Romans 13:13–14 —Augustine: from sensuality to saint.
14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
In the summer of A.D. 386 these two verses pierced Augustine’s soul like a double-edged sword. His conscience troubled by a decade and a half of partying and sexual immorality, Augustine, now 32 years old, could no longer run from God.
Augustine’s example still speaks to us, so it is good that we ponder his life. I have gleaned what follows from his Confessions and other sources.
Christian mother, worldly friends
Augustine was born to an upper-class Roman family in North Africa, now Algeria, and was raised as a Christian by his mother Monica. In his teens, Augustine hung out with young men a few years older who reveled in their sexual exploits, and he soon followed their example.
Aware that his behavior displeased God but unwilling to change, Augustine swam the murky waters of double mindedness, admitting to be a “miserable young man, supremely miserable even in the very outset of my youth.” In this unhappy state he uttered his famous prayer, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”
A brilliant student, at age 17 Augustine moved to Carthage where he studied rhetoric and took up an interest in philosophy. In his late teens Augustine began a long-term affair with a young woman with whom he had a son named Adeodatus.
Having abandoned Christianity, Augustine adopted a religion known as Manicheism, only to realize with intellectual honesty it did not answer life’s questions. While in Carthage he came in contact with knowledgeable Christians who impressed his mind and heart. Later while teaching rhetoric in Milan, Augustine went to hear the eloquent preaching of Saint Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. He enjoyed both the Bishop’s rhetoric and his even more impressive intellect, gaining from Ambrose a better grasp of the Bible and Christianity.
Sated with sin but not satisfied
In his early 30s, Augustine still had to confront the emptiness in his soul. He had a good friend, Alypius, with whom he both partied and at times read the Bible. In 386 the two were staying at a friend’s estate in Milan. Augustine cried out to Alypius, “What is wrong with us? . . . The unlearned start up and ‘take’ heaven, but we, with our learning, but wanting heart, see where we wallow in flesh and blood! Because others have preceded us, are we ashamed to follow, and not rather ashamed at not following?”
Augustine’s despair mounted. “O, tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow! How can I free myself from these terrible urges within me that drive me to the things that hurt me!” One day in the garden Augustine flung himself under a distant fig tree so Alypius wouldn’t see his tears. While crying to God “in the most bitter contrition of my heart,” he heard the voice of a child coming from a nearby house. The child was chanting over and over, “Take up and read; take up and read.” He somehow sensed the child’s words were a command from heaven to open and read the Bible.
Both Augustine and Alypius surrendered to Christ. Then they went to tell Augustine’s mother, Monica. Her prayers for her son now answered, she was able to praise God for his conversion just before she died. Augustine served the Lord for more than 40 years before he died in 430 at age 76. Here is one of Saint Augustine’s most memorable prayers:
in whom we live and move and have our being,
you have made us for yourself,
so that our hearts are restless until they rest in you.
Grant us purity of heart and strength of purpose,
so that no selfish passion may hinder us from knowing your will,
no weakness from doing it.
Grant that in your light we may see light clearly,
and in your service find our perfect freedom.
We ask this through Christ, our Lord.
Recommendation: Read this new book by my dear friend Douglas Groothuis: Philosophy in Seven Sentences: A Small Introduction to a Vast Topic. One of the sentences Doug expounds is the first stanza of the above prayer by Augustine. Above all else, rest your own heart in God.