We continue our reflections on the theme “Gather My People to My Home” by focusing on the challenging task of gathering those who are struggling with deep and serious questions about life and God. In previous reflections we have addressed our calling to gather both “disconnected” Orthodox Christians and the unchurched. This month we turn to the needs of persons whose spiritual well-being may be challenged by an unfulfilling quest for meaning or whose intellect or life experiences have raised tremendous questions or doubts regarding the purpose and direction of life.
Human beings have pondered questions about the meaning of life and the existence of God for millennia. In our own Hellenic tradition, we can examine the works of ancient philosophers, which reveal great efforts in the pursuit of knowledge, an inner desire for truth, and countless theories on origins, the nature and function of the universe, and the purpose of life. Others have arrived at the same questions and with the hope for answers through great tragedy and suffering. The eventuality of physical death, the upheaval created by war, the pain of disease and poverty, and the demoralizing injustices in human communities and relationships have led many to seek something “greater” that offers or leads to a blessed life, peace, comfort, and truth.
People continue to ask questions and struggle in pursuit of the answers. Did the world just happen, and are we a product of chance? What is my purpose in life? How can I be happy and have peace about who I am? Does God exist, and if so, does he really care about me and my inner conflicts? Why is there so much suffering in the world? Will all of this just end in death and destruction, or is there something better? These and many more questions reflect both the breadth of our intellect and our quest to know, understand, and to find answers not just for the sake of knowledge, but for our well-being and ultimate destiny.
As Orthodox Christians we have found many of the answers to life’s questions in our relationship with God and in our involvement in the Church. This is what makes the Church our home. Our lives in the kingdom of God and our participation in the community of believers connects us directly with the One who, with meaning and purpose, brought all things into existence, created us in His image and likeness and is guiding us toward fulfillment in life and being. Further, it is through God’s loving presence in our lives and through the Holy Sacraments, the Holy Scriptures, the teachings, and traditions of the Church that we know, understand, and experience the truth about life and relationships, the effects of sin and evil, and the necessity of faith, hope, and love as genuine and true expressions of our humanity. It is also in our relationship with God that we find meaning and purpose in our transformation from death to life. Certainly, He guides us in understanding our great potential for creativity, thought, virtue, and knowledge; but all of this is part of becoming what He created us to be: holy people living in loving and full communion with Him and each other.
Our challenge as Orthodox Christians is communicating the blessedness of this life and faith to those with serious questions about life and meaning or to those who are struggling spiritually with deep doubts about God and His role in their lives. How can we meet this challenge and overcome the barriers that are keeping souls from finding their home in the Church? How do we prepare to answer the serious questions that challenge the very being of many who are in need of the grace of God?
First, we must love and not condemn. As stated above, questions about faith and our existence have been a part of our humanity from the beginning. We have been created with an ability to ask these questions and to seek answers. Thus, our task as Orthodox Christians is to help others find the answers that lead to life and fulfillment. The Apostle Paul did not condemn the philosophers of Athens when he preached to them (Acts 17). He affirmed their intellectual and spiritual search for higher things and presented the Gospel in a manner that addressed many of their questions. Our Lord lovingly received Nicodemus and patiently answered his questions when he was seeking to understand Jesus’ teachings concerning spiritual rebirth and eternal life (John 3).
Second, in following the example of our Lord, we must be responsive and patient. We should not reject others if their questions are not answered or their crisis is unresolved. Many struggle with great questions about life and meaning for long periods of time. Answers provided by our faith and relationship with God are not always readily accepted. The task of gathering people to God’s home in the Church will take time and sacrifice on our part. We must be willing to listen to their questions, concerns, and struggles, continuously offer prayers for their salvation and spiritual well-being, and rely upon the power of the Holy Spirit to lead them home.
Finally, we must also be aware of our strengths and limitations when offering faith and love to those seeking purpose and meaning. Often, our greatest strength is in friendship, acts of kindness, and ministry in the name of Christ when a need arises. Through our words and actions we can show others that they are valued and loved by God, even when they are in the midst of great struggles and doubt. We also need to know that there are other resources to assist us. These may include seeking the counsel of our parish priest, encouraging the person to visit with the priest, discussing serious questions in a parish Bible study or reading group, and engaging with our faith at deeper spiritual and intellectual levels through reading the lives and works of Saints and theologians of the Church. In all of this, we must rely upon the guidance and grace of God to lead us in a manner that will help our fellow-men experience the presence of God and the ineffable joy of being gathered in God’s Home.
Archbishop of America