As Christians, we grapple with the idea of being in the world, but not of the world. If we are set apart as holy for God, then we are no longer meant to be like all the rest. It was the willingness to be different that made people notice the early Church. It was this willingness to give up even one’s own life instead of sacrificing to other gods, or to call Caesar their Lord, that has inspired generations of Christians ever since.
But what about being an Orthodox Christian today in 2016? How do we grapple with being a religious minority in a society with its own religious history? How involved should we be in the political process and how vocal should the Church be on issues in society? And more personally, what should our own lives look like if we are intentionally trying to live in the world but not be of the world?
Here are three things to work towards in our personal effort to be in the world but not of the world.
1. Be willing to go without
The world inclines us towards excess, to have everything we want when we want it. But Christ calls us to find our satisfaction in Him and to trust Him to meet our needs. The Church gives us the discipline of ascesis – ascetic effort – as a way to train us from self-centeredness to selflessness. To move from thinking of ourselves first to thinking of others first and ourselves less.
One of the most accessible forms of ascesis for an Orthodox Christian living in the world is fasting. Are we willing to go without meat and dairy twice a week? Are we willing to give up our right to have the privilege of eating these things during Lent and Nativity Fast? On Sundays, we have yet another opportunity to go without: not eating or drinking before Liturgy in expectation of receiving Christ who satisfies every hunger and thirst.
Fasting teaches us to be willing to go without something good so that we can focus on Christ. It prepares us for other times when we’ll be asked to go without for the sake of Christ. For example, if we want to be a part of that sports team that has practices and games during Liturgy, we’ll have a choice to make. Will we be willing to give up our seat on a bus for someone, let our friend have that last cookie, or share our money with a stranger? These are just a few of the small ways we can go without for the sake of love.
Our willingness to go without can serve as a witness to our neighbor that Christ fills us more than anything the world can give us.
2. Peace in the chaos
Is there anything but “Breaking News!” on the news anymore? We’re constantly bombarded by the need for immediate information, immediate responses to texts, e-mails, online posts, immediate reactions to our instagram posts. On top of that, social media then becomes our forum to debate every topic with passion.
Where are all the calm and collected to bring peace to this chaos? If we are turning to Christ in prayer, if we are getting our strength from regular participation in the Eucharist and confession, Christ can work through us to bring about that peace in chaos. But do our friends know us as just another passionate person, no different from the rest of the crowd? If our actions and words (online and offline) reveal that we aren’t too different, then we need to discern how to find peace, hope, and acceptance.
The world doesn’t need more passionate people trying to vet their own will, it needs more of the peace of Christ breaking through the noise to reveal His presence.
3. Not conforming to labels
There’s nothing like an election season to get people to grab hold of their favorite worldly labels. In the noise of who’s right and who’s wrong, we’re so quick to align ourselves as staunch this or staunch that. But while the world tries to convince us of its wisdom, we have a gospel that reminds us of the wisdom of the cross (1 Cor 1:18, 3:19).
St. Paul urges the church members of Corinth not to label themselves as belonging to Apollo or Paul; their identity is found in Christ (1 Cor 1:12-13). Our primary identity is in Christ as members of His Body, the Orthodox Church. If Christ is not primary in our lives, we are accepting some label the world has given us.
This isn’t to say that we have no other identity in this world (gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, etc.) but that those identities are not primary for us as Orthodox Christians. Our identity as Orthodox Christians is like the glasses through which we see everything else in our world. It’s through this lens that we interpret and view everything else.
So in the realm of politics, we have to be careful not to think that any one political party can ever represent the teachings of the Church. If a Christian finds a political party's platform nearly 100% lining up with their personal opinion....they should probably look deeper within themselves to see if their opinion is the world's or of Christ. As much as we would love to have a party which represents Christ and His Gospel, it doesn't exist. When we try to force the fit, we force Jesus out of the equation.
We as Orthodox Christians are called to be the light of the world, the leaven in the dough. But we need to be in the world in order to bring light, to bring that something different that makes the dough rise. So our call to be countercultural isn’t to be anti-culture; it’s a call to have a discerning mind in relationship with our culture.
Being in the world but not of the world means that Orthodox Christians are willing to stand apart from the crowd as a witnesses to Christ. Does our life speak as a witness for what Jesus has done in our lives? If we’re not sure, then we can begin today to be willing to go without, to be a person of peace in the midst of chaos, and to put Christ first among the labels the world gives us.
How has fasting helped you to be in the world but not of the world? What do you do to help bring peace in your relationships? How much do you conform to the world’s labels; does your identity as a Christian come first?
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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 and good coffee.
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