“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” ~ Psalm 51:5
Great art thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised. Great is thy power, and thy wisdom is infinite. And man wants to praise you, man who is only a small portion of what you have created and who goes about carrying with him his own mortality, the evidence of his own sin and evidence that Thou resistest the proud. Yet still man, this small portion of creation wants to praise you. You stimulate him to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find peace in you.
So Augustine begins his Confessions, highlighting in his first paragraph three of the great themes he will explore in its pages.
God is powerful, wise and infinite, sovereign over all he has created. Before his conversion, Augustine would spend nearly ten years in a cult called Manichaeism which taught dualism – that good and evil were two equal forces in the universe, and always at war. And so the Manichaean “God” was limited in power and bound by space. Augustine’s frequent pauses throughout the book to applaud God for his limitless greatness more than demonstrates his full recovery from such thinking.
A human apart from God is fragile, filled with sin from the day of his or her birth, doomed to die and deserving of judgment. In spite of this, God has instilled inside the human soul a need and longing for himself. Perhaps you’ve heard a sermon where the preacher talked about a “God-shaped hole” inside of us that only he can fill. Augustine is the first to suggest the concept with his famous line, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find peace in you.”
The utter inability of a sinful human to return to God through reason or effort or goodness is powerfully stated by Augustine. Only through God’s grace and enabling power can a lost soul come home again. “You stimulate him to take pleasure in praising you.” A few lines later Augustine writes, “My faith prays to you, Lord, this faith which you gave me…” Even the very act of believing is a gift from God. It is this same power of divine love which will sever the chains binding Augustine to his addiction to lust and ambition.
Having established this baseline of his theology, Augustine begins to share his story.
I was welcomed then with the comfort of woman’s milk. But neither my mother nor my nurses filled their own breasts with milk; it was you who, through them, gave me the food of my infancy…Their feelings were so ordered that they wanted to give me something of that abundance which they received from you. For the good that I got from them was good for them – not that this good came to me from them, but rather it came to me by means of them. Since in truth all good things, God, come from you, and from my God is all my health. (1:6)
Augustine begins his story by reaching past his memory to the time his mother nursed him. In this simple act, he finds evidence of God’s care for him, by creating first the need for milk within him, then supplying that need through his mother, whose feelings God even ordered that she would gladly give to her son. (Poor fool Augustine didn’t know any better than to attribute to God instincts that the wise among us today know are the product of random, unguided evolution.)
This idea – of thanking God as the source of all the good things we enjoy on earth – will become a grand motif in his thought later in Confessions as he wrestles with the foolish impulse of the sinful heart to look to the gift for its ultimate happiness rather than the Giver. (Hint: the feeder stream of porn addiction flows from this spring. Hold that thought for a few days.)
It doesn’t take long for us to find evidence of sin at work in our hearts. Even as infants, sin’s power is visible in us.
Alas for man’s sin. So says man and you pity him, for you made him, but you did not make sin in him…Even in my infancy I was doing something that deserved blame…It is clear indeed, that infants are harmless because of physical weakness, not because of any innocence of mind. I myself have seen and known a baby who was envious. It could not yet speak, but it turned pale and looked bitterly at another baby sharing its milk.” (1:7)
Anyone who has watched toddler clips from Funniest Home Videos knows that Augustine is spot-on. In his writings, he will fully develop the Christian doctrine of “original sin” – that we are born with sin infecting every layer of our being – as no writer before him. Our sin becomes even more obvious as we grow into childhood. He next writes of his time as a young student in school, where he observes that his misbehavior on the playground was just a smaller echo of the sinful pride that rules the hearts of his teachers.
I was then sent to school to become learned, though I, poor boy, had no idea of what was the use of learning…What we liked to do was to play, and for this we were punished by those who were themselves behaving in just the same way. But the amusements of older people are called “business” and when children indulge in their own amusements, these older people punish them for it…If he was defeated on some trifling point of argument by another schoolmaster, he was far more bitter and more tortured by envy than I was if I was defeated in a game of ball by one of my play fellows. (1:9)
But sin’s reach, as far as his schooling is concerned, stretched even further. Not only did it infect pupil and professor alike, but the entire educational culture was corrupted by it. “But how one must condemn the river of human custom! Who can stand firm against it? When will it ever dry up?” he wrote. In his studies he was compelled to regurgitate the fables of the Greek and Roman gods to satisfy the “Common Core-esque” demands of the curriculum.
“You I did not love. Against you I committed fornication,” he writes, referring not yet to his sexual unfaithfulness but to his boyhood spiritual unfaithfulness. “And in my fornication I heard all around me the words, ‘Well done! Well done!’…I read of Jupiter thundering at one moment and committing adultery the next.”
The problem as Augustine saw it looking back at his schooling was that the pagan writers in their fictions merely gave ‘human qualities to the gods’, when the real aim of proper education should be to give ‘divine qualities to men’. (1:16) The only thing that mattered though to the adults around him was that he “passed the test” (my words, not Augustine’s), not that he became a better human being.
A man who is trying to win a reputation as a good speaker will, in front of a human judge and surrounded by a crowd of human beings, attack his opponent with the utmost fury and hatred, and he will take great care to see that by some slip of the tongue he does not mispronounce the word ‘human’; but he will not be concerned as to whether his rage and fury may have the effect of utterly destroying a real human being. (1:16,18)
Augustine as a boy though could see none of this. He played the game given to him with great proficiency and excelled in his studies, especially in the discipline of rhetoric (using speech and writing to persuade others), which was highly prized in that age. His lower-middle-class parents – seeing an opportunity for him to punch his ticket out – sacrificed to send him to Carthage at the age of 16 to continue his training. “Many citizens much richer than my father did no such a thing for their children,” Augustine writes, but his praise for his parents stops there.
And yet this father of mine was not at all interested in how I was growing up in relation to you, or how chaste I was. The only idea was that I should become ‘cultured’, though this ‘culture’ really meant a lack of cultivation from you, God. (2:3)
Part of the problem, as Augustine looks back, is that his father did what most parents seem to do in every age – he left the training of his child to others. During a break from his studies, Augustine is with his father at the baths, who observes that his son is ‘growing toward manhood’. But rather than take his son underwing to prepare him for sexual adulthood, he merely boasted to his wife that grandchildren would soon be on the way.
Monica did slightly better. She pulled her son aside and warned him “not to commit fornication and especially not to commit adultery with another man’s wife”, fearing more for her son’s safety than his purity. Still, it was something, and later on, Augustine confesses to God, “Though I did not know it, these warnings came from you…you were not silent; you spoke to me through her, and in despising her I was despising you.”
But Augustine, looking back as a 45-year-old bishop, wishes his parents had given him far more guidance during this time. His mother’s counsel was good, but insufficient. Rather than speak to her son of sex’s place within the bounds of marriage, she actually discouraged her son from thinking of marriage right then.
She feared that a wife would be a handicap to me in my hopes for the future, and these hopes were not those which my mother had of a future life in you; they were merely hopes that I might attain proficiency in literature. In these hopes both of my parents indulged too much. (2:3)
Monica and her husband were like most parents – wanting success and happiness for their children. But if we make our children’s moral and spiritual training play second fiddle to their soccer games and college prep and having the best clothes and toys, we are setting them up for ultimate failure in life by turning them away from the very essence of life – the knowledge and love of God.
What Augustine especially needed at this time was a caring, spiritual adult to guide him through the changes his burgeoning sexuality was unleashing inside of him. As I look back at the radio silence I received from my parents when the circus of puberty came to town, his words touch an bruise in my own memory.
How I wish that there had been someone at that time to put a measure on my disorder and to turn to good use the fleeting beauties of these new temptations and to put limits to their delights. Then the waves of my youth might at last have spent themselves on the shore of marriage. (2:2)
One of my hopes in writing this book is to encourage the launching of hundreds of “holy conversations” between husbands and wives, parents and children, even church leaders and parishioners about God’s good and holy gift of sex. The more talking, the better. Leaving it to the professionals or trusting your school’s curriculum or letting your child ‘just figure it out’ is madness. Augustine would know.
Where was I, and how far was I banished from the delights of your house in that sixteenth year of my flesh when the madness of lust…held complete sway over me and to this madness I surrendered myself entirely! And those about me took no care to save me from falling by getting me married. Their one aim was that I should learn how to make a good speech and become an orator capable of swaying his audience. (2:2)
Left to himself, Augustine’s moral world was about to come crashing down around him.
What ideas in this reading did you find helpful or challenging?
As you think back to your childhood, how would you complete the sentence, “How I wish that…”?
How was sex talked about in your family of origin? What things were you taught?
With whom do you need to begin having “holy conversations” about sex?
Prayer and Worship
“Father, I thank you for…”
“Father, please help me with…”
“Father, please be with…”
“In the name of Jesus, who died for my sins, who rose from the dead and who is with me now through the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Today’s Worship Suggestion: “This Is My Father’s World” (Maltbie D. Babcock)
This Week’s Memory Verse
“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” ~ 1 Corinthians 10:13