On the first and third Mondays of each month, I will be answering readers’ questions about Eastern Orthodoxy. Please ask your questions in the comments, via tweet, or by email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Your question will get answered in a future “Ask About Orthodoxy” blog post!
*Disclaimer: I am not an Orthodox theologian or expert. I am answering questions based on my nine years of experience in the Orthodox Church. If I don’t know the answer to a question, I will consult an expert. While I may at times make comparisons to other churches to illustrate a point, the purpose of this series is to promote an understanding of Eastern Orthodoxy, not to proselytize or to condemn other churches.
So I know I just announced this series, but I am so excited about it I am diving in! One of the most frequent questions I get about Orthodoxy is “Do you believe in a personal relationship with Jesus?”
Short answer: Yes.
Kinda short answer: Yes, but in a bit of a different way than Protestants do.
On the subject of personal relationship with God, here is how Protestantism and Orthodoxy tend to differ:
Protestants often view the church as a collection of people who already have a personal relationship with God. The individual faith comes first, and the communal faith comes second. Going to church is seen as a way to fellowship with other Christians, worship God, and strengthen/encourage your already existing relationship with God, but the crux of your faith is your personal relationship.
In Orthodoxy, faith starts in community. The church leads us into our salvation. Everything you do at church is a part of your salvation. Every single thing has a meaning, from taking communion to crossing yourself to the words of the communal confession to the lyrics of the hymns. That is why we baptize infants: we commit to raising our children within this community in hopes that as they get older, they will choose to stay in this faith. Communal faith comes first, and personal faith follows.
So . . do Orthodox Christians believe in that personal relationship? YES. There is an expectation that you personally love God and desire to be like Him. When you are not at church, you can still experience God in meaningful ways, which include prayer and Bible study, just like Protestantism. There is a rich tradition of personal prayer in Orthodoxy, particularly with the ascetic saints. Many of the desert mothers and fathers spent hours and hours in prayer and study. While all of us can’t sell everything we have and head out for the desert, we can strive to embody the spirit of these saints’ devotion to knowing God. Many Orthodox Christians have a home altar where they engage in daily prayer.
The difference is that while Orthodoxy encourages personal spirituality, it does not make it the highlight of your salvation. While for Protestants, personal salvation comes first and going to church is the after-effect, for Orthodox Christians, the church comes first to teach us who God is and what salvation is, and personal faith is the after-effect. An Orthodox friend of mine said it well: “There is never any me-and-Jesus without us-and-Jesus.” In other words, my salvation is not separate from your salvation; we are all in this thing together.
What have the implications of this different approach been for my own spiritual life? After years of striving to be a good Christian and have a good relationship with God, I was tried out. Tried, not tired. I was constantly yearning to feel God more and to understand his message for me. What was he trying to tell me through this particular passage of Scripture? What was his will for my life? Why couldn’t I find the courage to witness more if I truly loved Jesus? Did it mean my relationship with him wasn’t strong enough? Was I sinning? And so on.
When the burden of my relationship with God was all on me, I could not hold up under the pressure. If I did not feel or hear God, I was certain that I had done something wrong. The Orthodox Church gave me relief from the need to feel God all the time and hear his personal word for me all the time. It let God be a mystery, and it helped me see that God’s words are for all of us. (Not to say that God doesn’t call people to particular things, just that there may not be an individual message meant just for me in every single passage of Scripture I read.)
The burden of that relationship is not all on me anymore. My church helps me along. When I am entrenched in doubt or I lack a feeling toward God, I no longer panic. I just keep going to church. Because I know that the communal faith I’m a part of is enough to carry me until I come out of my darkness and personally feel God again. It is more than just going through the motions. I have the assurance that “the motions” are spiritually affecting me in ways I may not even know yet.
**Photo from Wikimedia Commons