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Confessions: I Gasped for the Air of your Truth but Couldn’t Breathe it

But the worst during this period was that while I meditated about materiality, those great bulks managed to crush me, and I was trapped and choking; beneath them, I gasped for the clear, unadulterated air of your truth but couldn’t breathe it.——Saint Augustine, Confessions 5.21

Augustine arrived in Rome sick. He was crippled by a fever that nearly killed him. Augustine reflects on his mother’s prayers during this time. He was glad she was unaware of his poor health lest she stress even more. Augustine writes, “I haven’t expressed how much more stress she suffered giving birth to me in the Spirit than she had in the flesh” (5.16.5).

Augustine did not see his healing as accidental. But rather, he saw his healing as a divine investment “so that he could become the person you could give a better and surer safekeeping” (5:18:1) because his journey to find God had not arrived to its destination yet. Augustine had just arrived in Rome and he still had intellectual baggage to unload before he could see God clearly.

The Manichees had left Augustine plagued with a dualism of God and evil being two physicalities at war (similar to yin and yang). Augustine’s presuppositional ontology was of a God with "a physical mass" or "a luminous body," and evil as "a malicious mind creeping through the earth" (5:20:1). He imagined two infinite masses at war, but evil more restricted and good at a larger scale.

This lingering dualism prevented him from taking full responsibility for his sins. He was convinced that it was not him who sinned, but the mass of evil that “tickled” him to do evil. “I was infatuated with excusing myself and accusing some other thing that was with me but wasn’t me” (5:18:3).

You can see how this is a problem that Christians still struggle with today even without the dualistic ontology. We hear Christians say it all the time in the common phrases “the devil made me do it” or “the devil tempted me.” What do phrases like these imply? They imply that blame and consequences lie somewhere else. For example, when God confronts Adam for eating the fruit he basically says, “the woman made me do it.” And when God confronts Eve, she does the same. What would happen if God would have confronted the serpent next? Who would have he blamed? By not taking responsibility for their own actions they are essentially saying to God, “it’s your fault. You put the serpent here.”

James 1:14 says, “each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.” In other words, our sins are not God’s, satan’s, demons, or our neighbor's fault. Our sins are our own fault, and we bear the guilt for them. That is not to say there was no outside influence, but the fault does not lie outside of ourselves. For example, if a person is addicted to nicotine, where does the temptation lie? Is it in the poster advertisement or in the brain? Yes, the advertisement can give a little push, but the one who is addicted does not need the advertisement to have the craving.

According to Augustine, this skewed understanding of guilt prevented him from seeing God. Why? Because a person that cannot take responsibility for their own guilt cannot repent. And a person who cannot repent cannot see God. An unrepentant heart is not a pure heart and it is the pure in heart who see God (Matt 5:8).[1]

Augustine was trying to breathe in God’s truth but he was unable to because his misunderstanding crushed and choked him. Often what stands in the way of seeing God for who he really is are our own unexamined presuppositional commitments.

Guide me in your truth and teach me,

for you are God my Savior,

and my hope is in you all day long.—Psalm 25:5

High King of heaven, lift the crushing bulk of my misunderstanding that I may be able to breathe in your truth.

[1] Skewed understanding of God prevents us from seeing God for who he really is. Worse still, Augustine had also accepted Manichee disbelief in Christ's incarnation. Taking on the Manichee dualism Christ’s incarnation only made sense if he pictured him as a wholly divine being emerging from God’s “superlucent mass" (5:20:3). If this was the case, it was impossible for Christ to be born of a virgin.

Note: These are my daily reflections as I go through Saint Agustine's Confessions. Unless otherwise noted, I am using Sarah Ruden's translation of the original text, and the NIV.


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