Thou owest men nothing, yet payest out to them as if in debt to thy creature, and when thou dost cancel debts thou losest nothing thereby.Augustine, The Confessions
There are some things that I feel are out of my league, beyond anything I should mess with. One such thing is writing on “The Confessions”.
Augustine of Hippo (or Saint Augustine) is a pillar of the Christian Church. Born in 345 AD in what is now Algeria, Augustine eventually took on the role of Bishop of Hippo, an important center of the early church in North Africa.
Augustine’s life and ministry were surrounded by other great names in the early church, but none have had the impact for 1,600 years that Augustine has had. His theology and philosophy on God, human nature, and the church are foundational to theology today.
The Confessions isn’t a theology book (exactly…). It’s often seen as secondary to his book, The City Of God. But The Confessions is powerfully personal, because the book is, essentially, his autobiography. More than just Augustine telling his life story, it is his processing his own life from a theological and philosophical perspective: how, and why, did he do what he did, make the choices he did, and go the direction that he went?
WAIT!!!! Don’t give up on it yet!
Augustine was brilliant, incredibly self-reflective, and brutally honest. And his story is so relatable to anything we see and experience today that I think everyone can identify with it.
…I was being gratuitously wanton, having no inducement to evil but the evil itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error — not that for which I erred but the error itself. A depraved soul, falling away from security in thee to destruction in itself, seeking nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself.Augustine, The Confessions
Augustine wasn’t supposed to be a bishop, or even a priest…at least that’s what his dad would have said. He was raised to be an intellectual, to go to school and become someone important (and, more importantly, rich). But, while his dad had big plans for his son, Augustine’s mother had a more simply hope—she wanted her son to follow Jesus. So she prayed that, and spoke that to him, constantly.
But Augustine didn’t grow up a believer. He didn’t become a believer as a teen, or as a young adult. It wasn’t until Augustine was 31 that he became a follower of Christ, having finally been convinced through study and reason and logic, and a mighty work of the Holy Spirit on a very stubborn soul, of something that he had always known but avoided and personally rejected; that Jesus Christ was the true son of God.
In between his childhood and his conversion, Augustine did what people like him do. He searched, he learned, he experimented. He looked for truth, and pleasure, and joy. He studied philosophers, alternative religions, new and different teachings, all trying to figure out what was true and real.
He also lived a lifestyle that his mother would not have approved of. He slept around, he got into trouble, he drank. In other words, he lived like most people live today. He did want he wanted, chasing after pleasure and happiness.
The difference was, he later looked back and asked the question, “why?” Why did he do what he did?
One very famous story from The Confessions highlights a great deal of not only Augustine’s thinking, but human nature in general. One day, as a teen, he and some friends were tearing around town, as teen boys do. They snuck into someones back yard and found a pear tree, and they took all the pears off of the tree and ran away. However, they knew the pears weren’t any good for eating, so they snuck them off and threw them to the hogs.
But again, the interesting part is the “why” that Augustine explores. He did it because he knew it was wrong; he enjoyed the rebellion, the thrill of doing something that he knew could get him in trouble.
..I was roused to a desire for wisdom. And here I was, still postponing the abandonment of this world’s happiness to devote myself to the search. For not just the finding alone, but also the bare search for it, ought to have been preferred above the treasures and kingdoms of this world; better than all bodily pleasures, though they were to be had for the taking. But, wretched youth that I was—supremely wretched even in the very outset of my youth—I had entreated chastity of thee and had prayed, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” For I was afraid lest thou shouldst hear me too soon, and too soon cure me of my disease of lust which I desired to have satisfied rather than extinguished.Augustine, The Confessions
We all went through a phase like that, and many of us still probably can admit that we sometimes do the same thing. But Augustine digs deeper into the human condition and identifies a couple of things. One is that humans have a propensity towards evil; we will do evil just for evil’s sake. We don’t need any motivation beyond the fact that we want to do what is wrong; they knew they didn’t want to eat the pears, they just wanted to steal. Beyond the desire to do evil is evil that is set in our hearts; we are depraved, naturally prone to sin almost constantly. It is set in human nature in general and in each of us individually.
We are all sinners, by nature and by choice, but God’s Word can have an impact on us, just as it did on Augustine. He was never perfect, he still made mistakes, but one day he sat on a bench in a garden and finally gave over his very selfish heart to the God who had been waiting for it.
And that is a story that, I pray, we can all identify with.
What is it that shineth through me and striketh my heart without injury, so that I both shudder and burn? I shudder because I am unlike it; I burn because I am like it. It is Wisdom itself that shineth through me, clearing away my fog, which so readily overwhelms me so that I faint in it, in the darkness and burden of my punishment. For my strength is brought down in neediness, so that I cannot endure even my blessings until thou, O Lord, who hast been gracious to all my iniquities, also healest all my infirmities–for it is thou who “shalt redeem my life from corruption, and crown me with loving-kindness and tender mercy, and shalt satisfy my desire with good things so that my youth shall be renewed like the eagle’s.” For by this hope we are saved, and through patience we await thy promises. Let him that is able hear thee speaking to his inner mind. I will cry out with confidence because of thy own oracle, “How wonderful are thy works, O Lord; in wisdm thou hast made them all.” And this Wisdom is the Beginning, and in that Beginning thou hast made heaven and earth.Augustine, The Confessions
- NOTE: There are many versions and translations of this book, including several that are more modern than the one I read and have quoted from. Shop around. It’s one of the great classics, you should have any trouble finding it.
Or you could read it in the original Latin. Augustine was very good at Latin.