Sometimes people have the best of intentions but a very great lack of perspective. This can be true about most of us, but it can be particularly true about zealous people.
Religious zeal can give a person a fairly one-dimensional perspective on the world. I can say this because I am prone to it myself, and have been quite guilty of it in the past. This is why it is so important to temper zeal with discipline, especially the disciplines of silence, repentance, humility, and prayer.
But if you want to know why many people find many Christians so obnoxious and intolerable, simply consider the following:
Believing it is your personal duty to escort as many people as possible into heaven can cause all sorts of unwelcome behaviors. For example, if you only strike up conversations with people in order to
a) invite them to church
b) tell them how good the Lord has been to you
c) get into a rip-roaring theological debate or
d) eventually say the sinners prayer with them
you may continually find yourself being brushed-off and/or avoided. This is because such behavior is obnoxious, or at the very least, awkward. Don’t do it if you want to make friends.
You may say, “Wait a minute, being a Christian isn’t all about making friends.” But I’m here to tell you that it actually is. I mean, really, how effective is evangelism that is devoid of genuine relationship?
There are transactions in this world that do not require friendship, such as going to the store to buy a pack of gum, or getting the oil changed in your car. But salvation is all about relationship, and it can’t be shared as if it is a product or a legal contract.
The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit demonstrate that true life comes from unity in relationship. Christ came to be our brother and friend, to commune with us and, in this way, to bring us to the Father. Evangelism was never meant to be any different. Look at how Christ did it. He started by making twelve close friends and spending all his time with them.
Generally speaking, the Orthodox Christian method of evangelism is simply to live out our lives of faith, to shine the life of Christ, even if only dimly, so that perhaps others will be drawn to Christ as well. In the meantime, our job is to be a friend to everyone, showing the love of Christ in whatever we do, and passing on the blessings we receive from God.
At this point you may start worrying that this method is not effective enough. You may be overwhelmed, as I once was, that you’ve not led enough people to Christ. A good way to remedy this anxiety is to think about the absurdity of taking the smallest amount of credit for the salvation of another person’s soul.
Also, stop thinking about people in terms of ‘saved’ and ‘unsaved.’ That will also bring the obnoxious factor way down. If you can do that you will do well, and you may discover that those around you will find you much more pleasant to be around. They will find it easier to respect your life of faith and may also show genuine interest in it. You will also find yourself enjoying getting to know people without picturing them burning in hell—I know I do!
Of course, pray for everyone you can. Ask for God’s mercy. Love them, but make it your main mission to save your own soul. The person over whom you have the most influence is yourself, after all.
As St. Seraphim of Sarov famously said, “Acquire a peaceful spirit and around you thousands will be saved.”