A Christian Surrounded by Non-Believers

Every Christian has people around him who do not believe in Christ. We often have conflicts with them, because the life of an Orthodox Christian is regulated by the Church Typicon one way or another. There are some days when must go to Church services, there are periods of fasting, and so on. What are we supposed to do? We are not always able to immediately make the right decision. This subject is especially relevant now, when the Church recently celebrated St. Thomas Sunday. We have talked with Priest Nikolai Konyukhov, a teacher of the Department of Church Practical and General Humanitarian Subjects of the Sretensky Theological Academy, and cleric of the Holy Trinity Church at Saltykov Bridge in Moscow.

    

Father, could you give us a general rule—in which cases we should ignore the Church Typicon for the sake of love for our neighbor, and in which cases we should stand our ground firmly and not compromise our principles?

—The most important law that the Lord has given us is the commandment of love. In ancient times, the law was the basis of everything, and Judaism is still considered to be the religion of the law. It was by observing the rules that a person was considered to be pious, to honor God and regard Him as his Father. And even breaking the slightest commandment was considered a violation of the entire law. In the New Testament, the Lord says that He gives people the principle of love and the principle of conformity. We must discern what love is and how we should combine love for our relatives and the strictness of the rules. As we know from the Lord, love is sacrifice. When it comes to fundamental dogmatic issues, we try to show consistency, rigor and precision. It is difficult to imagine such a situation when parents ask their children to renounce Christ for their sake—most often it is about some everyday moments.

Many people call it “betrayal” if you come to your grandfather and he treats you to meat dumplings during the fast. My grandfather is ninety-four, he has his own diet, and if I come with my Lenten food he will not be very pleased. He wants to cook something special for his beloved grandson. The first time, I was confused and spoke with my father-confessor about this. There are moments when you can compromise something and not impose your views on another person, but there are also fundamental moments.

If your friends have invited you to a concert at the club on Holy Friday, for the love of your neighbor you can go with them. Sometimes it’s about loving others, and sometimes it’s about loving yourself, and that’s the most important indicator. When you compromise out of self-love, to gratify your pride or to indulge your passions, then this is unacceptable. And when it comes to your neighbors, when your elderly mother asks for your help on Sunday, then go to the service on Saturday. The main rule is that if you act according to the law of love for your neighbor and show love to him, then you understand that you were not created for these rules, but these rules were created for your salvation.

Suppose a wife comes to believe in the Lord and begins to go to church, but her husband and the other family members do not. And she wants to go to church on Sunday, but the family has other plans. In this case should the wife obey her husband, or put the question pointblank and say that she listens to God more than people?

The unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife (1 Cor. 7:14), the Apostle Paul wrote about this. A Christian should be a torch. Our task is to make people’s lives better and enlighten them. The Light of Christ illuminates all (cf. Jn. 1:9), including our loved ones. And the biggest problem is, “when a family member becomes a Christian, all the other family members become martyrs”. Unfortunately, there is some truth in this joke.

There is an interesting rule that I heard from a priest. When a person comes to the faith, he must ask himself the simple question: “What does my family gain from me being a Christian?” We never ask ourselves such a question. We generally have an egoistic system of views and think more about our own benefits. But Christ gives us an absolutely different commandment: If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all (Mk. 9:35).

James Tissot. Christ Teaches the People by the Sea. 1886–1896 James Tissot. Christ Teaches the People by the Sea. 1886–1896     

The wife of someone I know became a Christian, and she was lucky enough to have a good father-confessor. The priest wondered why she was constantly arguing with her husband, and explained that men understand love through respect and obedience. If a wife does not listen to her husband, she does not respect and does not love him. And Christianity helped this woman understand that she should not carry everything on her shoulders, but hand over the reins of the household to her husband. She felt and looked better after that. Her husband even came to the priest and asked what had happened to his wife. He said she would come home from church so gentle and kind. When someone in a family becomes a vegan or goes on a diet, he begins to dictate to his family the rules of what he can eat and what he cannot, and now it is no longer possible to cook the same food for everyone.

It can be even worse when a neophyte converts to Christianity. He will dig down to the bottom: “They listen to the wrong music and talk the wrong way.” And we should get attuned to the fact that after embracing Christianity we all become preachers of the Christian faith. The Apostle Paul appeals to Christians with a cry full of pain: For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles (Rom. 2:24). This applies to every Christian, because each one of us is part of the Church, and outsiders judge the Church by us. We just don’t care about it, and when we swear in line in a store, we don’t think about the fact that we are blaspheming the name of Christ among the gentiles. Religion should draw us towards the light. But we use the commandments as a weapon and justify our weaknesses by our religious beliefs. When Christ talks about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, He also means the misuse of our gifts. Christ gave you a wife to make her happy, but she cries all the time. Or you became a Christian and began denouncing everyone, tormenting them with quotations from the Holy Scriptures.

As for denunciations, there can be a problem when your colleagues at work use foul language. What should we do about it? Should we denounce and rebuke them, or tacitly show indignation and disagreement?

—I grew up in a priest’s family, my father is a priest. It was no secret among our circles in Moscow as well as in the countryside. No one ever swore in our family—it was considered indecent. Plus, my mother has a philological education; she graduated from the Institute of Foreign Languages. I never used foul language either. In the company where we hung out in the 1990s it was exactly the opposite. When I joined them, I didn’t swear, and it was noticeable. I was often younger than the other guys, and so I never told them that I didn’t like swearing. But gradually people began to understand that I did not swear, and in my presence, they even began to apologize if they used obscenities, although I never rebuked them. Later it got to the point where a new guy would join our company, start swearing, and the others would tell him not to use obscene language in my presence. I didn’t do anything to cause that. My secular friends knew that I did not swear, and they also apologized whenever they used foul language in my presence. It seems to me that when a person himself preserves culture and behaves with dignity, it sets a good example. Much depends on how you behave. I could not stand to remain in the presence of vile abuse. After all, when we turn on the TV and hear foul language, we can simply change the channel and not watch it.

    

Sometimes people ask: “I see that my friend doesn’t live properly. How can I tell her about it?”

—There is a great sin that people hardly ever repent of in confession. I am talking about when a person lives someone else’s life. The Lord gives us the greatest gift, and tells each one of us to work our salvation. The saints spoke about this as well. But our thinking is such that we begin to work on our salvation, we realize that it is long and complicated, and we don’t really want to do it anymore. Our consciousness always switches to what is easier. Like water, we tend to flow to where it is freer. We don’t want to solve very difficult tasks. We don’t want difficulties. On the contrary, we tend to seek a comfort zone. We will always be inclined to save someone else, and we will think that they will not be able to cope without our help. But this often has detrimental consequences. During confession I usually show people the cross on which Christ is depicted and say that He is the Savior, and He is the only One Who saves people. Why do we play saviors? St. Anthony the Great says: “Do not suggest anything to anyone as a rule before you yourself fulfil it.” First do something yourself, learn something, and then offer your help. St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov) says, “A pious yet inexperienced adviser can give more harm than help.”

How can this commandment be fulfilled by someone who is an extrovert by nature? It seems to me that we often perceive this commandment as kind of going back into our shells and an attempt to practice ascetic life, but not to be socially active. Is it possible to be active by fulfilling this commandment?

—It by no means implies that you should be unsociable or withdraw into your shell. It can be perceived by people as disdain, as if a person is not interested in what is happening to others at all. A socially active person communicates, talks about himself, about his life, about his ups and downs, listens to other people and shows interest in their lives. But it’s another matter when a person teaches. Thus, he goes on the warpath. He has not attained salvation and has not acquired any virtue yet, but he is already determined to change and break other people. We often use certain things to our own benefit. We even use good quotes and correct instructions to our advantage. Suppose a husband says, The wife see that she reverence her husband (Eph. 5:33), and starts being rude to her and shouting at her. A person can justify his base passions with sublime quotations from the Holy Scriptures. To prevent this, I often use the following brilliant quotation from the Holy Hierarch Gregory the Theologian and even repeat it for myself: “It’s good to teach, but it’s much safer to learn.” It seems to me that this phrase hits the nail on the head. Before you tell people anything, you need to learn thoroughly yourself. I have been a priest for ten years now and I remember that when I was a very young priest, I so wanted to teach people, explain something to them, tell them something. But the older I get as a priest, the less I try to give advice. Now I do it only if a person asks persistently, and I try to do it very carefully, because what works for me may simply not suit another person. Of course, I can cite something from the Holy Scriptures or Church Tradition. I am surprised how delicately the Optina elders gave advice.

    

We should be socially active, communicate with everyone and be friendly to people, but we should be very cautious with “teaching”. There are two concepts: vertical and horizontal. If you are vertical, like a teacher with his students, you can evaluate their work. You can judge whether someone has written a good or bad work. It’s not your student who is bad, but his work. Likewise, A boss can evaluate the work of his subordinate, not the subordinate himself. And when we are horizontal, we try not to evaluate each other. If a person has not made you his teacher and mentor, why do you have the audacity to teach him? When you are asked for advice, then you can say something carefully and delicately. You will advise something, and the person will fall into an even more disastrous state. It is indeed safer to learn than to teach.

Thank you, Father. But what if your colleagues speak ill of the Patriarch, blaspheming the Church and its hierarchy? How should we react?

—Someone who speaks ill of the Patriarch does so because he has mental anguish—he does not go to church and finds an excuse for himself. From my experience, I can say that provocative questions can be the beginning of a very serious dialogue about faith. People feel when others speak haughtily with them. The Apostle Paul says that there should be friendliness in communication. He always found kind words to say.

It often comes to pass that parents come to the faith, but their children have already grown up and it is news to them that their parents suddenly begin to attend church. How should we bring our children to church? Clearly, we must show Christian love in the family, but what about Church discipline for which our children are obviously not ready yet?

—You should become a church person yourself first. As long as I am not well taught myself, I will not teach others. It is not enough to read one book and come to church once. We should try to understand very well what confession and Communion is. Each one of us has gone through the convert stage and radical period. And when a person calms down a little, he can communicate with his child calmly, without hurting him. I have four children, and I also commit such a sin—they get a lot of criticism. And when our conversion to the faith, our Christianity becomes yet another reason for criticism, it is quite difficult. Children are required to be disciplined at school, in clubs, and now they also have to get up early to go to church on Sundays. It becomes another burden. From my pastoral experience, I know how painful it is for parents themselves. They bring their child to church and tell him to stand still. My daughter once stood at the service, watched and then asked me, “Daddy, I didn’t understand what was going on. First you came out and said something, then Fr. Andrei, and then Fr. Gregory had just a little bit to say, and then he left too.” This is how my child saw it from the outside, so we ourselves should first become Church people and understand well what goes on in church, so that we can explain it to our children. And going to church must be an occasion for joy.

My mother explained to us from our childhood what went on in church, but did not demand much at a certain stage. It is hard to explain sublime spiritual truths to people. Christ came to us in the world, became one of us out of very great love, so He conveyed information to us in very simple images. The Heavenly Kingdom is a place of the fullness of God’s grace. It will be a Kingdom where Christ will be the King, it will be jubilation. We had a sense of joy in church in our childhood. We didn’t go to church to be rewarded with ice cream. Everyone just felt joy.

How should I respond to criticism and labels? Should I just stand up and leave, or answer?

—Criticism can be justified and unjustified. Sometimes we can take criticism as an answer to our prayer to God. Sometimes criticism, especially from our relatives, is God’s answer to our prayer request: We asked for humility and now have a chance to show it. And sometimes people just don’t like something. All people are selfish in many ways; we Christians make efforts not to be selfish, but we don’t always succeed. When a person criticizes someone else, he does it for his own benefit, so that the other person can become more “comfortable” for him. And here you should discern whether it is justified or not. If you are wrong, you need to admit your mistake. There is nothing stronger in man than the ability to admit his mistakes.

Valentin Perov. Sermon in a Village, 1861 Valentin Perov. Sermon in a Village, 1861     

And it happens that people impudently violate your boundaries because they want you to be “comfortable” for them. You must be able to defend your boundaries. When the Lord was slapped, He did not turn the other cheek, but asked: Why smitest thou me? (Jn. 18:23). He began to defend His boundaries—He did not remain silent. It is a misconception that Christians must be silent. We cannot tolerate humiliations like the early martyrs. We can keep quiet and be patient, but this is called “deferred revenge”. It is necessary to be able to speak, to respond and say, “I’m sorry, but it is unpleasant for me to listen to these words.” I at first always gave my wife roses, because I in fact, liked them. Then she confessed that she didn’t like roses, she loved alstroemeria (Peruvian lilies). I had acted logically, buying what I liked. Men need this: Women should say everything to them, and not keep silent and then later tell them how they feel. And they should say it not in the form of a rebuke, but simply expressing their true likes and dislikes. It’s the same with colleagues—you should express your opinion and say that it is not very pleasant for you to hear such words about the Patriarch, or it is unpleasant to hear obscene language. But we keep silent, take offense, and then come to the priest for confession. We should learn how to express our feelings in words correctly.

Sergei Komarov
spoke with Priest Nikolai Konyukhov
Translation by Dmitry Lapa

Sretensky Monastery

5/30/2024

Comments
Gabriel Charczuk5/31/2024 5:21 am
Besides the great exageration of going out to drink with friends on Holy Friday, great interview.
David5/31/2024 3:06 am
I did wince at the "Club" example. A point or example often sounds good in your head, but when you say it and it gets put to paper, it can be all wrong. I think that shouldn't be a distraction from the overall excellent and pastoral point he is making. It is tempting, especially in our dark times, to take refuge in being "correct." Blessed Seraphim of Platina wrote against "correctness disease." Priests I love very much have said things I strongly disagree with, but that doesn't lessen my love for them. May God save us from the spirit of division that threatens us all.
Christian5/30/2024 3:47 pm
"If your friends have invited you to a concert at the club on Holy Friday, for the love of your neighbor you can go with them." What kind of heretical teaching is this? Do these theological academies produce anything besides destructive teaching?
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