There are three assumptions I can make about you if you’re deciding to convert to the Orthodox Church. First, I assume that your family is not Orthodox. Second, I assume that they are not familiar with fasting, praying twice a day, and going to Church multiple times a week to stand for hours at a time. Third, I assume that they believe you’re confused or outright deluded for wanting to convert to such a “strange” and “cult-like” Church. I’d like to share some tips for the inevitability of your family objecting to your desire for the Church that Lord Jesus Christ built.
A man’s biggest obstacle to his conversion to Orthodoxy is often his parents, particularly his mother. How dare you discard the faith your mother attempted to teach you and choose your own? Don’t you know that your mother figured it all out, and you simply need to believe what she believes? Amusingly, my Armenian mother was hostile to my return to her own Church, because I desired to have a level of faith that was different than her own. Either from your mother or someone close to you, there may be a concerted effort and fanatical panic to block your attempts at conversion that is based on emotion. You will be subjected to petty remarks, outrageous lies, hurtful blasphemies, and even accusations that the piety of clergy or monastics is “fake,” a “scam”, or “all about money.”
Your instinct will be to get angry, argue, and debate. I can tell you that this does not work, has never worked, and will never work. Even if the relative is lying, attempting to logically dismantle that lie will not go anywhere. Let me share an extreme example that unfortunately may be used on you if you have a Protestant parent who does not know much about Orthodoxy:
Parent: “The priests in the Orthodox Church are child abusers!”
You: “That’s totally wrong. The Orthodox Church doesn’t have that problem. You may be thinking of the Catholic Church.”
Parent: “How can you be so sure?”
You: “In the Orthodox Church, the priests are married. They’re devoted, family men. There are no abuse scandals. It’s simply not an issue.”
Parent: “No, I don’t trust them at all. You really have to be careful around them… they’re dangerous!”
You: “You’re just making things up. Do you have evidence that this is a problem in the Orthodox Church? Show me a news story.”
Parent: “Oh my God, they already got you. You’re being tricked! They’ve already brainwashed my son!” [Weeping commences]
You: “This is stupid… you’ve totally lost it! You don’t know what you’re talking about!”
A fight ensues and the relationship becomes damaged. The following is a better way to respond to maintain peace with your parent:
Parent: “The priests in the Orthodox Church are child abusers!”
You: “I have researched this Church thoroughly and found that not to be the case, but thank you for sharing your concern with me. I will be very careful in who I trust.”
Parent: “But they will abuse you and groom you!”
You: “Thank you for your concern about my well-being.”
Parent: “But really they are going to get you! You shouldn’t go!”
You: “I’m an adult and know how to take care of myself. Thank you for your concern. I know you care about me, but I’m not being groomed or abused. I don’t want to discuss this further.”
The second dialogue will still upset you, but at least the conversation doesn’t escalate into a shouting match that will actually convince the relative that you are in the grips of some evil scheme. Understand that Satan will do all that he can to block your entry into the Church, right up to the moment you are baptized, and that includes tempting your relatives to attack you with absolute nonsense. Since they are not in the Church, they are partially or completely blind, and that blindness will be manipulated by Satan when you decide to have the full truth of Christ.
Oftentimes the remarks will be more subtle, but no less infuriating. You’ll be asked if the monastery is trying to “recruit” you. Your prayer life will be described as “excessive.” You’ll be asked if you’re only hanging out with “church people.” You’ll be described as “unhappy” because you don’t want to have “fun” anymore or “enjoy life” (i.e. commit sin). Your pride will be wounded, and you’ll want to lash back, as I often have, but I promise you that nothing good will come out of your snappy or irritated replies. Since your faith is greater than that of your attacker, it’s you who should absorb the blows, because you have the greater ability to do so. Respond to a lie with the truth, thank them for their concern about you, let them get the last word in, and then change the topic.
Overall, here are five tips I recommend:
1. Do not debate. As a torchbearer of Christianity, always counter falsehood with the truth (never nod, agree, or say “maybe it’s possible” in response to lies), but don’t engage in a debate when your attacker has no interest in the truth.
2. Do not involve your emotions. If you are hurt by a comment, keep your mouth shut and recite the Jesus Prayer, because if you respond in such a hurtful state, an explosive argument is sure to follow.
3. Do not immediately try to evangelize. One mistake is to try to convert relatives and friends when you’re barely in the Church. First, be received into the Church, work on your faith, understand Church teachings, and develop a solid and consistent spiritual life. Your attempts to bring someone into the church before you’re ready to evangelize can have the opposite effect you intended. When you’re a new Orthodox Christian, it can be hard to discern between zeal and pride.
4. Do not be overtly pious. Don’t make a show of your faith with large cross necklaces, hundreds of prostrations, refusal to eat mom’s Christmas meatloaf because you’re “fasting,” and incessant talk of the spiritual life. Such displays will aggravate the relative and lead to a heated reaction.
5. Share the depth of your faith only with those who are seeking. I learned that if a relative doesn’t ask questions about my faith, they are simply not interested. Try to remember your behavior upon your conversion: how many questions did you ask priests, monks, or Orthodox laymen? How many web searches did you do to inquire about the faith? How many Orthodox books did you read? If someone is interested, you will know, because they will ask questions. Other than that, you’re forcing it upon them, and they will not be happy.
Everyone’s situation is different, but if I followed the above five tips when I first returned to Christ, I would have saved countless arguments that temporarily strained my family relationships. Not a single debate I’ve had with a relative ever brought them one step closer to the Church. If I just absorbed their own anxieties, fears, and empty arguments with a simple, “That’s not correct but thank you for your concern about my well-being,” I would have saved a lot of needless pain.
As a person becomes more spiritual, so much fewer rights does he has in this life. It is obligatory to be patient, to accept injustice, to accept evil words from others. A crooked stick (perverted person) who is distant from God has many rights: to strike and shout and act unrighteously. Our rights God keeps for the other life. Out of ignorance however we often seek our rights here. Let us not damage things at all. If they say anything to us, immediately we give them the right [i.e. we fight back]. And later we think we trust in God. That is a big joke. Human justice doesn’t mean anything to a spiritual person. But it is a great concern for the perverted person. —Saint Paisios of Mount Athos
The convert fantasy is that he found the Truth and now he’s going to get everyone he knows immediately into the Church and they’ll all believe in what he believes and everyone will be saved and go to Church together. Unfortunately, that fantasy is a delusion. It’s more likely you’ll find that many relatives who are so against your conversion that they try to block it, and just wait until your longtime friends find out about your new spiritual direction. Unlike family, there is no blood binding them to you, so prepare for the necessity of making new (Orthodox) friends.
“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’ 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. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it. —Matthew 10:34-39
As newly illumined members of God’s Church, we have to find a way to be on good terms with family members who are not in the Church, up to the point where they’ve made it clear that they choose to be an enemy of Lord Jesus Christ. Unlike friends, we can’t swap out relatives for new ones. Develop your faith, don’t aggravate relatives who don’t want Orthodoxy or simply don’t want to understand it, and wait patiently for the many months or years until one day you get a text message from a relative who not long ago attacked your faith with the question, “Can I come and see your church this Sunday?” Once a relative’s heart is softened by God, you’ll be there to guide them with a deeper level of spiritual understanding.
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