“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” ~ Romans 7:24-25
One day Augustine was shuffling along the streets of Milan, dragging his sex addiction behind him, and completely wretched. He came across an intoxicated beggar chuckling to himself, and thought to himself, “It seemed to me that the goal of [life] was simply to reach a state of happiness that was free from care. The beggar had reached this state before us and we, perhaps, might never reach it at all. (6:6)
Of course Augustine realized that the drunk’s alcohol was just a sedative, a mirage that would disappear with the morning sun of sobriety. But he was no different. Everything he was using to look for happiness – his career, money, and especially his craving for sex – was just as much as empty illusion. However, there was one significant difference between Augustine and the beggar – at last he was seeing the truth of his condition, and pushing back. (For some of you reading this, it’s time for you to push back, wouldn’t you agree?)
All the spiritual disciplines and training ideas we’ve discussed in this book became part of his regimen.
- He began earnestly reading the Bible, especially drinking deep from the letters of Paul. “I most greedily seized upon the venerable writings of your Spirit and in particular the works of the apostle Paul.”
- He anchored himself to public worship. “I went often to your church, whenever I had time to spare from all the business under the weight of which I was groaning.”
- He prayed and listened to God. He practiced self-examination. “With you to guide me, I entered into the innermost part of myself, and I was able to do this because you are my helper…I trembled in love and in dread, and I found that I was far distant from you, in a region of total unlikeness.”
- And he tried to exercise his will by saying “No” and pushing back at his sin, even though he quickly failed. “I knew with certainty that it was to you that I must cling, but I knew too that I was not yet capable of doing so. In my weakness I felt myself falling back and returning again to my habitual ways, carrying nothing with me except a loving memory of it and a longing for something which may be described as a kind of food of which I had perceived the fragrance but which I was not yet able to eat. (7:17)
Book 8 of Confessions is the story of Augustine’s conversion to Christ and liberation from his sin-bondage. I encourage you to read it fully for yourself. Though my own deliverance wasn’t as immediate and complete as what Augustine experienced – but more like the coming of spring after a long, terrible winter – his words and story, combined with everything else I was attending to, brought me home to safe harbor.
The story of his conversion centers on Augustine’s encounter with two men – one a godly older man he seeks out for counsel, and the other a friend who comes to him. Both men share stories with him of certain believers they knew who converted to Christ and made a full break with their past lives.
The older man’s name was Simplicianus, who was instrumental in bringing Ambrose to faith. Augustine writes, “It was you who put the idea in my mind to go to [him]…Your grace shone in him. I had heard too that from his youth he had lived a life devoted to you. He had now grown old, and it seemed to me that he must have experienced much and learned much as a result of having lived so long in so earnestly following you way.”
As I read those words, my heart is drawn in tenderness to the older men I sought out in my life’s struggles, from Dr. Thaw to our chairman Bob, and others whose wisdom I knew I needed. One of the church’s most invaluable but under-utilized resources is its older men and women – we have a battalion of mentors and guides at our fingertips which we consult too infrequently.
When Augustine shared with Simplicianus how he had been reading some books of the Platonists, Simplicianus mentioned that he personally knew the Roman translator of those books, a great scholar named Victorinus, who was so famous, that his statue was set up in the Roman forum. (There’s something oddly refreshing about a culture that honored scholars and civic heroes instead of celebrities. But I digress.)
Though he worshipped the pagan gods into old age, one day Victorinus came across a Bible and began to read it. Its words so struck him, that he then set out to examine all the Christian literature he could find. Crossing paths with Simplicianus one day, he announced quietly that he had become a Christian. “That I will not believe unless I see you in the Church of Christ,” Simplicianus replied. “Is it the walls that make you a Christian?” Victorinus asked, but Simplicianus intuited that Victorinus was afraid of losing any of the friends and popularity he enjoyed.
“But from his reading and deep meditation he drew strength,” Augustine wrote, and the day came when “Quite suddenly and unexpectedly he said to Simplicianus, ‘Let us go to Church. I want to be made a Christian.’” Simplicianus then described how powerfully and boldly Victorinus made public his profession for Christ.
Listening to the story sent a bolt of conviction through Augustine. “When this man of yours, Simplicianus, told me all this about Victorinus, I was on fire to be like him, and this, of course, was why he had told me the story,” he wrote. As he reflected on the conversion of Victorinus, Augustine couldn’t help but look at his own heart and at what was holding him back. His reflections should have profound resonance for anyone struggling with porn or any other form of sexual addiction.
This was what I longed for myself, but I was held back, and I was held back not by fetters put on me by someone else, but by the iron bondage of my own will…From a perverse will came lust, and slavery to lust became a habit, and the habit being constantly yielded to, became a necessity. (8:5)
Modern recovery language has conditioned us to label our addictions a disease, the danger with that language being we risk losing a sense of our own responsibility. Augustine would hide behind no excuses for his behavior.
Yet it was my own fault that habit fought back so strongly against me; for I had come willingly where I now did not will to be. And who has any right to complain when just punishment overtakes the sinner? For the law of sin is the strong force of habit which drags the mind along and controls it even against its will – though deservedly, since the habit was voluntarily adopted. Who then should deliver me thus wretched from the body of this death, but thy grace only, through Jesus Christ our Lord? (8:5)
And Jesus was bringing him ever closer. A new will had ignited inside of him, like a small fire that needed to be fanned into fuller flame.
And the new will which I was beginning to have and which urged me to worship you in freedom and to enjoy you, God, the only certain joy, was not yet strong enough to overpower the old will which by its oldness had grown hard in me… I no doubt, was on both sides, but I was more myself when I was on the side which I approved of for myself than when I was on the side of which I disapproved. (8:5)
I laugh to read the words, but Augustine describes the tug of war inside each sinner’s heart before the breakthrough comes, and the quantum leap toward greater holiness is taken. For Augustine, teetering on the edge of salvation, he needed one more push which came with the visit a short time later of a friend called Ponticianus.
Now Lord, my helper and my Redeemer, I shall tell and confess to your name how it was that you freed me from the bondage of my desire for sex, in which I was so closely fettered, and from my slavery to the affairs of this world. (8:6)
Ponticianus called on him one day when he and Alypius were at home. When he saw on a table that Augustine was reading the books of Paul, he smiled knowingly because “he often knelt before you, our God, in church, praying long and frequently to you.”
As they talked, Ponticianus felt led to share about a friend he knew who had recently been converted to Christ after reading a biography on the life of a famous monk named Antony who had founded a series of monasteries (one which existed even outside of Milan and was under the care of Ambrose, though Augustine knew none of this.)
As he read of Antony leaving behind his worldly life and career to serve Christ, Ponticianus’ friend was struck to the heart. He worked for the Roman government, and like everyone around him, had been eager to climb the ladder of success. But why am I doing this? his friend asked. Even if I make it all the way – become a friend of the emperor himself – isn’t that the most precarious and dangerous of positions? And don’t I have to go through danger after danger simply to get there? But if I want, I can be the friend of God now, this moment.
And in the very act of reading Antony’s story, Ponticianus’ friend shook off the burden of the world and came to Christ, even leading other friends to Christ with him.
As Ponticianus was telling Augustine the story, Augustine wrote, “You Lord…were turning me around so that I could see myself…I saw and I was horrified, and I had nowhere to go to escape from myself.”
After Ponticianus left, Augustine turned to Alypius with a crazed look about him, and yelled out, “What is wrong with us? What is this which you have just heard? The unlearned rise up and take heaven by force, while we (look at us!) with all our learning are wallowing in flesh and blood. Is it because they have gone ahead that we are ashamed to follow?” With that, he fled out into the garden to be alone.
My spirit was in a turmoil. I was boiling with indignation against myself for not entering into your will and covenant, my God. And the way there is not by ship or chariot or on foot. The distance is not so great as that which I had come from the house to the place where we were sitting. All I had to do was will to go there, and I would not only go but would immediately arrive. (8:8)
Let’s be very clear on what specifically Augustine was in agony about. It was not that that he accept Christ as Savior. He already believed that Jesus was everything he said he was, everything Christianity said he was, and everything he needed. The crux of his battle was that in coming to Christ, he needed to lay down fully and finally his sexual lust. For Augustine, the two were entwined. If he accepted Christ, he had to accept continency – a full abstaining from sexual lust.
If porn is your addiction, your battle is along similar lines in that Jesus wills for your complete freedom from this sin. It’s not a life with just a little bit of porn. But a life where you are rid of it altogether. Where you will never again visit these sites. Where biblehub.com is the only ‘hub’ you’ll ever know. And you will not flirt or flit or loiter near those places ever again. And won’t need to clear out your search history ever again, or activate the ‘Incognito’ browser.
Augustine drew inspiration from the stories of those who had gone before him who broke free. I drew inspiration from Augustine’s story and broke free. I share his story and mine so that you will be encouraged to find life and happiness outside of this habit – to say to you – You can live without this. You can do all things through Christ who gives you strength, including this.
As Augustine sat in the garden, he visualized Continence as a beautiful princess reaching out to him, beckoning him – as she beckons to you now.
I could see the chaste dignity of Continence. She was calm and serene, cheerful without wantonness, and it was in truth and honor that she was enticing me to come to her without hesitation, stretching out to receive and to embrace me with those holy hands of hers, full of such multitudes of good examples…
She smiled at me and there was encouragement in her smile, as though she were saying, ‘Can you not do what these men and these women have done? Or do you think that their ability is in themselves and not in the Lord their God? It was the Lord God who gave me to them. Why do you try and stand by yourself, and so do not stand at all? Let him support you. Do not be afraid. He will not draw away and let you fall. Put yourself fearlessly in his hands. He will receive you and will make you well.’ (8:11)
It was moments later when Augustine heard a child’s voice cry out from a nearby house, “Take and read. Take and read.” In response to the voice, he went back to where he had left his Bible, plucked it up from the table and let his eyes fall on where it opened. It opened to Romans 13:13-14, where he read, “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Augustine described what happens next.
I had no wish to read further. There was no need to. For immediately I had reached the end of the sentence it was as though my heart was filled with the light of confidence and all the shadows of my doubt were swept away. (8:12)
At that moment, Augustine came home to Christ and the chains of sexual sin around his heart were severed. Though his deliverance came suddenly, we must never forget that it was years in the making, as he stepped closer to Christ then pulled back, closer then back, the way a hummingbird flies near to the feeder, then away again before deciding to drink. With each pass, change was happening inside of his heart, mind and will, as his sin nature was being weakened, and his untrained nature was being strengthened.
Though your story will be different from Augustine’s and different from my own, your freedom can arrive just as swiftly. And just as fully. As I shared earlier, my stepping into freedom was not all in a moment, but like the coming of spring. At first, sudden, unexpected days of warmth, then a long plunge back into winter. But then a reversing – more days of warmth than days of winter. And then a time where to have a winter day seemed odd and out of place, quickly swallowed up and forgotten by long stretches of warmth. And then…it was gone. No more snow. No more sub-freezing temperatures. No wondering where it went. No more counting of the days. Just living in a new reality, and glad for it. A heart filled with the light of confidence where all the shadows of doubt were swept away.
What ideas in this reading did you find helpful or challenging?
Why do you think it was important for Augustine to hear stories of other people laying aside their old life to follow Christ?
Though his freedom came in an instant, reaching that point was literally years in the making. What things had to happen inside Augustine’s heart to bring him to freedom?
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: “O God Our Help In Ages Past” (Isaac Watts, William Croft; consider adaptation by Tommy Walker)
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