From 33 to 313 AD, confessing to be a Christian was somewhere between a ticket for ridicule and a death sentence. Even when heretics like Valens and Julian the Apostate ruled the Roman Empire, true believers gladly went to their martyrdom rather than go along with what was safe. St. Nikolai Velimirovich retells the story of a mother who took her child with her to an illegal worship service. The local official asked why she would do such a thing. “I want my child to become worthy of martyrdom as well as myself” (Prologue of Orhid: Refection August 25th). In safer times, monks and nuns fled the population centers to live in a wilderness alone, or with like minded believers who sought solitude in their fight against their passions.
Despite the horrors of persecution and torture, despite the rigorous disciplines of asceticism, people believed in the Gospel. Some onlookers were impressed by the courage and conviction of these early Christians. Others embraced the hope of the Lord’s kingdom in the midst of Roman repression. With the rise of Christianity as an official religion, some believers wanted to avoid the spiritual complacency that they saw around them. Our Lord calls disciples to a life of self denial and struggle to follow him (Matthew 16:4) as He was the prototype of humility, death, and victory (Philippians 2:1-13).
Perhaps one reason why people are not attracted to and leaving the Christian faith is they don’t see the same conviction in us. We take our focus off of the eternal kingdom of God and take sides with whatever conservative or liberal cause appeals to our ethnic, economic, or national interest. Indeed, we often blur the line between His kingdom and this earthly one where we live. Christians are going to take one side or the other on the issues of today. But, doing so without compassion and love for those who oppose our point of view makes us no different than anyone else. We embrace the same bitter attitudes and sinful actions as the world and try to use the Cross as an excuse. We could be the reason why people leave and refuse to come to Christ (Romans 2:24).
As we evangelize and share our faith, let’s die to the world for the sake of the world to come. Most likely, we don’t have to do this physically. Not all of us will become monks and nuns. But, we can all put to death some things in our worldly life so that we can grow spiritually. As with many things (like dietary changes and exercise), we may not need to make drastic changes to notice a difference. Seek God’s guidance in prayer and speak with your priest or spiritual guide.