Augustine's Restless Heart
By Glenn E. Myers, Ph.D.
-- “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” -Augustine, Confessions
Except for the Apostles and other New Testament authors, no believer has affected the shape of our Christian faith more than Augustine of Hippo (354-430). His significance in church history can hardy be overstated. A figure larger than life, Augustine’s emphases on original sin, grace, God’s love and the Trinity laid the foundation of the Western Church, both Protestant and Catholic.
Born and reared in Thagaste, northern Africa, Augustine was afforded a good education. Augustine’s father, Patricius, was a pagan. His mother, Monica, was a believer who passionately prayed for the salvation of her son. At seventeen Augustine moved to Carthage to continue his schooling. There he pursued a life of sexual immorality, eventually living for thirteen years with a woman who gave birth to their son, Adeodatus. All the while Monica interceded for her wayward son.
After some years following Manichaean religion and then Neoplatonic philosophy, Augustine began attending the cathedral in Milan to hear the great preacher Ambrose. God was at work in his heart. One afternoon in his garden Augustine was wrestling with his thoughts when suddenly he heard what sounded like a child’s voice repeating the words, “take and read, take and read.” When Augustine looked over the fence, however, no one was there. Glancing down at the Bible he had beside him, Augustine took God’s Word and began reading where it fell open:
...not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts (Rom 13:13-14, NASB).
Convicted of his sinful lifestyle, Augustine repented, gave himself completely to Christ and was baptized on Easter morning by Bishop Ambrose.
Most of what we know of Augustine’s life comes from his autobiography, Confessions. This work is the first of its kind in all of literature, exploring Augustine’s inner thoughts and developments. He confesses the sin of his early life as well as his eventual faith in Christ the savior. Since then no autobiography has surpassed it in its honesty and insight into understanding oneself.
Confessions is a “must read” for serious Christians. Written half as an autobiography and half as a prayer, Augustine weaves in and out of dialogue with God. Throughout he sets an example of spiritual formation for all who read.
For Augustine, spiritual formation begins with desire. Left to ourselves, desire turns inward on our own pleasure and lust, as Augustine experienced for years. The solution, however, is not to destroy inner desire but to transform it. Created in God’s image, we were made to desire—to reach outside of ourselves toward the “other”—both God and other people. When Augustine repented of fleshy desire and focused his pursuit on the Lord, he began a life of radical commitment to Christ.
Desire does not cease when we experience salvation. Rather, this is when our relationship with the Lord truly begins. Desire keeps us ever seeking the Lord, as David describes:
One thing I ask of the Lord,
this is what I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple.
(Psalm 27:4 NIV)
The Christian life is pilgrimage, a long-term pursuit of God. Desire is the driving force on the road toward spiritual maturity.
Life is a journey—a spiritual adventure. There are peaceful times and tremendously challenging seasons along the path. As on all ventures, we make forward progress and face painful setbacks. Along every stretch of the way, we cross new terrain.
Augustine presents the whole of human existence as a journey. Every step we take moves us closer to God or farther away. That venture begins long before conversion. In fact, it is often the twists and turns in life that God uses to draw us to himself. Even when we veer off in the wrong direction the Lord pursues us.
In his Confessions, Augustine details his own pilgrimage. Running from God for many years, he finally yielded his life to the Almighty. After conversion the journey did not end, however. The remainder of Augustine’s life was spent in hot pursuit of the One he loved.
According to Augustine, each of us is a homo viator—a traveler, a pilgrim. Along each segment of the path, the ultimate question is: Which direction are we headed? Are we moving toward God or wandering away from him? The essence of evil is movement away from the God. Sin is orienting ourselves toward our narcissistic cravings instead of toward God’s love.
Only God’s grace redeems and sets us in the right direction. From beginning to end, Augustine emphasizes that the whole of the Christian life is by faith. In his debate with Pelagius, Augustine affirms that we cannot somehow reach God or fulfill his commands by human effort. Rather, God is always prior—working in our hearts by grace.
Augustine prays, “Lord, let me know myself; let me know you.” Spiritual growth entails knowing God intimately and knowing ourselves realistically.
This is referred to as the “double knowledge,” and it is the foundation of Christian growth. The more we know ourselves—honestly facing our secret thoughts, hidden sins and disordered desires—the more we recognize our need for God’s grace. Likewise, the closer we grow to God, the more light is shed on the distorted, self-absorbed places in our hearts. That honest self-knowledge in turn draws us into deeper knowledge of the One who loves us and redeems us.
Understanding the human soul involves a tension. On the one hand we are created in God’s image. Augustine stresses that the faculties of the soul—memory, understanding and will—are reflections of the Trinity. On the other hand, because of the fall that image has been shattered. Instead of desiring God, we cave in on ourselves and desire our own pleasure. We are quite literally twisted in on ourselves.
When we honestly face all of our self-focus, pride and dysfunction, we begin to realize how much we need God’s ongoing grace. Such knowledge propels us on our journey of inner transformation and spiritual formation.
Augustine: A Man for Our Time
Although he lived some sixteen hundred years ago, Augustine is eminently relevant to our day. The psychological insights in his Confessions resonate with our understanding of the inner person and provide a Christian paradigm for appreciating our inestimable value—as well as our inevitable brokenness—as human beings.
Through his writings, Augustine puts us in touch with our inner drive. The life of a believer is not about eliminating desire. Rather it is about redeeming our faculty of desire and directing it toward God rather than temporal pleasures and self-satisfaction. When our ardent desire is properly directed, it provides us energy for the long haul of spiritual growth.
Perhaps above all, Augustine challenges us not to become stagnant in our faith but rather to move constantly forward on our Christian pilgrimage. Learning to know the Triune God of love is an eternal adventure that we never outgrow!
Further Reading on Saint Augustine
The Confessions of Saint Augustine
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Learn more at Glenn's Blog: deepwellswithglennmyers.blogspot.com
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Glenn E. Myers is a professor of Church History at Crown College with a specialization in the history of Christian Spirituality. His passion is introducing contemporary Christians to the wisdom, depth and vitality of spiritual leaders from the past two thousand years of the church. Receiving an M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in church history from Boston University, Dr. Myers has served as a pastor, a missionary and a professor.
In 1995-1996, he and his wife Sharon ministered with CBN in Kiev. Currently Glenn serves on the board at Restoration Ministries, Inc., offers retreats and provides spiritual direction. He is a contributor to Zondervan Press’ forthcoming Dictionary of Christian Spirituality and is nearing completion of a book on the Beguines. Offering fresh spiritual water to thirsty saints today, he authors a blog: deepwellswithglennmyers.blogspot.com.
© 2011 by Glenn E. Myers. Used with permission.
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