Why Small Things Matter

A reader’s comment on an old posting of mine (from 2007) took me back to read the same. It seemed worth re-posting. Some things bear repeating – again and again, as they say.

Perhaps one of the greatest disservices done to Christians by the spate of “Left Behind” novels and the like, and the romanticism that is inherent in the drama depicted – is that it makes the true struggle undergone by Christians seem trivial by comparison. When the small actions, little choices for kindness, forgiveness, joy, comfort – the whole panoply of our daily struggle – are minimized, the heroism of our struggle and its importance can be reduced to insignificance.

When this is coupled with a reduced doctrine of the Atonement, in which a simple act of intellectual acceptance, a “choice for Jesus,” acquires a blood payment for sin in a once-for-all momentary encounter (I’m doing my best to describe the popular conception of the Substitutionary Atonement Theory), Christianity itself becomes minimized. One decision and you’re done. Little wonder that many have traded-in Christian ascesis for political action – at least the latter seems real to them.

I have described the Substitutionary Atonement as a “reduced” doctrine because it uses only one sacrificial image to describe Christ’s work on the Cross. This single image does not begin to do justice to the many images of sacrifice given in the Scriptures, all of which are fullfilled by Christ’s death on the Cross. Christ’s sacrifice is not one thing – but all things. If its fullness makes it difficult for somebody’s systematic theology – so be it.

The reduction of Christianity to a virtual land of fantasy has granted undue power to our present age in the guise of the secular. There is, in fact, no such thing as secular – it is a modern fiction – one which Christians should not empower by granting it recognition. God is excluded from nothing whatsoever, nor does He ask for our permission in order to be present. We may do unspeakable things in His presence – but that does not render Him absent. It renders to us hardened hearts but can make no change in the changeless God.

The sooner Christians awaken to the marketing scheme of secularizing dogma-merchants, the sooner they can begin their search for the God whom they have “left behind.” He is truly near us, even on our lips and in our mouths. We should renounce the false romanticism of modern dispensationalism and the hucksters of false messianic prophecies. All of these things are removing the truth of our faith from the smallest of things before us, and placing them on the false stage of “history.”

Small things matter for it is there that we will meet Christ – and there alone. Every moment of our life, even when it is later dramatized for narrative effect, is still quite a small thing. Either we will see and embrace Christ in these moments of our existence, or we will worship a false Christ manufactured by human imagination and fantasy. For the Christian, God is here or He is nowhere at all.

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24 Responses to “Why Small Things Matter”

  1. Mrs. Mutton Says:

    I missed this the first time around. Glad you reposted it.

  2. Maria Says:

    Praying for the hucksters blinded by pernicious heresies.

  3. Photini Blackburn Says:

    Bless, Father. This is an excellent post, but it brings up something that I have been struggling with since I became Orthodox almost seven years ago. You mentioned “political action,” and it seems to me that while Christianity is not merely social work and political action (talk about reduction if we make it that), at the same time, our Lord tells us to do certain things. I do not think life in Christ can be reduced to private “charity.” There are issues of justice. In another post of yours, you said we do not build the Kingdom. This is true, but I think the Anglican NT Wright is correct that we build FOR the Kingdom. He, like you, rejects a universe where God is “upstairs” somewhere, anywhere but here. It seems to me that a lot of my brothers and sisters in the Church, while rightly rejecting the reduction of the Faith to social action, go in the opposite direction (almost as a knee-jerk response?) and end up accepting the status quo without question, justifying unjust structures and convincing themselves that all they have to do is work on their own salvation. When I read the Gospels, Jesus seems to put a lot of emphasis on what we do. When John’s disciples ask if Jesus is the Messiah, he sends them back to the Baptist with a list of his actions. I think also of “Why do you call me Lord and do not do what I say”? I do not mean to sound condemning-I have plenty of sins to concentrate on. I am troubled by a certain stream of what I see as an “over-privatizing” of the faith. Can you speak to this? Christ is Risen!

  4. Darlene Says:

    There is a view among many of the pre-trib rapture dispensationalists that we need to hurry up and get people saved (or similar language). So the focus is on urging people to “make a decision for Christ.” But, as an Orthodox Christian, I must make a “decision for Christ” every moment of the day.

    Having been raised in an atheist/agnostic home, the existence of God and coming to a realization of such a truth was very dramatic for me. In His mercy, Christ revealed Himself to me in a very REAL way when I prayed what is typically called “The Sinner’s Prayer.” God works with us humans with all our foibles and weaknesses – even the deficiencies within various Christian denominations.

    However, after having been within the Protestant Evangelical camp for a few decades, I came to see that many who said “The Sinner’s Prayer” went right back to the same life style they had known before the prayer. And, they wanted little to nothing to do with church or worship. Has God worked through such means to bring people to His Son? I would say yes. After all, that was the beginning of my walk with Christ. For me, it was a powerful, life-changing encounter. However, I would say that God was merciful in spite of the means used to bring me to Him.

    The problem with those who promote “making a choice for Jesus,” is that they make that the end all and be all of everything. That is the apex of their belief system. So it is that many have the mind set that if they have made this choice at some point in their life, they are definitely going to Heaven. Such a viewpoint makes the day-to-day choices that one makes of little importance. This kind of Christianity stresses going to Heaven as primary to the minimizing and in some cases exclusion of how our daily actions and choices can effect actually arriving at such a destination. Sin then is of little importance because in such a paradigm, no sin can keep one from being saved and going to Heaven. Once they’ve said the prayer, nothing can deter that destination in their minds.

    This is a most destructive and deceptive model that has been sold to many. Not to mention that all that happens within the space of time after the prayer until death is in all intents and purposes, insignificant to God. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    Jesus cannot be fooled. We are accountable to Him for what we do, the way we treat our spouses, our family, our neighbors. We are accountable for what we did with our time, talent, and treaure. What our Lord wants from each of us is obedience and faithfulness.

    May God grant us to live with the awareness that He is present at every moment and that we are to be submissive to Him at all times.

  5. fatherstephen Says:

    Orthodox Christians (all Christians) are commanded by Christ to feed the poor, etc., and social action is a necessary part of the Christian life. That is not necessarily the same thing as political action. I founded the first food bank in South Carolina when I was an Anglican deacon (just out of seminary). It now moves millions of pounds of food a year for the poor. I had to engage politicians – I testified before the state legislature to get a bill passed that we needed, but I was not identifiable by party. But it made a huge difference. I do not mean to imply no action. But there are some who today engage in political action as though it is the main hope of Christians. “Put not your trust in princes nor in sons of men…”

  6. Photini Blackburn Says:

    Thank you for your response. Certainly our hope is in Christ.

  7. Considering Ravens Says:

    It is good to hear the difference between social action and political action explained. Thank you for this article and thanks, fellow, readers, for the articulate comments. I really appreciate this article, Father Stephen thank you!

  8. Micah Says:

    Photini,

    Met KALLISTOS tells us that it is the Church (the icon of the Holy Trinity) that is infallible “but there is no such thing as personal infallibility”.
    (The Orthodox Church, 1997, p. 249)

    Thus do I find myself struggling against a tide that seeks to “privatize” the divine gift, to live a life where Christ’s sacrifice is not yet “all things” to all. This of course would amount to a practical denial of the Parousia (cf. Ephesians 4:10).

    The Church has inner Traditions that cannot be adequately expressed except through worship — that is to say in the union of heaven and earth in Christ who fillest all things.

  9. Jerry Cornelius Says:

    “The sooner Christians awaken to the marketing scheme of secularizing dogma-merchants, the sooner they can begin their search for the God whom they have “left behind.” -Father Stephen Freeman

    Father Stephen

    Given that the ‘viral nature’ of the Social Ideology of Secularisation induces a cultural state of ‘Sleep-Walking’ or ‘Fog-Walking’, how does the Church intend to break this powerful delusion and wake everyone up from this ‘lemming-mania’ – what have you got up your metaphysical sleeve this time, when you are called to play your hand and break the grip of this ‘spell’ of indifference, indecison and indeterminacy as the gap between a simple yes and no ever widens, as the Secuar[ists] declare[s] that every decision based on [blind] faith alone is illusory?

    Ephesians 5:14 for it is light that makes everything visible. This is why it is said: “Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

    2 Thessalonians 2:10,11 [The secularist] will use everything that God disapproves of to deceive those who are dying, those who refused to love the truth that would save them. That’s why God assigns them to a powerful delusion so that they will believe a lie.

    1 Kings 18:21 Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” But the people said nothing…..

    So, what do you say?

  10. Alex Says:

    Well said Father Stephen.

    Today, Christian teachings and values are being more and more marginalized and God is being driven to the outskirts of human existence. If the present trend continues, the US could become more like some parts of the Europe.

    I wish more Bishops and experienced clergy would speak out more about the dangers of secularism.

  11. Karen Says:

    Dear Father, bless! This awareness of the nearness and Presence of God in all, including especially the small, things is perhaps one of the biggest draws to Orthodoxy for a western Christian disillusioned by the secularizing mindset you describe and an aspect of which Darlene enlarges upon in her comment above. I know it has been for me.

    With respect to Photini’s observations and your reply, it seems to me that those Christians who rise to positions of political and/or spiritual influence on a wider public scale are those who just got involved for conscience sake and as a way to serve God on a very local and small level to begin with (much like your experience), but as their experience grew, so did their sphere of influence because their skills and wisdom were recognized and fit a real need. “He who is faithful in little, is faithful also in much.” Joseph in the OT is one of the more striking Biblical examples of this dynamic. I also think sometimes we may not be aware how involved those faithful around us are in serving, because they do it without much fanfare and worldly recognition. I’m relatively new to my parish. It is larger as Orthodox parishes go, and we are in a sizable community, but I recently learned one of our parish members serves on the City Council and another is the Assistant Superintendent of our public school district (this during a time of great budgetary difficulty and upheaval where our relatively new Superintendent recently resigned, and two other men in this position in other school districts in our very financially troubled State have recently committed suicide!). May God help us all to be more aware of and faithful in those seemingly small opportunities around us to minister to Christ in our brethren. May we be faithful in praying for all Christians in places of influence–the pressures (and opportunities) are enormous.

  12. Doug C. Says:

    Father Stephen,

    Thank you for re-posting this. As some one who has just left an evangelical church(Restoration Movement Church) I appreciate what you said. I have been disolusioned for a long time with the ever increasing urge to conform to the secular world. Indeed, according to my perception, Protestant/Evangelical Christianty is denying God’s presence in almost every sphere. According to the elders at the church I used to attend; the Eucharist is merely a symbol, Baptism is only an act of obedience, the church is not really the visible/real body of Christ, and we “believers” are saved in that one moment in time when we “ask Him into our hearts.”
    I was so disolusioned over the last few years that I became one of those politically active people in order to feel fullfilled. When Mr. Obama became our President, I was very angry and upset. I began to question God even. How could He do this? How could He allow this evil(my perception at the time) man to sit in authority over us the “chosen nation?”
    Then about one month after the election I picked up a copy of “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.” I read it in one sitting; I could not put it down. This was the Christianity I had longed for my whole life. I had read many other books, many which are common to the convert experience, but for some reason it was the Desert Father’s wisdom which guided me into a better understanding of true Christianity. They showed me that God was indeed in the small things. They showed me that it does indeed matter that we place God in front of ourselves and see Him in everything.
    Now almost two years later we(my family and I) have begun attending a small Orthodox Mission parish in our local area as inquirers. The depth and breadth of Orthodoxy is amazing. God is indeed everywhere and in every thing. It is strange to me to know so little after learning so much. My political leanings no longer rule my life as it does for so many others in the evangelical world. There is a peace which suprasses all understanding.(mine anyways!) It is enough for me to concern myself with the spiritual life, and the spiritual life of my family. God is in control of the world and where it goes or doesn’t go.
    As we grow in our faith, we will as a family become more involved in charitable work and certain social causes. Yet we are painfully aware of the need for proper direction and prioritization in our lives. We will approach these things with a certain amount of trepidation and lots of prayer. This way we will, by God’s grace, avoid making idols out of them.

  13. Darlene Says:

    Doug,

    I understand your plight. May you and your family find peace, rest, and shade within the Orthodox faith. And do not become discouraged should you become aware of weaknesses within the Church. Rather, seek Christ and His Life, and in so doing, build others up in their most holy faith.

    May Christ our God be with you and your family on the journey toward Orthodoxy!

  14. fatherstephen Says:

    Doug,
    What a wonderful story! The Desert Fathers have been a constant companion (reading wise) since I was in college – an anchor that pulled me back from insane directions any number of times. May they pray for us all! I will remember you and your family in prayer. May God keep you!

  15. fatherstephen Says:

    Jerry,
    We don’t have to solve the larger problem – God is in charge of history and its outcome. If you will, it’s quite secular to want to have a plan (sorry). Instead, the proper response is to be transformed by living the life of God and being light in the world. I am only one – but one life can change many hundreds. It is God who will save – thus it is God that we need. God is the plan.

  16. Barbara Says:

    St. Isaac of Syria said to love stillness more than feeding the hungry or helping the poor. This is not to say, that the latter things are not important. It is to say that all things we do are qualified by the purity or lack of purity in our hearts. Even the good we do can become tainted with hearts that are self-motivated or prideful or focused on loving in order to save rather than loving as the most important content of the gospel necessary to share.

    Photini, thank you for your comments. I think this is an issue that is particularly difficult one for protestant converts like me and one we need to keep talking about. I am often challenged by my protestant friends on this issue because they view a focus on the Kingdom of Heaven within as passive or privatized. It is sometimes difficult to give up the visible difference making that is possible and quantifiable when you focus on bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. I love the story Matryona’s House by Solzhenitsyn as a reminder of the possibility that one righteous person can save the world and never even know it. However, I also still need to talk to my spiritual father often about what actions I should take when I feel that urge to make a difference. There is great freedom in obedience and I am grateful for his discernment.

  17. fatherstephen Says:

    Barbara,
    Your comments reminded me that the source of all evil in the world is, ultimately or at least largely, found in the human heart. If we do not allow ourselves to be changed there will be no social action that is not also accompanied by social destruction. This, I think, is fundamental to the gospel.

  18. Doug C. Says:

    Thank you Father Stephen and Darlene for your kind words. Your prayers and the prayers of the Saints are coveted by my family and me.

    I am most thankful for your blog and others which have helped us along the way, and will continue to help us in our journey. We have been most gratetful for your insight, and gifted writing.

    May the Lord bless you and keep you.

  19. Considering Ravens Says:

    This may be quite an ignorant question, but where can I find the writings of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers, if there are any)?

  20. fatherstephen Says:

    Ravens,
    This link will take you to a good volume, Helen Waddell’s translation is a good collection.

  21. Karen Says:

    Doug, thanks for sharing that wonderful story! On my journey to Orthodoxy from Evangelicalism, I eventually picked up a compilation of the sayings of the Desert Fathers by Benedicta Ward from my local library. It was a “eureka!” experience–finally, I was reading some Christians who were speaking the same language by which God had been so long speaking to my heart. It has been so wonderful to find that the spirituality of the Desert Fathers is at the heart of the Orthodox Church.

    Thank you also, Father, for the recommendation of the translation by Helen Waddell.

  22. Doug C. Says:

    Karen, thanks for your coment. It is amazing to me that so many of us on our journey find many of the same things to guide us. It is so comforting to know that the Orthodox Church has remained the constant through out the centuries. Regardless of the people involved The Church has remained constant and true. Thus the spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers is at the core of the church. The Orthodox Church is a solid rock.
    The book I have on the Desert Fathers is: “Eternal Wisdom from the Desert”, Edited and Mildly Modernized by Henry L. Carrigan. Published by Paraclete Press. Their web address is ParacletePress.com.
    I think I picked mine up at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary when I visited there several years ago. Not sure.

  23. Considering Ravens Says:

    Wonderful! I will check out both–thank you!

  24. George Says:

    This struck such a deep chord with me:

    “The reduction of Christianity to a virtual land of fantasy has granted undue power to our present age in the guise of the secular. There is, in fact, no such thing as secular – it is a modern fiction – one which Christians should not empower by granting it recognition. God is excluded from nothing whatsoever, nor does He ask for our permission in order to be present. We may do unspeakable things in His presence – but that does not render Him absent. It renders to us hardened hearts but can make no change in the changeless God.”

    It was one of those “WOW” statements that you read. It has sunk down deep in, and resonates with my own experiences with my Evangelical Non Denom past.

    I thank you Father for posting this (again). It was a blessing to me tonight! I am still on my journey to Orthodoxy, but am renewed so often by the depth and beauty and clarity that so many others have spoken of even in this com box.

    My thanks to all of you who posted about your own journeys to the Ancient Faith. I am strengthened by your words and encouraged to continue on to the fullness of the Christian Faith. May Christ truly bless you as you continue to seek Him in all you do, and may He be glorified in your lives.

    Blessings to all of you in the Love of Christ,
    -g-

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