I’ve never liked running. In fact, I dreaded those fated days in gym class when we’d have to run the mile. I just knew I’d be too slow and afterwards would feel too sick. The same goes for sports. I was too self-conscious to enjoy playing them. I didn’t want to feel uncomfortable; I didn’t want to be judged. So I would take the easier route during class and walk the track instead. It was my way of escaping the seemingly inevitable pain of gym class.
There’s a lot about life that is painful or uncomfortable. But there’s also a lot that’s beautiful and joyful. I’d just rather skip the pain and move along to the joy. I’d rather not feel the discomfort of disappointment or the pangs of fear or the stress of work that needs to be done. And when I’m not feeling super-connected spiritually, I might even avoid prayer. But the reality is, the more I train myself to run away from the negative in life, the more I run away from Life Himself. When I run, I miss an opportunity to encounter the Lord, and instead believe the lie that I’m alone.
So how do we stop this pattern of emotional escapism? How do we stop running from Life?
There is a certain inevitability about hard times. We are all going to experience the death of a loved one, the stress of a job, the loss of a friendship. Though we might intellectually understand this, we oftentimes aren’t prepared when they come. We’re blindsided and don’t know how to handle it. Being around difficult people can be a challenge, and it’s easier to escape into social media than face reality.
Saint John of Kronstadt (+1909) speaks to the instinct to escape struggle:
Do not fear the conflict, do not flee it. Where there is no struggle, there is no virtue; where faith and love are not tempted, it is not possible to be sure whether they are really present. They are proved and revealed in adversity, that is, in difficult and grievous circumstances, both outward and inward - during sickness, sorrow, or privations. (My Life in Christ, p. 375)
Adversity reveals to us the current state of our hearts. How we react to loss and pain shines light on our own ability or inability to trust God and our personal acceptance that we aren’t in control of everything. And we don’t like being out of control. But we have a God mighty in power and able to turn our sorrow into joy.
There are a lot of people who see faith as an escape. Either they’re opposed to religion and see it as escapism from the reality of life, or they’re Christians who look for respite from the world. Recently, I read a quote by an atheist that said, “An atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death.” There’s this idea that people go to church so that they can ignore their problems and try to pray them away.
Saint Maria Skobtsova of Paris (+1945) once wrote:
It would be a great lie to tell searching souls: ‘Go to church, because there you will find peace.’ The opposite is true. The Church tells those who are at peace and asleep: ‘Go to church, because there you will feel real anguish for your sins, for your perdition, for the world’s sins and perdition. There you will feel an unappeasable hunger for Christ’s truth. There, instead of becoming lukewarm, you will be set on fire; instead of pacified, you will become alarmed; instead of learning the wisdom of this world you will become fools for Christ.’ (“Under the Sign of Our Time” p. 113)
This great saint of our times saw the danger that comes from using church as a means of escaping the reality of life. St. Maria did not see worship as a respite from the world, but as an opportunity to encounter the Truth and the truth about ourselves. Worship should lead us to more passionately serve Christ and our neighbor in the world.
We find peace in Christ, but not because He takes our problems away. “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). We find peace in Christ – even in the midst of tribulation – because in Him we no longer have to face the world alone.
God created us for relationships – with Him and with each other. When we start feeling overwhelmed, when we start to turn to fear and anxiety, we tend to isolate ourselves. We forget that we’re not alone. Sometimes we as Christians can act as if we’re spiritual orphans. We can’t see Christ, so we aren’t sure if He’s actually with us.
We run away from something when we are afraid to face it alone. We run from discomfort and problems because we think they’re up to us to solve. "Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up" (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10). When we truly know that God is our strength and that the Church is here to support us, we’ll understand that we’re never alone.
But it’s still up to us to actually connect to God through prayer and the sacraments and to reach out to the Church by being a part of community.
When we run from life, when we run from Christ, we miss out on truly living. Life with all its struggles and difficulties is the only reality we have so avoidance isn’t an option. There is no “walk the track” easy way out: we all have to run this race. Instead, we can turn to the Source of our Life, to Christ, as our support and our peace. With Him, we can see how challenges that we face (perhaps we’ll only see this later) can be used for good. And we’ll see the Church not as a place to escape the world, but as a community that trains us to live in the world. Living as a part of this community, connected to one another and to God, we’ll be able to face life’s trials instead of running from them.
What in your life are you afraid of facing? How can the Church be a place you work through your fear?
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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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