The Cross of Conversion


I grew up in a culture where religious conversion was frequent as well as often short-lived. Religiously, the only remedy to many of the ills of life was conversion. On the face of things I could hardly argue with that now. However, the deeper problem within that particular religious culture was a very truncated view of conversion. For many, conversion was accompanied by emotion (it should be truly “heart-felt”) as well as decision. But the only action that accompanied conversion was frequently a “rededication” of one’s life to Christ. The heart of Southern evangelicalism, at the time, was to “bring people to Christ,” though that phenomenon was defined in a very narrow manner. Thus I watched numerous individuals who needed much longer and deeper “conversions” fall short and frequently “fall away.”

Today’s religious culture is far more diverse though not necessarily for the better. The range of definition of “the spiritual life” can run anywhere from “successful living” to sainthood (and this is only a description within American Christianity). Conversion today can frequently mean a “change of membership” though conversion is not usually associated with changing churches within Protestant Christianity. Americans frequently “shop” for Church as much as they shop for everything else. Recent sociological studies have shown this to be an almost dominant component of our modern religious landscape. Market forces not only drive our economy but often our ecclesiology as well.

Thus the problem of true conversion becomes yet more complicated – even if only by the plurality of strange voices. I am an Orthodox Christian and I believe that the truth of the Christian faith has not altered since its inception. It has not and cannot alter because it is nothing other than the living communion of God and man in Christ. The difficulty of conversion is to find one’s way through the multitude of voices to hear the one true voice of God.

And this carries us to our own heart. I have had many conversations with those whom I would describe as “religious seekers.” Sometimes the largest question in their mind is one brought on by the many voices they hear. How to choose? How to decide? Having been formed and shaped as a consumer, only a consumer’s heart is left when it is God we seek to find – and God cannot be bought – He is not and never will be a commodity.

Thus, even conversion to the Orthodox faith is not an immediate answer to the question of true conversion – particularly if it is simply a choice among choices – a consumer’s decision based on comparision shopping. For true conversion is also a matter of our true heart and not the heart of a consumer – which is a creation of the delusions of this age.

In a strange, semi-prophetic passage in the Epilogue of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the author describes the dreams of Raskolnikov as he lay sick and in prison:

In his illness he dreamed that the whole word was doomed to fall victim to some terrible, as yet unknown and unseen pestilence spreading to Europe from the depths of Asia. Everyone was to perish, except for certain, very few, chosen ones. Some new trichinae had appeared, microscopic creatures that lodged themselves in men’s bodies. But these creatures were spirits, endowed with reason and will. Those who received them into themselves immediately became possessed and mad. But never, never had people considered themselves so intelligent and unshakeable in the truth as did these infected ones. Never had they thought their judgements, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions and beliefs more unshakeable. Entire settlements, entire cities and nations would be infected and go mad. Everyone became anxious, and no one understood anyone else; each thought the truth was contained in himself alone, and suffered looking at others, beat his breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know whom or how to judge, could not agree on what to regard as evil, what as good. They did not know whom to accuse, whom to vindicate….In the cities the bells rang all day long: everyone was being summoned, but no one knew who was summoning them or why, and everyone felt anxious…

It is a strange delirium, one we have seen fulfilled in various ways. “Everyone was being summoned, but no one knew who was summoning them or why…” So here is the crux of the matter – reaching our own true heart. I believe this is a great gift of grace, particularly in a confused and confusing world. Apart from such grace knowledge of our heart would be likely impossible.

But, by God’s grace, having found that true heart, one must not take it lightly. Obedience to the heart in grace is important and a matter of daily struggle. We are commanded to take up the cross and follow Christ, and there may certainly be a moment at which we first obeyed that commandment – but that moment is only a beginning of conversion, the first step on a lifetime’s road of repentance. Golgotha ends in a tomb and then the resurrection. Taking up that Cross daily is also a matter of remaining faithful to one’s true heart, despite all the noise and confusion about us. It is steadfastness and courage as well as a simple tenacity. For the madness of the world is real though we are all called to be among the “few.” Being obedient to one’s true heart is a faithful obedience to Christ who is our own true heart.

I stated earlier that conversion to the Orthodox faith was not an immediate answer to question of true conversion. This is not the fault of the Orthodox faith but the fault of our heart as we approach this treasure God has preserved for us. Once having kissed the Gospel and the Cross, we then have to daily press forward, not trusting in the Church as though it were only another institution to which we have attached ourselves, but trusting in God who is our sure hope and the constant life of the Church in which we live.

The daily pressure of our world is to silence the truth of our heart and turn us again to our consumer mentality. Thus each day we say “no” that we may truly say “yes.”

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


17 responses to “The Cross of Conversion”

  1. Rachel VZ Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    This was a great post-thank you so much! I am a Reformed Christian thinking about converting to Orthodoxy, and I often wonder if a part of it is the “consumer mentality” that you describe. I make these mental lists about what I like better about which church, then realize that I should be looking at truth and not just my preferences, then I read a bunch of books and realize that everybody has a different version of what transpired during church history, then think to myself again, “so if I can’t know who’s right, I might as well just go with what I like best.” And then it starts all over again. 🙂 Maybe my question should be, “which tradition helps me love God best?”

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think that in the whole of the process, you should (as much as possible) seek God with all your heart, and pray. Reading is good, but often does get us trapped into a consumer mentality. There are probably several key doctrines that you should know that you indeed believe (to some sort of degree). Of course, one should not become Orthodox unless they believe it to be the truth. I encourage people to read lives of saints, or modern lives, such as the books on Fr. Arseny. The truth of Orthodoxy is better understood in the lives it has formed than in a purely rational setting, though reason is certainly important and valuable.

    There is the very real question, “Which Tradition is the Truth?” If it has only been invented for a matter of a few centuries, there are serious questions that would have to be answered.

    But pray, don’t neglect your heart. Beware of consumerism.

  3. huntingdonpost Avatar

    A few years ago I was reawakened to a calling I have ignored for years: the priesthood. The problem has always been that my faith community does not accept gay priests as legitimate. You could lie, but what would be the point of that? I thought about becoming Episcopalian, because it is the closest in theology and ceremony to my own religion, but as I searched my soul I realized I could not “convert” based on the convenience of things that are largely temporal. I think the Catholic church is missing out on having me as a priest, but there are other ways in which I can be a good steward and a follower of Christ. Thanks for the thoughtful essay on conversion.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    The church doesn’t miss out on having any of us as priests. If I die tomorrow the Kingdom of God will continue to exist. The only priesthood is that of Christ. My merely human talents add nothing to the Church whatsoever. The treasure within us is the gift of God. Seek God first, don’t worry about the priesthood. It is the priesthood of Christ you need to encounter.

  5. csm Avatar

    what a thought provoking post. I converted to orthodox christianity from catholicism a number of years ago before my marriage. I am now divorced, but have rediscover my faith after much prayer and reflection. Finding what you call my true heart took time, but the journey was well worth the effort.

  6. […] morning, and decided to catch up on a few of the blogs I’ve not taken the time to read yet.  This one bears sharing with those who would not normally read Fr. Stephen. […]

  7. BV Avatar

    Perhaps this is tangential, but Jaroslav Pelikan said that he did not convert to the Orthodox Church. Instead, he argued-at least as I understand him-that he discovered Orthodoxy by peeling back the layers of his thought.

    I only bring this up because it speaks to how we understand the word “convert”. Much of the Western world seems to think that ‘conversion’ is compelled by external pressures or it is the intellectual assent that Father Stephen has discussed above. Perhaps we can say something like ‘conversion by (or through) discovery’?

    I don’t think it boils down to mere semantics, but I figured I’d toss my two cents into the ring.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar


    Interesting story on Pelikan that I’d not heard. He was received into the Church about two months after me – his conversion underlined my own convictions. This hard thing that I’m trying to describe – of conversion that is in fact a ceaseless turning to God is something that Orthodoxy continually asks of me and us all – and I struggle both to speak of it, and moreso, to realize it in my life (which has plenty of examples of where I fall short). But I do not want to seek less than the fullness of conversion, which finally must be measured by the “stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).

  9. MuleChewingBriars Avatar

    Two things for which I will always be grateful in my Evangelical Protestant “conversion experience” is 1) that they always made it clear that I should maintain my allegiance to the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ – not to an institution nor to an ideology. It is hard to maintain an allegiance to an invisible person, and I believe that this led consequently to a search for the Church. 2) The Wesleyans among whom I found myself emphasized that subsequent to my “conversion” I should seek the Holy Spirit. Even after I received their so-called “Baptism of the Holy Spirit”, I was encouraged to continue seeking the fullness of the Holy Spirit because, as one of my mentors from those days put it, “we leak”. That appears to me to be very Orthodox advice. 🙂

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    There’s much to that, whether we use the image of “leak” or something else. It is a continual thing – growth in God and in the fullness He has promised.

  11. neil Avatar

    I heard a children’s song at a “church event” on Saturday that included something like this:
    “I’ve got a new perspective, I’m a different person, since Jesus saved me…”

    Not a bad sentiment, I suppose, but lacking in a certain and vital fullness, I think.

    The event which I speak of was an egg hunt at a evangelical church of some sort. There was also a puppet show and several of those giant bouncy rooms that kids can climb into and jump around in. Lots of fun for kids and I’m not against fun, but the whole thing made me feel a little… disgusted is the only word that repeatedly comes to mind.

    The bouncy things filled the room that is normally the sanctuary. It was overwhelming to walk into that room and see the chaos. The puppet show and singing took place right before the egg hunt. There was a message buried in there somewhere about what Easter is all about.

    The striking thing for me was a sense that instead of linking the season to Christ, it seemed like a church endorsement of an empty cultural tradition. Again, I’m not against fun. Last year we took my little boy to an egg hunt at a zoo and it was a lot of fun. The problem I had with this year’s event was that any sense of holiness around Easter, at least on this day, was completely absent. The church’s “message” was buried like a bad commercial during an exciting tv show. I wonder if anybody really thought it was worth the effort at all.

    I recount this here because it was obvious to me that this event was supporting our culture’s consumerism unwittingly, as a part of a Holy event that really took place, an event that is vital for our salvation. Not a salvation that takes place in an instant (now I have a new perspective, I’m a different person) but a slavation that is possible because of Christ, but that we take part in by way of our daily choice to struggle for acceptance of God’s way. This is a challenge for me. I’m grateful for the reminder I got this weekend that Pascha is coming and I still have opportunity to accept the True meaning and try to live in it for my salvation and the witness of it to my children.

    Children get it, I think. They do not need Eastertainment. They need a slow and steady witness and a real catechism of the real Truth.

    Father, forgive the rant. I’m trying to be constructive, but sometimes I panic.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    Neil, it’s all around us. One local Church is offering to give away “5 free bicycles” at it’s Easter service (to entice youth attendance). I am reminded that St. Paul said, “I groan until Christ be formed in you.” I groan too.

  13. Fellow Sojourner Avatar
    Fellow Sojourner

    I could rant here all day about the consumerism in the church. I will resist the urge.

    I do want to comment briefly on Neil’s statement:

    “Children get it, I think. They do not need Eastertainment. They need a slow and steady witness and a real catechism of the real Truth.”

    Our family of eight with six children ranging in ages from 6 months to 13 years, just completed our first liturgical year in a local Orthodox church. Next week we become “official” catechumens. God knows how long before we actually take the plunge and are chrismated, but rest assured it is dad (me), not my children, who is dragging his feet. My children are ready to be Orthodox. I think I am too, but it has taken me a lot longer being very deliberate and cautious moving forward. I’ve also had some big hurdles to overcome.

    For 13 years I attended, and for 7 years I was a full-time minister, at a local “mega-church.” I worried about my children as we started to attend the Orthodox church last year because they were accustomed to high energy and very talented entertainment every Sunday morning. My worries were completely unfounded. My oldest three, ages 8, 10, and 13, have fully participate in the Orthodox services almost from the time we started attending. The youngest 3, ages 4, 3, and 6mo., “sit” and sometimes stand, albeit a little antsy.

    I recently had coffee with a former colleague at the aforementioned church where I was on staff. I almost laughed when he asked, “Does the Orthodox church that you are attending have a good program for the kids?”

    I wanted to tell him that regardless of the church having church school a couple times a month, the best “program” for the kids that they have is the Divine Liturgy and the other prayer services throughout the week. Out of respect for my friend, I just told him that our kids sit/stand with us through the service each Sunday morning.

    Sorry for the lengthy reply that is a bit off topic – I just wanted to share my experience that would suggest that it is the adults who struggle with their ongoing conversion, much more than the children.

    For anyone that might be in a similar situation as we were – leaving the consumer/marketing mentality of modern evangelicalism – hopefully you will be as pleasantly surprised as my wife and I were to find that our children were longing for something more as well.

    Fellow Sojourer

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    Excellent reflections.

  15. neil Avatar

    Fellow Sojourner,

    Yes, indeed, the children do get it. My 3 year-old gets very antsy during liturgy, but he is antsy during anything. I love that the Orthodox “program for kids” is participating with everyone else in the services.

    I’m always tempted to comment on the evangelical way of doing things for kids or even for adult outreach and I feel somewhat entitled because I come from that arena; but there is a little voice inside that reminds me that my judgement and criticism is a bit off the path. Fr Stephen’s most recent post about humility was a good reminder for me here. Besides, the more I learn of Orthodoxy, the more I feel I can’t even compare it to where i came from, it’s that different.

    Thanks for your comments.

  16. neil Avatar

    Another thought.

    I am conviced that through repeated exposure to the Liturgy my kids – or any kids – as well as adults, will get a sense of God’s Holiness and Love for us and this sense will make this conversion of the cross, this struggle for God’s Kingdom in our daily lives possible. The realization and acceptance of Grace we might call it. On the other hand, the repeated exposure to high-octane, media-blitz church will more likely leave a person wondering what the point is and looking for the next emotional connection. I made it a point for years to proclaim that it is “relationship, not religion” only to come up empty on both. Now of course, I’m hungry for a Religion that leads me to a solid relationship.

  17. George Avatar

    We continue to live in the world and daily be enticed by it, but my challenge is to continue to be grateful for God’s gifts to us, seek to worship Him alone, and ask the Holy Spirit that “my feet be ready to take me to those in need”. Sometimes Christians need to shop while they are still in need of the food chidren like, but to be ready to eat the food of adult Christians by learning to carry His cross.
    Thanks for your inspired words.

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