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Confessions: Poked

I had an openmouthed fixation on professional distinctions, moneymaking, and marriage and you were laughing at me the whole time. I experienced very bitter difficulties in the pursuit of what I desired.—Saint Augustine, Confessions 6.9

Who causes our difficulties? Is it God, others, or ourselves? While a case can be made for each, Augustine pointed to himself.[1] Reflecting on the turbulence in his soul, he could see that it was not God who was stirring up his anxiety, but rather, it was all the things he was fixated on.

The desire for accolades kept him questioning if he had done enough to stay ahead of the next up-and-coming orator. The desire for wealth kept him worried about maintaining his lavish lifestyle (which feed into his first fixation. You can’t make money if you are replaced). And his desire for sex kept his body a slave to desire (which would distract him from accomplishing more professional distinctions. It was a feedback loop!).

Augustine was fixated on getting more of what, metaphorically, wounded his soul. So, what is God to do with a person in such a situation? Is he to cause more difficulty in order to make the person repent? No, of course not, how then could a person distinguish between the natural results of their fixation and God’s judgment? This would impede exposing evil for what it is.

Is God to remove the object of fixation? Possibly, but if it is truly dangerous then how could a person ever truly repent if the true nature of their fixation is not exposed? If God were to remove it they would either fall back into sin later or resent God. Moreover, this would impede the development of discernment.

So, if God is not to bring more difficulty, or take them away, then what is God to do?

According to Augustine, God “pokes” the wound.

Augustine wrote, “you poked [my soul’s] wound where it was most sore, so that she would leave everything else and turn to you… so that she would turn to you and be healed” (6.9.2). Centuries later, the martyr Oscar Romero used the same metaphor for repentance. Speaking about the societal injustices that were happening in El Salvador, he said, “No one likes their wounds touched, and that is why society [that has so many wounds] jumps when there is someone who touches them with courage” (my translation).[2]

A few years ago, I strained my left AC joint. After a few months, it was feeling better so I decided to get back into the gym. A friend of mine, who is a physiotherapist, asked me how my shoulder was feeling. I told him it was fine except for the fact that it often felt sore, weaker than my right, and could not press forward. But I assured him, and everyone else, that it was better because I could at least lift things. However, in a short examination, he poked around my shoulder and a sharp pain kicked in that made my shoulder feel like it did when I first injured it. No matter how much I wanted to deny it, his poking affirmed that I was not healed. As Oscar Romero said, we jump when a wound is touched, and that reaction should make us change our behavior.

Just as my friend's poking revealed the reality of my shoulder, so did God’s poking reveal Augustine’s reality. It was not God or his opponents causing his difficulties, but his own fixations. And God would continue to poke at his wounds until he finally realized that his fixations were the problem and he only needed to repent to be healed.

For this people’s heart has become calloused;

they hardly hear with their ears,

and they have closed their eyes.

Otherwise they might see with their eyes,

hear with their ears,

understand with their hearts

and turn, and I would heal them.’— Matthew 13:15; Isaiah 6:10

Lord, poke my wounds that I might turn to you to be healed.

UP NEXT: What does God's 'poking' look like? We will explore God's poking in the next post.

[1] The difficulties of life should not be trivialized. Christians should avoid gaslighting Christians into believing that all their difficulties are their fault for either lack of faith or unfaithfulness. We live in a world of sin and people with free will, meaning that many of the things that happen to us are out of our control. However, that is not to say that many of our difficulties are not in our control. Some are of our own doing, and these are the difficulties that Augustine addresses. [2] Romero, Oscar La Violencia del Amor, p31

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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