Tuesday, October 18, 2005

My Traveling Companion

This post is going to go in our church newsletter this month while I am in India. I thought that some of the folks at FBC could get the first peek. Don't worry, I have another article that will be published in the newsletter that you won't see here.

I'm in Atlanta right now. I have a ten hour layover here. Keep me in your prayers!

If all has gone as hoped, I am somewhere in India as you read this article.  I am writing it at a table in the Atlanta airport during a ten hour lay-over.  That should be plenty of time to write an article, don’t you think?

Fortunately for me, I have chosen some very good traveling companions.  My companion for the first leg of my journey is Augustine of Hippo.  Augustine lived and died over 1500 years ago, but he still speaks.  Often, he speaks with painful clarity concerning the sinful condition.  Today, he spoke of his love affair with sin, and he exposed it for the shame that it is.  It is a condition common to all, and his confessions prick my heart as deeply as if his sins were my own.  For even though I may not have sinned in the same manner as he, I recognize the impulse.  

In his Confessions, Augustine writes of an episode that he participated in when he was sixteen years old.  He got together with a group of friends late at night, and they got into some mischief.  That is, they went into a person’s yard and stole all the pears out of their pear tree.  At face value, that does not seem like such a terrible thing.  It seems like a childhood prank.  Just a little trouble that youths often get into.  Nothing to write home about, certainly nothing to be in anguish of soul over…or is it?  Let us listen to Augustine’s confession:

I stole a thing of which I had plenty of my own and of much better quality.  Nor did I wish to enjoy that thing which I desired to gain by theft, but rather to enjoy the actual theft and the sin of theft…a group of very bad youngsters set out to shake down and rob this tree.  We took great loads of fruit from it, not for our own eating, but rather to throw it to the pigs…Behold, now let my heart tell you what it looked for there, that I should be evil without purpose and that there should be no cause for my evil but evil itself.  Foul was the evil, and I loved it.  I loved to go down to death.  I loved my fault, not that for which I did the fault, but I loved my fault itself.  Base in soul was I, and I leaped down from your firm clasp even towards complete destruction, and I sought nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself!

What was it about this childish behavior that caused Augustine to mourn?  He did not break in and steal because he was hungry.  He did not break in and steal because he needed the fruit; he confesses that he already had better at his disposal.  He mourns because he sees that he did it because he loved stealing.  He loved the evil for the sake of evil.   He loved being bad.  It didn’t matter that if it were fruit, or a money purse, or another man’s wife; Augustine saw that the real danger of this boyhood mischief was that he loved doing evil.

Augustine realized another thing about his sin.  He committed sinful acts so that he may boast about his evil.  When he could not find an evil thing to do, he made up evil actions and lied.  He again confesses:

But lest I be put to scorn, I made myself more depraved than I was.  Where there was no actual deed, by which I would be on equal footing with the most abandoned, I pretended that I had done what I had not done, lest I be considered more contemptible because I was actually more innocent, and lest I be held a baser thing because more chaste than the others.

Augustine’s insight is keen, and his confessions bring light into the dark places of the heart.  What young man engage in lying “locker room” chat and puffed himself up with boasting about “manly” deeds they never did?  Who has not lied about something in order to make themselves look better before the crowd?  People confess to doing evil things that they never did in order not to be ridiculed for their innocence.  Such is the depth of the sinfulness of the human heart.

It cleansing to sit with Augustine, and it is humbling.  The insight he has into his own heart reveals that darkness that lurks in mine.  Is it good to dwell on such things?  Should we spend our time probing our hearts to uncover our sinfulness?  Here is Augustine’s answer; I believe that he is absolutely right, and I am grateful for his candor:

     “Why do I tell these things?  It is that I myself and whoever else reads them may realize from what great depths we must cry unto you.”

He writes these things so that we may understand how deep the grace of God must be in order to rescue us from the pit.  By understanding our sinfulness in all of its filth, we understand more about the width and height and depth of the love of God for us in Jesus Christ.  Thank God that He rescues from our shame; the very shame that we once boasted in.  And thank God for the testimony of saints like Augustine; his insight has not grown stale through the passing of years, but instead comes to us as fresh air to our souls.

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