad, to see potential in our non-Orthodox world, and to see opportunities even in my own temptations.
How is God trying to bring about a change in perspective in your life? What struggles are you facing and how can they help you better encounter Christ?
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Sam is the Pastoral Assistant at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages, genealogy, and good coffee.
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