Wednesday, February 13, 2008


As I was preparing to teach the next couple of weeks I came across this history I thought I would share.

As the teenager of a heathen father and a Christian mother living in North Africa during the late 300's AD, young Augustine would fill his life with the passions of whatever he set his heart upon. Rejecting the pleading of his mother to become a believer and follower of Christ, he pursued education and specifically, pursued fulfilling the desires of his flesh through all manners of sexual lust. Before he was twenty, he had taken a concubine that he would keep for the next 15 years. He had this to say about those years, "I went to Carthage, where I found myself in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust. . . . My real need was for you, my God, who are the food of the soul. I was not aware of this hunger." "I was willing to steal, and steal I did, although I was not compelled by any lack." "I was at the top of the school of rhetoric. I was pleased with my superior status and swollen with conceit. . . . It was my ambition to be a good speaker, for the unhallowed and inane purpose of gratifying human vanity."

As he lived his life, devoted to pleasures of selfishness, he drew ever nearer to God through various theological and often heretical studies. In his early thirties he came under the teaching of the great preacher Ambrose where he began to realize his need for something more. However, he could not reconcile his need for God with the sinful desires of his flesh. That is until August of 386. At 32 years of age, while in a garden with his friend, Alypius, the following exchange between Augustine and a Holy God took place, an exchange that fought for fleshly desires with irresistible grace.

"There was a small garden attached to the house where we lodged. . . . I now found myself driven by the tumult in my breast to take refuge in this garden, where no one could interrupt that fierce struggle in which I was my own contestant. . . . I was beside myself with madness that would bring me sanity. I was dying a death that would bring me life. . . . I was frantic, overcome by violent anger with myself for not accepting your will and entering into your covenant. . . . I tore my hair and hammered my forehead with my fists; I locked my fingers and hugged my knees.

I was held back by mere trifles. . . They plucked at my garment of flesh and whispered, "Are you going to dismiss us? From this moment we shall never be with you again, for ever and ever.". . . And while I stood trembling at the barrier, on the other side I could see the chaste beauty of Continence in all her serene, unsullied joy, as she modestly beckoned me to cross over and to hesitate no more. She stretched out loving hands to welcome and embrace me.

I flung myself down beneath a fig tree and gave way to the tears which now streamed from my eyes . . . In my misery I kept crying, "How long shall I go on saying 'tomorrow, tomorrow'? Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this moment?" . . . All at once I heard the singsong voice of a child in a nearby house. Whether it was the voice of a boy or a girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain 'Take it and read, take it and read.' At this I looked up, thinking hard whether there was any kind of game in which children used to chant words like these, but I could not remember ever hearing them before. I stemmed my flood of tears and stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall.
So I hurried back to the place where Alypius was sitting . . . seized [the book of Paul's epistles] and opened it, and in silence I read the first passage on which my eyes fell: "Not in reveling in drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature's appetites" (Romans 13:13-14). I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled."

Later, in his book, Confessions, Augustine would write this about his conversion experience.

"During all those years, where was my free will? What was the hidden, secret place from which it was summoned in a moment, so that I might bend my neck to your easy yoke . . .? How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose . . ! You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy. You drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than all pleasure, though not to flesh and blood, you who outshine all light, yet are hidden deeper than any secret in our hearts, you who surpass all honor, though not in the eyes of men who see all honor in themselves. . . . O Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation." (Bold emphasis mine)

As I consider the testimony of Augustine, I am compelled and convicted to give to God all of my "fruitless joys" and find in Him my "sovereign joy", complete happiness and contentment in Him alone. Consider also with me this statement by C.S. Lewis, "We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased." May His grace enable us to taste and see and treasure Him above all and to find in Him . . . Him, infinite joy.

All italics are quotes of Augustine taken from the book The Legacy of Sovereign Joy by John Piper


TheDoyle5 said...

Fascinating, Eric. I just read an interesting article about Augustine at Randy Alcorn's blog. Have you read it? He uses some of the same quotes.

Eric said...

Thanks for the link to Randy Alcorn's blog. I had not read his article, but I really enjoyed what he wrote and his comments on Augustine. Augustine is such a hero of our faith and most of us do not realize how much he contributed to us here and now. Someday I would like to read his whole book, Confessions. I have read bits and pieces, but would really like to read the whole thing.