“Think not that I have come to abolish the Law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches man so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
Matthew 5: 17-19
If these Scripture verses look familiar, it is because we just reflected on a passage of the Gospel yesterday of which they were a part. In continuing our discussion on where we are and where we want to be, the issue comes up with many Orthodox Christians of “I’m good with a lot of it, but not with all of it, like fasting.” Which presents a dilemma for how to answer this thought.
There are lots of people who want their experience of religion to be like the slogan for Burger King—“Your way, right away.” In fact, there are now 38,000 (and growing) Christian denominations (not church communities, but church denominations, 38,000 expressions of Christianity) that were founded on the idea of “protest” (that’s where the word “Protestant” comes from), that perhaps what their ideas were didn’t align with their denomination so they went out and created a new denomination that would reflect their ideas.
Even in our own Orthodox Church, there are differences of opinion on how strict versus relaxed we should be on certain things like fasting. In my humble opinion, the Orthodox Church sets a high bar for how we are to live out what we believe. Christ set a high bar for His followers when He said things like “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Matthew 19:21); and “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.” (Matthew 10:27).
The goal of the Christian life is to come as close to the bar as possible. Christ did not set a low bar, not for Himself, not for us. He gave EVERYTHING for us, because what more can a person give than HIS OWN LIFE?!
Thus, the church sets a high bar for us, and we are supposed to strive to get as close to it as we can. The best way to approach this, I think, is to imagine if we wanted the dirt in a garden to be very fine, with no rocks in it. On first glance over the garden, we would take the big rocks out, then the small ones, and eventually we would take handfuls of dirt and sift them, taking out even the smallest particles. Until all the dirt in the garden is very fine, with no rocks or even clumps in it. Can we grow plants in a garden full of rocks? Probably not. Can we grow plants in dirt that hasn’t been finely sifted? Probably. Will the plants grow better in finely sifted dirt? Definitely. In our Christian walk, we make sure we have some standards, that we participate to some degree in all the disciplines of Orthodoxy—prayer, worship, Scripture reading, fasting, charity, etc. We are not expected to have our spiritual lives like fine dirt, especially if we are still removing the big rocks, i.e. just getting started.
Let’s examine things like prayer and fasting. There is no ideal amount of time to spend on prayer. We are supposed to “pray constantly.” (I Thessalonians 5:17) So what about five minutes in the morning and five minutes in the evening? Ten? Is two enough? The ideal is that we live with a prayerful demeanor at all times, honoring and respecting the Lord and the commandments, loving God and loving our neighbor. What if a person is very devoted to prayer but never serves other people? We can’t pray and then forget charity, just like we can’t be charitable and never pray.
Fasting, as I’ve written many times, is supposed to be more about discipline than deprivation. There are reasons for how and when to fast. If I told someone, “fast from social media and eat whatever you want,” there would be many people who would object, saying that fasting has to do with food and we can’t change those rules. There would probably be people on the other side of the argument who would applaud this, thinking we should modify certain things to keep up with the times in which we are living.
The idea of fasting is pretty important to an Orthodox Christian. Same thing with prayer, worship, Scripture reading, Tradition, charity, and stewardship. We can’t really say “I’m Orthodox but I’m not okay with these things.” If we are going to be Orthodox, we are supposed to conform our lives to Orthodoxy, not the other way around. That being said, most of us (maybe all of us) will never reach the high bar. However, we should not lower the bar. We should continue to strive for the bar.
If you’ve never fasted before, I don’t recommend strict fasting. If you’ve never prayed before, I don’t recommend reading the Compline every night. Not because these things aren’t good—they are very good. But we have to build a discipline with these things, we have to create new habits with these things, and this takes time. That’s why I personally (and I’m sure some will disagree, and that’s okay) prefer to bring people into the faith somewhat slowly, and then as people learn, to challenge them to do something in a more disciplined, committed way. For the person who has never tried fasting, try fasting from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays this upcoming Lent. If that is not a problem, try adding a third day each week, and eventually fast from meat throughout the whole Lent. If one has already mastered this, we then go to eliminating fish, then dairy, then wine, then oil, until eventually one is maintaining the strict fast. Same thing with prayer—start with a few minutes a day, and the work up to longer and more frequent prayer times.
We can’t be Orthodox without prayer and fasting, without worship, without Holy Communion, without confession, etc. We can, however, start with all the disciplines of the church and move to a deeper level over time. We don’t get to pick and choose what we are going to do. We have the why, the what and the how of what we are doing. What is left is the journey to understand the why more deeply, to do the “what” more purposefully and to do the “how” with greater discipline and consistency. Thankfully, we have our lives to figure this out, and a great time to do this each year is during the upcoming Lenten journey.
The thing that makes Orthodoxy attractive, and I’ve heard this from people who have come into our church from other denominations, is that we aren’t changing everything, that we are still grounded in so many things, and people are looking for something that is grounded and solid. They have become tired of “my way, right away” and are eager to embrace God’s way, working towards that high bar, rather than lowering it.
Lord, thank You for the gift of faith, and a church in which to express the faith. No church is perfect, no Christian is perfect, only You are perfect. Even though I am imperfect and I will never be perfect, until the day I enter Your Kingdom (if Your grace will allow me), accept me, sinful and imperfect as I am, as I seek to learn more deeply about You, to be more committed to You, and to be more disciplined in how I represent You as a Christian. Thank You for those who teach me. Help me to be a good student of the faith, so that I can go and be an Apostle, one who spreads the faith. Amen.
Whatever you do, do it with love, and with the idea that you can do it better, more deeply, and with greater commitment.