How the Words “Forgive Me” Brought Me Back to Church

A Former Protestant’s Story


We stood by the exit of a movie theater, preparing to hand out our paperback Bibles. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ had just finished, and people were walking out of the theater. They were overwhelmed and some even had tears in their eyes. Without saying a word, they took our books and moved on. Suddenly, a gum-chewing guy with two girls in tight jeans by his sides and a large gold cross on his chest came up to us.

“You’re not one of us. You’re not Orthodox, are you?” He said aggressively. “Why are you luring people into your sect and foisting your books on them?”

“And you are Orthodox, aren’t you?” I asked, undeterred.

“Of course,” the guy answered proudly.

“When was the last time you went to church? Did you go to communion recently? Do you fast? Do you say your daily prayers?”

Baffled by my questions, the guy felt ill at ease. He blushed, looked around and hung his head. The girls were confused too. I knew what was expected of a true Orthodox, as I used to be a parishioner myself.

“And you call yourself Orthodox,” I said reproachfully. “You know, I really wish that instead of me there would be a priest standing here, calling on people to believe in God!” I added. “But there are no priests here, so somebody must tell people about Jesus Christ Who died for us!”

Embarrassed, the three young people retreated, but unexpectedly the guy came back.

“Can I have the book?” He asked shyly.

“Of course,” I said hastily. “Here you are. One for you and two for your friends. It is the same Bible, but it is easier to understand. There’s the address of our church on the last page, come meet with us if you wish, we’ll be happy to see you. Or at least, start going to church, but please remember that God loves you.”

On the way home after this evangelization, I saw some of our Bibles thrown into a puddle. Upset, I picked up the soaked “words of life” from the dirty water, inwardly praying to God to forgive the people who discarded the sacred book as they didn’t understand what they were doing. If only they could open their hearts to Jesus like I did some time ago!

At that time, I believed that my life was almost perfect. I loved God, and it seemed to me that I had a personal connection with Him. I prayed and my prayers were answered. I felt that I was saved (if anything happened to me and I died, I was sure I’d go straight to heaven). I was pretty, educated, well read, right-minded and mild-mannered. I didn’t drink, smoke or swear, I did good deeds and paid tithes to the House of God.

Every Sunday, I glorified God at the Protestant meeting by singing and dancing. I had good friends, an excellent job and a lovely daughter. I was sure that God had a great plan for me, a plan that included achievements, victories, awards and gifts and had no room for illness, poverty or suffering. For Jesus already overcame all problems on the Cross. All I had to do was accept His will and believe in my bright future.

If anybody tried to criticize my optimistic world view, I would argue with great eloquence. My impassioned speeches reinforced by personal examples, my charisma and quotes from the Bible would overpower my opponents. At the minimum they would stop arguing with me and at the maximum they would become sympathetic to my beliefs. Sometimes they would even join our community.

Save, o Lord”

My great grandmother’s Theotokos of Smolensk icon My great grandmother’s Theotokos of Smolensk icon In my atheistic, pro-Communist Party family of village teachers who worshiped books and movies, only my great-grandmother was religious. Great-grandma Ulya was born in tsarist times. She couldn’t read or write. Constantly tending to some chores around the house or our vegetable garden, she didn’t speak much. She often made tasty pastry and cookies. For some reason, I always felt comfortable around her. I noticed that sometimes she would stand motionlessly in the corner of the kitchen, looking up at the cabinet near the ceiling and whispering something. Determined to find out the reason why, I climbed the table, opened the cabinet and discovered an icon under glass. It was darkened with time.

“What are you doing, grandma, there’s no God,” I, a straight-A third grader, told the illiterate old lady.

I told her the absurdities I was taught at the Nature Studies classes at school about the primitive people being afraid of thunder and inventing heavenly forces to explain it and about astronauts who didn’t see God in space. In response, grandma simply looked at me with her blue eyes and shook her head reproachfully, saying “Save, O Lord”.

Meanwhile, God was gradually revealed to me through books. I was an avid reader since I was five. When I turned ten, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, one of The Chronicles of Narnia books by famous Christian author C.S. Lewis was published in the USSR. It was a miracle that the authorities allowed this book to be published. When I read the name Aslan (the Great Lion in the magical land is an allusion to God), my heart missed a beat and I had an amazing premonition in anticipation of something wondrous and good.

My great grandmother passed away when she was over eighty years old. I was 13 at the time. Even though our whole family grieved her death, she passed away in a good way. Almost to her last day, Grandma Ulya was spry, rational and sociable. Shortly before her death, she gathered all her relatives around her bed and said her parting words. After that I saw her several times; I’m not sure whether it was in my dreams or in reality. She was tranquil and looked at me silently with her kind eyes, slightly shaking her head.

When I was fifteen I read The Master and Margarita [by Mikhail Bulgakov], starting from the story about Yeshua. Everything related to Jesus Christ made me feel some kind of awe in anticipation of an unexpected arrival of springtime.

When I was in college, I came across the Sermon on the Mount in the Rabotnitsa magazine (it was the time of perestroika and faith-related subjects were no longer taboo). I carefully cut the text out and glued it into a notepad. I even re-wrote the words for some reason. Having absolutely no idea who are those “blessed” and what “for theirs is” meant, I kept repeating these profound words, trying to no avail to grasp their meaning. I even pestered my teacher of history of religion and atheism with questions about them, but nobody seemed to know the answer. I found the Gospel and was very disappointed when I couldn’t understand anything there.

When I was eighteen I was baptized because my friend suggested that I should do it. The sacrament didn’t impress me because I didn’t understand its meaning and significance. At that time, a lot of people were baptized, and the tired priest was in a hurry and didn’t explain or say anything. However, after the baptism, I started thinking about faith and God more and more.

I understood that only the One who can work miracles, that is God, can save my baby.

After I graduated, I married the young man I had dated since high school. I prayed fervently for the first time when our daughter was born with serious health problems. She had a fractured cervical vertebra, and the doctors’ diagnosis was pessimistic. I understood that only the One who can work miracles, that is, God, can save my baby. I prayed to Him as hard as I could, at night and during the day, both out loud and inwardly. People at the hospital where we were taken right after the delivery ward looked at me as if I was crazy, but I didn’t care, all I cared for was for my baby to get better. And the miracle did happen—when we were discharged from the hospital, practically all her health problems were gone.

After becoming rich, I was terrified to realize that I was still sad and empty inside.

In my penurious student years, I thought naively that I had the person I loved and all I needed for happiness was money. I thought that if I solved my financial problems, I’d be happy. But after becoming rich, I was terrified to realize that I was still sad and empty inside. Luxurious apartments, fur coats, diamonds, and holidays in Paris couldn’t help me.

Our family became wealthy when my husband’s business took off. However, overwhelmed by the inflow of money, he fell into the abyss of vice. His unfaithfulness and aggressive behavior made me look for consolation in religion. The pain I felt inside subsided only when I was inside a church. The relief lasted for a few days and then I felt like rushing to the service again. I still had no idea what was going on during the services, although I liked the Liturgy. The services always calmed me down and sometimes filled my eyes with tears for no apparent reason. However, I still didn’t know what was happening in the church and why… I knew the story of Christ the Savior and understood that God is great and that He is love. I knew that I must not sin, but I never got a chance to ask how to live and what to do. The priests were always busy, there were only a few of them during that time. Other parishioners, gloomy and self-absorbed, weren’t very sociable. Orthodox books, shows and movies were not in abundance like they are now. It was the 90s, and the Church was only recovering from decades of persecution.

I started saying morning and evening prayers, failing to understand them fully but finding special joy and power in them.

I bought only a prayer book and started saying morning and evening prayers, failing to understand them fully but finding special joy and power in them, just like I did in the Sermon on the Mount. I noticed that my prayers had a calming effect on my husband when he was angry or drunk. Suddenly, he got interested in the faith too and even went to church with me occasionally.

As ill luck would have it, my husband met another girl and decided to leave me and my daughter. He demanded a divorce. It was the darkest time of my life. Despite all his failings, I loved my husband and always forgave him. Before meeting that other girl, he used to say that I was the only one he loved. Breaking up with him caused me almost physical pain, and my suffering was excruciating. I couldn’t eat or sleep, I lost a lot of weight and went to see various psychotherapists. What bothered me most was the fact that I still didn’t understand what a religious person should do in this situation.

“You know, I talked to one priest and he promised to perform the marriage ceremony in the church for me and my love in a short time,” my husband told me once, beaming. “You and I weren’t married in the church, we only went to the registry office, so our marriage wasn’t real—got it?”

After hearing these words, I felt that I had been betrayed twice—by my husband and by the Church that I was only beginning to love. Outraged, I came to a bitter conclusion: If the priests were so hypocritical, this couldn’t be a true Church.

Friend Jesus

I visited a small community of Christian charismatics founded by a foreign missionary some time ago. I liked it right away. There were decent and educated people who made clever speeches about God and advocated brotherly love and acceptance. I quickly made new friends, and they were always ready to hear me out and understand me. My life became meaningful again. After reading the repentance prayer (calling Our Lord Jesus Christ to my heart and thanking Him for dying for me), I became a member of the community. Thirstily absorbing new knowledge, I listened to everything that I was told, without doubting it. All the arguments were always reinforced by quotes from the Scripture (formally, it is the only authority recognized by Protestants).

Elena Esaulova Elena Esaulova     

Stunned by my husband’s betrayal and complicated divorce, I didn’t think about what I had gotten myself into.

Stunned by my husband’s betrayal and complicated divorce, I didn’t think about what I had gotten myself into. The people were intelligent and kind, nobody taught anything bad, everybody treated each other well. We supported, helped and prayed for each other, rejoicing when we received what we asked for. We spoke about God and everything seemed to be “divine”, so I thought that it was true. Every Sunday we sang simple songs glorifying Christ and listened to sermons on various topics. We also met on weekdays, read and studied the Bible and prayed for people to become Christian. We also prayed to God for authorities, parents, cures and miracles.

At the time, this community was a lifeline for me. God in the Protestant interpretation seemed to be closer and more understandable. If anything was unclear, the knowledgeable, more spiritually advanced people with authority, that is with special “heavenly gifts” (which were naturally mentioned in the Scripture) would always explain how He acted, why a problem happened and how to resolve it.

People were always persecuted for true faith, so if Protestantism was persecuted, it meant that it was the true practical Christianity that I yearned for. That was my conclusion. My new friends weren’t “weirdos” or hermits ridiculed in mass media. They worked, studied, and went to movie theaters or cafés. They didn’t donate their apartments to some gurus and behaved like normal people.

Protestants follow the “branch theory” and think that everybody who believes in the Trinity and follows the Bible are their brothers. According to Protestants, the most backward of their brothers are, naturally, Orthodox people. Although formally pastors and leaders keep on saying that “we treat the Russian Orthodox Church with respect”, the feeling of contempt toward “ignorant wood worshipers” and their “candle and egg-based faith” is widespread among Protestants. During my first meeting with them, I was told that “according to the Scripture” an icon was an idol. I listened to their arguments, suppressing my inner protest and feeling that the quote didn’t refer to icons, but couldn’t prove them wrong because I didn’t know much about this subject.

With time, listening to sermons and reading the books of foreign teachers, I constantly supressed my disagreement with some theses of the Charismatic church teachings. Everything they taught was supposedly according to the Bible, but it was unclear, contradictory or insufficiently cogent.

For example, according to the teaching about spiritual authority, the leaders’ decisions couldn’t be disputed, and the leader couldn’t be criticized. If you were unhappy with the leader, you were expected to pray in silence. People who dared to question the pastor’s authority openly were declared to be gossipy and mean-spirited. They were castigated and eventually forced to admit that they were wrong, spiritually wounded or possessed, or that they needed to change their behaviour for the better.

At the same time, our pastor didn’t have a spiritual leader for a long time and wasn’t reporting to anybody.

Doubting that it was God who revealed this or that to the pastor was also frowned upon.

Bafflingly, the teachings on all levels of charismatic communities were constantly changing. The things we thought to be true for some time would be refuted after a while. We would read books about spiritual battles and pray in a certain way as explained in these books, but later their author would suddenly be declared a heretic.

Once I asked our pastor to pray for me so that I could buy an apartment. Based on the ideas from the book that was currently in favor, he suggested that I should do a prophetic action—that is, send out invitations to a housewarming party at the apartment that God would allegedly give me. The pastor said that at first the apartment must be purchased in the spiritual world and then it would happen in the real world too. I dutifully followed his instructions. Obviously, I didn’t get any apartment, but nobody showed any concern about it. After a while, this book was also proclaimed to be a false teaching.

The activities of our community were similarly chaotic. We would talk to people about God in a certain part of the city (which would allegedly make every inhabitant of that neighbourhood accept Christ), then we would open a branch of our church in a village, and after that we would plan to open a rehabilitation clinic for drug addicts… The reasons why these “God sent” plans sometimes failed were never discussed.

Watching all these haphazard efforts, I realized that I no longer found them acceptable even though I still had good friends and a long-standing relationship with the community. I started having second thoughts about the meaning of our faith. It lacked simplicity, sensibility, mercifulness and humbleness. I knew many who were poor and suffered from illnesses all their lives. They were wonderful people, but according to the charismatics, such people either had a secret sin or lacked faith, because the charismatics believe that God doesn’t want people to experience any material, spiritual or physical suffering.

Lack of Communion and Sacraments and reliance only on some teachings and dubious mystical practices led to escalating passions, vices, pride and egotism.

It didn’t mean that I was the ideal Christian in our community, while my spiritual leaders were monsters. To put it mildly, none of us were perfect, but naturally not everybody admitted it. Lack of Communion and Sacraments and reliance only on some teachings and dubious mystical practices led to escalating passions, vices, pride and egotism. Internal transformation is hardly possible under these conditions.

My epiphany was gradual but inevitable. During my seventh year in the community, I constantly felt guilty and noticed that many of my actions were the result of my wish to please people rather than my own choice. And no matter how I tried, there was no way I could please everyone.

Humble Masha

During these years, only one Orthodox girl was willing to maintain a relationship with me, even though I was a Protestant. As soon as my Orthodox co-workers learned that I was a member of a sect (for Protestants the word “sect” is derogatory and insulting), people would avoid me like the plague. Everyone but the girl from Tbilisi whom I met online. Her name was Masha Saradzhishvili.

Maria Saradzhishvili Maria Saradzhishvili     

At that time, I worked as a newswoman in a secular newspaper, writing texts for Protestant websites. Masha published her short stories on one of those sites and this led to a heated discussion. We didn’t understand Masha’s short stories as they were beyond our logic. We thought we knew for sure how God acted and what He had in mind. Anyway, we criticized Masha quite harshly. In response, she wrote with utter sincerity, “Forgive me.” I was stunned and defeated. I knew for sure that I wouldn’t have been able to turn the other cheek, although I often quoted this verse from the Scripture. I was so interested in this Orthodox girl that I wrote to her, and we kept in touch through texting and emails. She asked questions, told me about her faith, shared her everyday problems and sent me the stories she wrote. I grew to like them. Once Masha told me that she asked her friends to pray for lost souls, including me. I was offended that the referred to be as a lost soul, but I swallowed it as I didn’t want to lose a friend.

Why should I believe that our Protestant community, founded by who knows who, was a true church?

After a while, when I was preparing the next issue for the magazine where I worked as an executive editor, I came across the hagiography of St. Euphrosyne of Suzdal. When I read about her ascetism, my heart skipped a beat and my eyes swelled with tears. I started thinking. Why should I believe that our Protestant community, founded by who knows who, was a true church? I felt ashamed that I knew practically nothing about Russian Christians who died martyric deaths for their faith.

After a while, out of the blue I got into a conflict with our pastor’s wife whom I considered a friend and a mentor. No matter how I tried, the situation didn’t improve, and everything was mysteriously falling apart. I no longer communicated with my friends, and it felt like my own family had sent me to an orphanage.

What do I believe in? Do I believe in our pastor, people or God? Would I remain a Christian if I ended up on a desert island or in prison?

Overcoming my emotions and lonely tears, I thought, “What do I believe in? Do I believer in our pastor, people or God? Would I remain a Christian if I ended up on a desert island or in prison? I sincerely asked God to reveal Himself to me. After a while, I could no longer attend the community meetings.

Coming Home

Church Wedding Church Wedding During this period, I met a man online. He was a Christian and lived in another city. He had a difficult life. We corresponded for a while, then we met and shortly thereafter we decided to get married. After the wedding, we decided to live in the city where I lived, as it was easier to find a place to stay and a job there. We went to all communities of the city, even Catholic ones. My husband, who was very demanding and knowledgeable in the Protestant theology, wasn’t satisfied with any of the communities that we visited.

Orthodoxy was the last thing we thought of, but then we started watching the programs of Soyuz channel. Surprized and interested, we listened to the priests’ sermons and their answers to parishioners’ questions and watched programs on monasteries and lives of various communities. We were amazed by the beauty and wisdom of Orthodoxy. In our communities they described Orthodoxy in a totally different way, misrepresenting it. It didn’t happen right away, but with time we understood the meaning of venerating icons and relics, the meaning of Sacraments and the significance of veneration of the Mother of God and the saints.

Christianity that had seemed to be a dull one-dimensional sketch suddenly turned into a three-dimensional, multi-colored video.

Christianity that had seemed to be a dull one-dimensional sketch suddenly turned into a three-dimensional, multi-colored video. At some point, it became obvious that we could no longer pretend that we didn’t see the truth. If we wanted to be honest, we had to go to church.

We visited the priest of an Orthodox church and explained our situation. When we walked into the church, we shyly stood at the very entrance, wiping away our tears. The priest let us venerate the cross and told us that re-joining the Orthodox Church is possible through confession. My husband and I started attending the services. After I went to confession, I became a member of the Orthodox Church again and started regularly going to Communion.

Our son was born at Pascha time, and we baptized him in the name of St. Sergius of Radonezh. Soon my husband became a practicing Orthodox Christian too.

With time, my mother-in-law, also a former Protestant, converted to Orthodoxy. With God’s help, we are changing and learning to forgive, to be tolerant, to trust God and to follow Him.

The main thing that changed was the way I looked at myself and other people. As a Protestant, I thought that I was more advanced than others, even though I didn’t admit it; but now I understand that I’m sinful and that others could be much better people that I am. There is no pessimism or depression in such a view. Through Sacraments and fasting, with the help of the Divine Church that is praying for us, we can gradually change and move forward.

Elena Esaulova
Translation by Talyb Samedov


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