Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. -Romans 12.12
As we experience an unprecedented situation and challenging times, Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF) can only begin to understand the current reality and its impact on college students and the world. Simply put, life as we know it has been turned upside down.
In the midst of uncertainty, confusion, sickness, distancing, and even isolation, we trust in one constant- the love of God. It is this love that propels us forward. It is this love that gives us hope.
Know that during this time, OCF remains committed to providing relevant and meaningful ministry for college students. Our staff recently explored the question, “Why does OCF exist?” The answer was unanimous, “To offer opportunities for college students to encounter Jesus Christ and the Orthodox Church.” It is to this end that our mission carries forward.
In the coming days and weeks, potentially even months, OCF Staff will continue to work with student leaders, advisors, our hierarchs, friends, and other ministry efforts to evolve our ministry given the current situation. We ask for your prayers as we discern, plan, and implement a purposeful & meaningful engagement for students, one that assists their journey on the path laid forth by Christ and His Church.
Let us accept challenges as opportunities, and let us each remain faithful to the message of the Gospel, the “Good News”, as we live in each moment in each day.
Today I’d like to address this excellent student question we received:
How can I defend my faith in the face of opposition?
I’m sure it’s not all that uncommon that you are faced with situations on campus where your faith is not only challenged but vehemently opposed, times when Scripture and history are thrown at you in an attempt to convince you that faith is pointless, contradictory, or exclusive of intellectual, rational, and scientific thought.
It can be unnerving to feel like you’ve been put on the spot to defend all of Christianity and every Christian, especially if the challenger is someone in authority like a professor. It can be even more disconcerting when they ask questions that make you ask questions.
When someone opposes you for believing in Christ, the very best thing you can do is not get in a fight with that person. The best witness to Christ’s light in you will be the love with which you treat other people, including those who berate you. Christ tells us, “bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Lk 6:28). How can you be a blessing to those who curse you? By venerating them as the icon of Christ that you know they are, even if they do not believe it. By treating them with respect, honor, and love as if they are Christ standing before you.
Now, it’s not going to be easy, and you probably won’t be perfect at it right away, but by remaining faithful in our belief that all people are children of God and are loved by Him, it will be a lot easier to avoid the temptation to punch somebody in the face when they make fun of you or speak blasphemously.
Speak the Truth in Love
Avoiding a fist fight, real or metaphorical, doesn’t mean not standing up for Christ. Don’t be afraid to confess Christ, to tell someone why you believe in Him and follow His way of living. But at the same time, keep in mind that many people who reject Christ have actually rejected a false idea about Him or about God the Father or have rejected Him because they have only experienced judgment, self-righteousness, and hypocrisy from those who claim to be His followers.
And certainly, we as Christians do our fair share of sinning, of not living up to the high standard of Christ’s commandment to love God and neighbor with His perfect love. Of course, we know that’s why we desperately need Christ and His salvific Church–to overcome sin within us and let grace work instead. Nonetheless, people still reject Christ because of our imperfections.
All the more should we confess Christ with love, not wavering in what we know to be true while at the same time not violating that which we hold most dear by wounding another person with our words or actions.
Part of speaking the truth is also coming to terms with what we don’t know and being honest about it. If someone raises a question we don’t know, it’s 100% ok to question with them. Christian faith is not based on a set of propositions anyway–we don’t believe stuff. Christian faith is trusting in a person, Christ as the Creator and Redeemer; faith is opening up to the work of the Spirit so that you can be transformed by grace. Therefore, doubt does not preclude faith, but rather, it presents us with an opportunity to come to know God more deeply. Faith is more like trust than like knowledge, something like this passage from Isaiah:
Fear not, for I am with you, be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.
Hope in Christ
Which brings me to my last point. When you come under attack for your faith, when you face opposition, remember first that Christ told us this would happen. He told us that if we followed Him, we would be rejected by the world. We shouldn’t really be surprised. In fact, we can even take opposition as a further sign that Christ’s word is true.
And most importantly, then, remember that no matter what “the world” says about Christ, He remains the same. No matter what someone accuses us or the Church or the Bible of saying, doing, or believing, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8). No matter if someone mocks, beats, accuses, or even crucifies Christ, we have the assurance that Christ is risen, and that He has left us with the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, assuring us,
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. (Jn 14:27)
Disclaimer: Orthodoxy is not a minimalist faith (“God has a checklist of stuff for me to do. What is the minimum I can do to be saved?”) but a maximalist faith (“God and the experience of God is inexhaustible. There is always more I can do to love more purely, repent more earnestly, pray more fervently.”). This means that no list of five things can encompass the spiritual life. These five things are intended simply to cultivate the beginnings of the right kind of attitude to live a life of prayer.
1. Find a Spiritual Guide
Christianity is not a religion meant for the individual–we’re meant to be in communion with Christ, and that includes His Body. It’s so important to having an authentically Christian life to live within the community of believers (and yes, that includes the ones you don’t like or don’t get along with, too). But all relationships within the Church are not equal: having Christ-centered peers is imperative, but having a spiritual guide, someone who is further along the path than you, who sees you in a different light than you see yourself, who can understand your struggles and show you the right direction, is essential to a healthy spiritual life. You really can’t do this for yourself. It’s just not possible. It’s like trying to be married to yourself–it doesn’t make any sense, doesn’t allow for love of another, and it’s a bit delusional.
This passage from the Wisdom of Sirach (which I highly recommend for college students–it’s between the Wisdom of Solomon and Hosea in your OSB) says it all:
Stand in an assembly of the elders,
And who is wise? Attach yourself to him.
Desire to listen to every divine narrative,
And do not let proverbs of understanding escape you.
If you see a man who has understanding,
Rise early in the morning
And let your foot wear out the threshold of his door. 6:34-36
Having a spiritual guide is way more than having someone to go to when you mess up. It’s about seeking after someone who lives a godly life in a manner you can strive to imitate. One my dearest spiritual guides is a mother who exemplifies Christian love and prayer in the way she wipes up boogers, does her dishes, and greets her guests. She’s someone whose threshold I cross as often as is possible, whose narratives and proverbs I cling to.
2. Try Not to Make Excuses
It can be so easy and so tempting in the midst of life’s goings-on to start to make little excuses on not-so-little things. We tell ourselves, “It’s been such a busy week, and I have so much going on right now, there’s just no way I could make it to church/wake up and pray/go to OCF/etc.,” or we tell ourselves, “We’re all human. Everybody makes mistakes. That little one I made was really no big deal in the grand scheme of things. It could’ve been way worse.” The latter excuse sounds a lot like some guy we’re gonna hear about this Sunday in church, and let’s just say, that he’s not the guy we want to imitate. The problem with the former excuse is that, over time, a one-time thing becomes a habit. If we’re willing to make the excuse occasionally, we’re likely to slip into habitual laziness and forgetfulness.
Now, this isn’t saying there aren’t legitimate reasons that one might miss church, but our priorities have to be in order, and we have to be truly honest as to what our motivations are. Being honest with where we are and not making excuses for ourselves and our mistakes requires a constant process of reevaluating ourselves and our intentions (see #1 for assistance in this area).
3. Focus on Yourself
Every person is on their own journey, even those of us in the Church who are trying to follow the one True Way. It is completely fruitless, then, to compare yourself to other people or spend time mulling over what everyone else is or isn’t doing or try to “fix” other people. Just don’t do it. It’s the beginning of judgement of others, despair, and spiritual delusion. We only have complete dominion over own thoughts, words, and actions, and it is there that we should focus our time and energy. I always remind myself that I have enough problems and passions hiding in the corners of my heart to last me a lifetime; there’s no time for me to wonder why someone else is eating meat on a Friday.
I think a particular struggle of college students today is the feeling that the world has become overwhelmingly bad and that we are helpless to do anything about it. People can seem so divided against one another over the smallest of things, and yet we are constantly told to use our own virtue and skill (yikes) to help heal humanity. But the truth is God is always present, and it is He who cares for allthings–from our tiniest personal struggles to the wars and rumors of wars that plague our world. Offer up earnest prayer on behalf of all, and take solace in the words of the psalmist:
Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob;
His hope is in the Lord his God,
Who made heaven and earth,
The sea and everything in them,
Who keeps truth forever,
Who executes justice for the wronged,
Who provides food for the hungry.
The Lord frees those bound.
The Lord restores those broken down.
The Lord gives wisdom to the blind.
The Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord keeps watch over resident aliens.
He shall adopt the orphan and the widow.
But He shall destroy the way of sinners. 145:5-9
5. Keep Doing a Little
Becoming a saint doesn’t happen overnight, and there are no shortcuts. Now, this can cause us to throw up our hands and give up or it can be an invitation to patience, with God, with ourselves, and with others. In the meantime, keep doing a little. Go to church. Make your cross before you eat. Say your morning and evening prayers. Read a little Scripture. Get to know the saints. Find little ways to pray through your day, one little thing at a time.
I know someone who told me that a few years ago, when she was having a lot of bad dreams, she started making the sign of the cross and reciting “Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered,” right before she fell asleep, and now, it’s become such a habit that she doesn’t fall asleep without saying that little prayer. Another person shared with me that whenever he hears a siren of a police car, ambulance, or firetruck he crosses himself and says, “Lord have mercy on those in harm’s way.”
Perhaps in such a simple manner–and with hope, humility, earnestness, and guidance–our lives can become unceasing prayer.