A little over a year ago, I was shown a sermon given by John Piper on the life of St. Augustine. Piper discussed the great man’s life by preaching on his popular Confessions. The monumental work is essentially over 300 pages of a prayer written by the saint to his God. I have here included the sermon of Piper’s for your own enlightenment. Near the end of the sermon, he asks his listeners to commit to read the Confessions in the next year. I undertook the challenge only to finish roughly 17 months later.
This work was at one time one of the most influential pieces of literature for the Christian and thinking world. In these pages, Augustine delivers his life’s confession starting from his birth and leading up to his conversion. The first eight books deal with his inward struggle to find true joy, complete and unsullied, only to find that joy in Christ. Everything else was unsatisfying in comparison to this prize. Augustine describes this moment of his conversion as choosing between two different types of joys: one the life of his sin and the other Continence and a life of righteousness in Christ. As he wrestled with the dilemma in his heart while in a garden, he records the memory in his confession.
But by now the voice of habit was very faint. I had turned my eyes elsewhere, 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, holding up a host of good examples to my sight. (Book 8, Chapter 11)
Later on he describes the ever-so popular instance of hearing the voice of what sounded like children at play chanting, “Take it and read, take it and read.” (8, 12). The “it” no doubt referred to scripture, and as the saint began reading, his heart was changed and joy entered in. “It was as though the light of confidence flooded my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.” (8, 12). This conversion eventually prompted him to pen this confession which is essentially an outpouring of a man who was so tormented and ashamed at his past sin, and yet to say he was overjoyed at the grace he found in Christ would be an understatement. His new life in Christ was one of worship. This prompts me to briefly add a few important things to get out of this work.
1. Write Your Confession
It is one thing to grieve over sin, it is another to think and ponder over that sin and see it for what it is. The Confessions shows us a way of visualizing our sin. For instance, when we bow our heads in confession we give ourselves the needful opportunity to confess emotionally the sins with which we have grieved the Holy Spirit. Kneeling in prayer is a symbol of humility before our Savior. But when we write our sins, this changes the game. Writing is nothing more than thinking eloquently. When we write out these sins, then, we think about them differently because we see our thoughts appear before our eyes. We can see that sin in a different light, and we can twist and shape the way we use words to better state our meaning. Our written prayers do not necessarily need to be spontaneous acts of unedited prose, but they can be well-written displays of how we feel, presented as a type of offering to our Lord.
This should lead to worship. And much like our confessions can be written down, so can our praise. It is so easy for us when we pray out loud to list a bunch of various aspects of life we are thankful for, but when we begin to list these items on paper, the game again is changed. One issue with the modern paragraph is that it is shrinking. We have a lot of vegetarian writers out there nowadays, none of these paragraphs have any meat to them. This naturally applies to the writing out of our worship to our Father. No one in their right mind would only say, “Father, I thank you for this house” and end the subject. That’s bad writing. There’s no meat. We would be inspired instead to elaborate our thoughts on that praise. Perhaps it would look something like this.
“Father. My protector, provider, prince. I praise you this morning for the gifts you give. I thank you for the provisions you have given me in this house I live in. I thank you for the running water and electricity. The fact that I have adequate means for storing the other provisions you have lavishly given me in life. I praise you for a working stove and oven and fridge and for the provisions inside that often neglected object…”
These are minute and somewhat trivial aspects of the house I live in. But writing out this prayer even just now caused me to sit back and really think about the house I live in and all the incredible aspects and blessings that come with it. I have running water. Many on this planet do not. How often do I neglect this?
2. Spend Some Time in Thought
Augustine’s Confessions is a thirteen book book. That is, the work consists of thirteen books. But his conversion occurs in Book 8 which leaves us five books. The last three books pertain to his thoughts concerning a variety of topics which comes from reading Genesis 1-3. Topics ranging from reading, interpretation and authorial intent to the problem of time to the issue of the origin of evil. I won’t go into too much detail about these topics, but what I want to particularly stress is the amount of time he gave to pure thought on issues. I am not even sure if most of what he writes in the last three books correlates to any definitive conclusion on the matters at hand. However, they seem to function more in the realm of his unedited musings on the subjects.
Our present day world is full of tragedy, but one that will eventually contribute to the fall of the West is the blatant disregard for thought. Nobody wants to think about anything, and Augustine’s very intricate and elaborate lengths he is willing to go to flesh out a thought on topics such as Time is amazing. So spend each and every day in pure thought. Crack open that dusty notebook and just think. Or do without the notebook and stare at a blank wall and think about your existence. Go outside on a walk and think. Drive down the highway and think. Turn off the other man’s thoughts and think. We must revive thinking in our world.*
3. Christianity is about Joy
Theology is important, but if your theology does not produce a life of joy and worship, you need a new theology. Augustine teaches us in this amazing work that the Christian life is about worship and joy. We must remove the associations we have with righteousness. The movies tell us that righteousness in the Christian sense is drudgery. The Bible shows us that it is pure joy because God is the source of all joy in the world. And to be more like this Source, we must be holy, that is, we must live righteously.
Piper explains this point to near perfection in his sermon, and so I will once again urge you to watch it for yourself. It is the only sermon I have watched multiple times. Piper has such a passion for what he says, and if you pay close attention, you will probably have a good laugh here and there. Lastly, I too would like to echo Pastor Piper’s admonition that we take the challenge to read this book. Piper says that we should read it if we are to even consider ourselves educated people. I would agree. It’s not an easy read as it took me 17 months and I started and restarted about four times, but eventually I forged through to the end. Fortunately, it is broken up in such a way that one could read a little at a time. I promise you will be convicted, challenged and motivated: “Tolle lege! Tolle lege!”
*On this note: there is not a movie out there that “makes you think.” You think you are thinking but really someone else is telling you what to think. I am talking about pure, uncluttered, undefiled thought that starts and ends in between the space between your two ears.
**Fun fact: Piper was born in Chattanooga, TN, where this sermon was given. I lived in Chattanooga for about 5 months, and it has a very special place in my heart.