“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments to righteousness.” ~ Romans 6:12-13
It could be argued that Confessions should have ended with Book 9, because in the four books and hundred-plus pages that follow, Augustine the biographer goes away and Augustine the philosopher comes out to play. Some will find this section tedious, but for those readers who press on, they will catch a glimpse of one of the greatest intellects in human history hard at work.
He begins to muse on the astonishing power of human memory (Book 10), the relationship between time and eternity (Book 11), how it is that an eternal God created time and space in the first place (Book 12), and the grand mystery of the Trinity (Book 13). Insomniacs might love these bits, but there are also many jewels to be mined in this hard soil, which give us a foretaste of the prodigious output yet to come from his pen.
Augustine would go on to write more than a hundred works in his career, ranging from classical sermons, to surgical attacks on various heresies, to magisterial theological treatises. The blessing this was to the church cannot be over-exaggerated. While he certainly didn’t get everything right, the case could be made that his thought helped protect the core of Christian truth in the dark days following the disintegration of the Roman empire. I shudder to think what might have happened had he not written these books.
But there’s a point to my musings here. What catapulted him forward into this prolific season of life was the freedom from sin which Christ had brought to him. Had he remained bogged down in sexual slavery and had his mind and heart never been cleansed of that fog of lust, it is doubtful that he ever would have made anywhere near such an impact on the wider Church. His sin would have dissipated his achievements and diminished his testimony, and we’d all be saying, “Augustine, who?”
But it’s not Augustine I’m thinking of right now. It’s you, my friend. It’s anyone who’s reading this, finding themselves caught in this awful web of porn, or anything similar. It matters that you break free. It matters that this not have the last laugh over you. Because freedom from the chains of sin leads to even greater heights of freedom: the freedom to serve and the freedom to obey.
The Freedom To Serve
Right now, as things stand, you are stealing from God. He invested in you gifts and abilities which he intended to be used for the promotion of his goodness upon the earth. Right now, as things stand, you are stealing from your family and friends. He placed you in a particular orbit of people for the purpose of mutually enriching each other’s lives. Right now, as things stand, you are stealing from yourself, denying yourself the satisfaction of enjoying your Maker and enjoying a life lived for his glory.
And for what are you committing this theft? For a hollow fantasy, and the temporary, degrading thrill it spins off. Aren’t you better than this? Doesn’t your wife or husband, son or daughter, brother or sister, mother or father, friends and neighbors deserve better than this? Doesn’t the God who twice bought you – by creation and the Cross – deserve better than this?
We’re not saying that you’ll be the next Augustine. Or that addiction is standing between you and greatness. But it is standing between you and faithfulness. God will not judge you because you didn’t measure up to the Bishop of Hippo. He’ll judge you for not being you. The one he looked across space and time to see from a cross, to whom he said, “Father, forgive.”
But what about those who seemingly do great things for God and lead thriving ministries, all the while living a double-life of sin on the side? How come they get away with it?!
The Bible says that the ‘gifts and call of God are irrevocable’ (Romans 11:29), so a person with the ability to teach or plan or lead worship effectively can use their gifts in any condition. It proves nothing. It’s the gospel that saves, not the package it comes in. As far as getting away with it, trust me – no one gets away with a thing. He who created the eye sees it all, and there is a reaping for every sin sowed in life that is not brought to the Cross for forgiveness.
But to even ask questions like this betrays the distance of your heart from truth. If you’ve read all the way through this book till now, and you’re still entertaining the thought that God is holding out on you in some way, or that God is the one standing between you and happiness, that his laws and expectations are just too much, especially in a day and age like this one, then I suspect at the present time your heart is still not where it needs to be for God to use you as he wishes (even though it might seem for the moment that he is “using” you.)
Since we’re on the subject…
Should I Serve In Ministry As I Struggle With Sin?
If however you are seeing your sin as you ought, it’s not a given that you must step down from everything you are doing in ministry. There are numerous variables that need to be factored in, and I encourage you to ‘do the math’ in consultation with trusted friends and leaders, especially your pastor, then go from there. No, you don’t get to self-diagnose and write the prescription for yourself.
What variables? you ask. I thought all sin was sin. In the context of our standing before a holy God, all sin is sin, and a little bit of sin is deserving of the entire lot of hell. But in the context of church discipline, all sin is not the same as any other. If that were the case, we all failed enough last week alone to demand from each of us our resignations. But grace makes room for ‘wounded healers’ to serve their Lord and his church.
Does your sin involve physical unfaithfulness with another flesh and blood human being? I share the opinion of many that this would require a complete break from all ministry, for the damage control would require extensive time and intervention. If your sin is confined to the virtual sphere, you are not just a virtual sinner, and thereby granted a pass. Adultery is in your heart, growing, metastasizing, preparing you for a far greater slaughter. Unless confessed and forsaken, you drift toward deadly shoals.
In your confession, you must be honest with the healing team around you, and humbly receive their assessment. The healing team in turn must listen and respond with prayer-fueled guidance from the Holy Spirit. I said in the introduction that some need a pep talk, some need a pop in the jaw and some need a prison cell. There is no formula for this. It requires the full discernment and grace of God.
Jude offers helpful instruction here. “…praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by flesh.” (Jude 20-23)
Notice how mercy is mentioned three times here. Mercy is to be our instinct. Mercy triumphs over judgment, James said (James 2:13). The goal of church discipline is not punishment, but restoration to a renewed walk with Christ, where the freedom and joy of serving him is unhindered. Augustine, released from his sin, was unleashed for service. And the same can be true for you.
The Freedom To Obey
There’s a final lesson in Confessions before we say goodbye to our friend the bishop. Augustine wants you to know that overcoming this sin will also unleash in you greater growth in holiness. That might seem like an obvious point. Banish porn from your life you’ll be holier – a Doh! if ever there was one. But it’s not what you think.
Think of what happens in a time of war. While the great enemy is being fought, resources, money and energy are siphoned away that ordinarily would be directed toward other things. Fixing the roads and bridges will have to wait. The Nazis have to first be driven out before the clean-up of Europe can begin. Or think about when you’re seriously ill, how all your energy gets directed toward rest and recovery. That lawn project will have to be put on hold.
The same is true in your current struggle. When a strong sin or addiction has its claws in you, all the other soul-work you should be attending to – working on your marriage or your temper or your pride or your finances – gets put on hold. Perhaps you tell yourself, “It’s clear sailing after this. Sign me up for sainthood once I get past this,” but trust me, you have miles to go toward Christlikeness before you sleep.
Augustine does something very interesting in his tenth book. He begins by asking God, “Let me know you…as I am known”, but then he realizes that he scarcely knows himself. He tried to hide things from God, which he admits is foolish. God knows him better than he knows himself. (“I should not be hiding myself from you, but you from myself.”) His knowledge of himself is so limited that he doesn’t even know what temptations he can and cannot resist. And who does he think he is to even pretend that he can “know” such a being as “God” (“What do I love when I love you?”), when he can’t even fathom the depth of his own being?
He concludes this section saying, “When in my whole self I shall cling to you united, I shall find no sorrow anywhere, no labor, wholly alive will my life be all full of you.” But there’s the rub. The deeper he looks inside his ‘whole self’, the more sin he uncovers. “Since I am not yet full of you, I am a burden to myself. Joys in which I should find sorrow conflict with sorrows in which I should find joy, and on which side stands the victory I do not know. I am sad for myself. Lord, have pity on me.”(10:28)
Here he thought that once his sexual lust was fixed, he was home free. But instead he discovered that his lust went by many names, and ranged far and wide across his soul. Only after the eclipse caused by his addictive sin had passed, could he start to honestly and fully see his real condition. Using 1 John 2:16 as an organizing principle, he takes the final fifteen chapters to identify lust-of-the-flesh sins, then lust-of-the-eyes sins, then pride-of-life sins that he sees in himself. If you want to see an example of ruthless self-examination at work, this is it.
First of all, though he is now doing fine without sex, he finds that his sleep is often tormented by sexual imagery which haunts him by night, but disappears by day. (We’ll revisit this chapter in next week’s readings.)
Then, he is dismayed to learn that another form of lust has materialized in his life – the lust for food. We eat for our health and we eat for our pleasure, and wouldn’t you know that the amount of food needed for health is not nearly enough for pleasure, and now he has to “fight against this sweetness”. (And to think, the chocolate chip cookie had not been invented yet.)
He learns that his senses provide a cornucopia of temptations which he must stand guard against. Through the ears, he enjoys beautiful singing in worship, but then wonders if the pleasure he is deriving from singing is less from God and more from the voices (a conundrum many a worship leader ought to wrestle with.) In which case, he sometimes thinks the whole musical enterprise of church life ought to be shut down altogether. But then he realizes that to go there brings forward another sin lurking nearby – legalism. “When I am overanxious to avoid being deceived in this way, I fall into the error of being too severe.” It’s almost too much for him to juggle. “See what a state I am in!…In your eyes I have become a problem to myself.”
He reflects next on the beauty that God has placed in creation – which can evoke worship in one human and idolatry in another. He then considers the value of human craftsmanship and art, and sadly – to me – lands in an unfortunate place of diminishing the value of the arts. If we’re so focused on creating “beauty”, we are likely to take our gaze off of the one who is real “Beauty”. At least that’s his argument, and a poor one indeed, for I would argue that the contemplation of “beauty” ought to take us quite naturally to “Beauty” if we are thinking properly.
He goes down this road again while considering the pursuit of science and learning, suggesting that by-in-large this is a “kind of empty longing and curiosity…From this same motive men proceed to investigate the workings of nature which is beyond our ken – things which it does no good to know and which men only want to know for the sake of knowing.”
Because Augustine’s opinion carried such august weight (pun intended), the heft of his thought sadly contributed to the derailment of human advancement in painting, sculpting, poetry, architecture, engineering, etc. throughout the Middle Ages, until the dawning of the Renaissance. The wrestling between faith and science which continues to our day is not only the fault of an arrogant science. An ignorant church has also added toxic ingredients to the stew. Since all truth is God’s truth, science and faith should never have been enemies. But Augustine helped pick the fight.
He does better when he contemplates the sins spawned by the “pride of life”, and the chapters where he reflects on the caginess of vanity in poisoning the heart are well worth poring over. Just when I get to a point where I rid myself of pride, I begin feeling proud of that, and mess the whole thing up (though he says it much better than I, for he’s a much better writer than I, I say with full humility, at least I think it’s humility…) “Often in our contempt of vainglory we are merely being all the more vainglorious, and so one cannot really say that one glories in the contempt of glory; for one does not feel contempt for something in which one glories.” (See, told you. He puts it much better than I do.)
The larger point I don’t want you to miss though is that chapter ten could never have come before chapter nine. It was only after Augustine had cleared out the fog of the great sin he warred against, that he could see clearly to bring the other sins to heel. The longer you allow pornography, or whichever great sin enslaves you, to roam wild over the landscape of your soul, then the longer you place on hold the greater growth that Christ longs to bring about in you, and the less use you will be to him.
My friend, let me say it again. You’re better than this. It matters that you win this battle.
What ideas in this reading did you find helpful or challenging?
How does great or addictive sin keep you from growing in service to God? Who do you think you are stealing from right now, because you cannot minister to them from a pure heart?
How does great or addictive sin keep you from growing in holiness? What other sins might you be ignoring while this one has you pinned down?
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: “Revelation Song” (Jennie Lee Riddle)
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