Glory to God for All Things

Believe It or Not

I have to confess as I begin this post that I find myself reaching for words. I reach for words to say something I know, but which is hard to express. To believe the truth is not the same thing as having a correct opinion – indeed the two have almost nothing to do with one another. And this is a great difficulty – for most of the things that we think of ourselves as believing – we in fact only hold as opinions. What a man believes, in the way the word is used in the New Testament, is not seen or heard in the syllogisms he is willing to confess, but rather in how he lives his life.

Thus, when the Scriptures seek to express what it is to have faith in God, the images cease to have any particular intellectual content (or virtually no such content). Instead, Christ will use images such as a vine and its branches. To believe in Christ, to hold to Christ as Lord and God is to be like a branch to a vine. This is not an intellectual image but is a very understandable image of a way of life.

In the Orthodox service of Holy Baptism, the candidate (or sponsor) is asked: “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” It is a peculiar phrase. It is more than asking, “Do you give consent to the following propositions?” It is asking someone if they are willing to live as a branch to which Christ is the vine.

St. Paul uses the image of a body and its head. Are we willing to live as a body lives in relation to its head? St. Paul also uses the image of the union of a husband and a wife.

These are living images – images to which we can relate. But they cannot rightly be reduced to syllogisms or abstractions. To believe that Jesus is the Christ, the only-begotten Son of the Father, the true God, in Whom alone is found salvation, is to unite one’s life to His life. It is to die and find that the only life now lived is Christ’s life.

It is in this way that argument is so often beside the point. I know what it is to be corrected or even to lose an argument and be convinced that something I once believed is not, in fact, true. But many times this represents only a shift in opinion, a matter of little consequence. To accept that Christ is the Truth is more like accepting that the air in a room I am entering is breathable (and then breathing).

By observation I see that people believe many things in this way that are not the truth. Some people believe that they are economic units, defined by production and consumption. Life is good depending on the level of production and consumption. The world is good as measured by its production and consumption. I doubt that those who believe this would ever actually confess this to be the case. But the evidence of this faith will be found in their manner of life – what they choose and how they choose it. What center organizes the activity of their day?

Some people believe in pills or alcohol or sex.

Some people barely believe in God (and that they do so is a good thing). However, it is also possible that having a minimal faith and an unmanageable life to go with it, does not restrain the same person from holding careful opinions about God and the Christian faith and diverting themselves with opinions about almost every aspect of the faith.

The Christian faith uses words – but the force of the words is found in the reality from which they are spoken. A single word from a saint can bring a sinner to repentance. The most correctly stated argument from an unbelieving life may have little effect, none at all, or even be deleterious to those who hear it.

To believe the truth is to venture onto the holy ground of reality and not the fantasy of well-formed ideas. On holy ground we remove our shoes and remain silent – giving voice to words of praise letting words possess integrity. It is a very difficult thing indeed.

It is a rare thing to meet a man who believes in God – but it is a life-changing encounter. May God give us all the grace to believe.

29 Responses to “Believe It or Not”

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  1. MichaelPatrick says:

    Father, I think you found the words; thank you. Please pray for me to believe.

  2. Karen says:

    Amen. I find this very true to my own experience. Well said. Thank you, Father.

  3. jenny says:

    Indeed!

  4. Robert says:

    The accompanying photo is an icon of a life-changing encounter.

  5. Roger C. says:

    How could I say that I unite myself to Christ? My first impression of that question is that I can’t unite myself to Him, but as a branch, I can make myself available to be united to Him. I don’t even think I could say that I submit to Him–only that I want to be united with and submitted to Him.

  6. Robert says:

    Roger,

    However imperfect, incomplete and seemingly insignificant our efforts may be, they are nonetheless real and necessary. So baptism and chrismation in the Orthodox Church is a real and true uniting and submission of oneself to Christ. Is it the culmination of one’s unity with Christ? Is it the complete submission to Christ? No, but it is a start, a real start. And that, as such, is far from insignificant. So it is that we can unite ourselves to Christ.

  7. Making ourselves available is the obvious intent.

    Sent via DROID on Verizon Wireless

  8. MichaelPatrick says:

    I think uniting myself to Christ is becoming a member of the bridal church which desires him, clings to Him, expects the substantial gifts of life from him, protection, and so on. It is a branch- and vine-like uniting; rare times when I recognize and feed my dependence on Him.

    As the author and giver of life, this is the only kind of unreserved love that won’t distort or diminish a person. Rather, being totally bound to Him fills and reorients me properly toward good things and protects me from evil.

    Ironically, I recognize these things reliably only when I know I’ve been stupid, or when I’m lost, hurt or lonely. Nothing can replace His comforts in these times. I only wish I called to Him, too, in the foolish and frequent times when I think everything is going quite well without Him.

  9. Kim says:

    Amen!!!

  10. George says:

    I hate to break up your love fest by pointing out the elephant in the narthex but unfortunately, orthodoxos really does mean “having the right opinion” and many former Evangelical Christians take this literally, having accepted the Orthodox Faith for no other reason than to join a church with a “correct” history and “right” worship and “true” dogma and they spend a great deal of time and energy arguing with anyone who’ll listen to them about how right they are, while standing in the narthex talking as loudly as they can while the rest of us, who have just arrived shortly after the homily, really only want them to get out of our way so we can get downstairs to have warm cup of coffee and fresh jelly donuts.

  11. Robert says:

    I love fresh jelly donuts!

  12. asinusspinasmasticans says:

    Father -

    You yourself said it a couple of years ago in a post, when a “Jesus Freak” asked you as a young man

    “Do you know the Lord?”

    There is no bottom to that question, and also no “right” or “wrong” answer.

  13. Found myself confused by the shift in the close from “unite” to “belief”. Had to re-read this because belief always sounds so much like the syllogism thing easily assented to in the mind – WITHOUT the heart, and what I think you’re trying to distinguish is something more. And I was relieved to see I had simply read too quickly (my mistake) and that you really do mean belief as assented to WITH the heart to such an extent that we unite in all ways with God. This is theosis, eucharist, our cross in confession, our life in the Church, our life in Christ and the dying of our selves both inwardly… and one day… more.

    Thank you for a great reminder to start to the day!

  14. Bill says:

    I think this article points to why the Holy Eucharist is the center of the life of the church.

  15. Karen says:

    George, I think I remember learning that “orthodoxy” is literally translated not “right opinion,” but “right worship” (ortho=right, and doxos=giving of praise). There is a world of difference there it seems to me. But perhaps that is the point you are wishing to make–that many Evangelicals coming to Orthodoxy focus on the translation as “right opinion” (which is also a correct inference from the literal meaning of the word) and don’t realize (at least at first) that becoming Orthodox, properly understood, is a reorienting of one’s entire life to be in communion with God through Christ. It is even possible to focus on orthodoxy as right “worship” and become so focused on conforming one’s practice to the “proper” decorum and execution of Orthodox liturgical forms, that we forget that it is not in the perfection of the form, but in the attitude of the heart (reflected in genuine love toward others, and even enemies), that true Orthodoxy is found.

  16. MichaelPatrick says:

    Karen, let me add that right worship as described Fr. Schmemman in his fine book “For the Life of the World” is precisely what Fr. Stephen is talking about. It is not worship confined to the Divine Liturgy even though the later is the apex or centermost act of worship for Christians in the kingdom. All of our life is worship or it is divided and we are divided thereby.

  17. FAITH
    Just is . . .

    and

    Miracles

    often go

    unnoticed.

    Believe it or not . . .

  18. Josh says:

    Thank You Father,
    This post pegs me. I even started a blog just to share my new opinions! This is my first reply, and I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for your blog and your podcast on AFR. It’s been less than a year that I’ve been learning about Orthodoxy. One of the 1st podcasts I heard was your series on a one-storey-universe, and I read your blog regularly. Thank you so much. I hope to truly believe; and I pray to enter the Orthodox Church someday.

  19. mike says:

    …..” To believe that Jesus is the Christ, the only-begotten Son of the Father, the true God, in Whom alone is found salvation, is to unite one’s life to His life. It is to die and find that the only life now lived is Christ’s life.” ….i will never meet anyone that has achieved this in toto (except in their own minds :)…its a life long work in progress..if you could withdrawl yourself from society(the world) you might at least be able to more concentrate on God without the distractions we disciples all experience in our everyday lives..but even Christ Himself did not do this..He remained “in the trenches” so to speak..as did the apostles….For me even “joining” an Orthodox congregation is not possible because there i would be presented with the many voices within Orthodoxy proclaimimg their particular “rightness”..just as in protestantism or even catholicism ….. for me..until im shown differently..I must work-out my own salvation..with much fear and trembling ……IMO.

  20. Mike,

    There is no *rightness* in Orthodoxy, as you say. We are all in the trenches, the Orthodox trench is just one of the oldest trenches.

    If you find *correctness* promoted within Orthodoxy, then you have not found Orthodoxy at all.

    That’s all.

  21. MichaelPatrick says:

    If Orthodoxy has has truth it is only because Christ is found. Nothing else matters.

    We are invited to “taste and see that the LORD is good” because “blessed is the man that trusts in him.” Ps 34:8 This is not about concepts, it is about feeding on life itself.

  22. Joel Williams says:

    Has anyone ever heard of an approxiamate time when the Orthodox Church first came to be known as the “Orthodox Church?

  23. Greg says:

    The term Orthodox shows up in early Christian literature by the 300s – for example in Eusebius – to distinguish apostolic doctrine from error.

  24. Timothy says:

    It took me a while to find quotes from the Fathers to fit with this post that weren’t way too long. Several long quotes from Isaac the Syrian’s Homily 52 seemed quite appropriate but I found these two shorter ones instead.

    Chrysostom’s Homily IV on I Timothy 1: 15-16 “This saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom I am first and foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.”
    “The favors of God so far exceed human hope and expectation, that often they are not believed. For God has bestowed upon us such things as the mind of man never looked for, never thought of. It is for this reason that the Apostles spend much discourse in securing a belief of the gifts that are granted us of God. For as men, upon receiving some great good, ask themselves if it is not a dream, as not believing it; so it is with respect to the gifts of God. What then was it that was thought incredible? That those who were enemies, and sinners, neither justified by the law, nor by works, should immediately through faith alone be advanced to the highest favor. Upon this head accordingly Paul has discoursed at length in his Epistle to the Romans, and here again at length. ‘This is a faithful saying,’ he says, ‘and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.’”

    Step 25 of the Ladder of Divine Ascent:
    “He who thinks that it is possible to use the visible world in order to describe the awareness and effect of the love of the Lord … is like a man who by words and comparisons wants to give an idea of the sweetness of honey to people who have never tasted it.”
    Cf. Psalms 119:103. How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!

    Perhaps this is what our cynical friend George is trying to get at above, neither the elephant in the narthex nor they guy trying to get to the coffee and donuts downstairs know anything except the things of this world because they both refuse to enter into the heavenly banquette in the nave where the gifts of God far exceed human hope and expectation. To believe the truth is to enter into it and participate in it, to taste and see how good the Lord is.

  25. Karen says:

    MichaelPatrick and Timothy, good thoughts/quotes! Thanks.

  26. Matthew the Penitent says:

    This comment is non-sequitur but as I looked at this photo, I thought Wilfred Brimley ha become Orthodox! (he’s a Mormon, I think)

    Another wonderful post, Father Stephen.

  27. Matthew,
    The elderly man is my father, James Freeman, who was received into the Church at age 80.

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