Confessions: Humble Reverence
But what shameful acts can be inflicted on you, who can’t be tainted? Or what crimes can be committed against you, who can’t be harmed? Nonetheless, you punish the wrong that human beings do to themselves; when they sin against you, they treat their own souls with irreverence, and their wickedness deceives them. They taint or twist their own nature, which you made and regulated… The return to you is through humble reverence.—Saint Augustine, Confessions 3.16
Why is God angered by our wickedness if our actions cannot bring him shame or harm? Augustine argues that it is because in sinning we treat our soul irreverently, and our irreverence deceives us into believing that our behavior is harmless. When I was a child I would be disciplined for running or roughhousing with my friends in the church sanctuary. In the eyes of the elders, this kind of play was irreverent and therefore inappropriate in the house of God. Had they not disciplined me I would have ‘deceived’ myself into believing that places and things are not sacred and do not deserve a level of respect. It is the discipline for my irreverence that prevented me from deceiving myself.
In the same way, God is angered by our sin because when we sin we treat our soul with irreverence, and deceive ourselves into thinking treating ourselves in such a way is okay. Sin destroys the person before it destroys the world. For it is only a destructive person that can destroy the world. When a person loses reverence for him/herself, he/she will soon lose reverence for the world.
According to Augustine, the return back to God is through humble reverence of ourselves. The fact that we bear His image and contain His breathe should cause us to pause and reflect on how sacred we are. Our reverence does not change us, but it changes our attitude toward our behavior. But as Augustine notes about God: “You lend your ear to the groans of those in shackles, and you free us from the chains we’ve made for ourselves…”
An adulterous woman consumes a man,
then wipes her mouth and says, “What’s wrong with that?”—Proverbs 30:20
Lord, make me reverent to my soul that I may not deceive myself.
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.