Confessions: I Put Off Living In You
“Day after day, I put off living in you, but I didn’t put off dying every day in myself. I loved the happy life, but I didn’t love her in the place where she presides. I ran away from her and looked for her at the same time.”—Saint Augustine, Confessions 6.20
Augustine was a very busy man. Between teaching, lesson planning, and paying his respects to his patrons, he had very little time for anything else. Desperately he asked, “when can I simply take the time off I need and give my mind a break from the stress of its worries?” Seeing that life is short and that some lessons must be learned before we die, but take time; he said, “to hell with all this! We’ve had enough of this empty, worthless stuff. We need to devote ourselves solely to investigating the truth.”
Chapters 20 and 22 are a peek into the conflict inside of Augustine between his desire to pursue wisdom and find love. In retrospect, Augustine can see that God empowers those who ask for the strength of chastity and regrets his attempts to persuade Alypius that a man can marry and pursue wisdom. His dichotomy of marriage and the pursuit of wisdom is very similar to Plato’s argument in the Republic that only the unmarried can be philosophers because they are not distracted, partial, or blinded by their love and family.
From Augustine’s perspective, living in God is a complete and total giving of one's attention to God that cannot be distracted by anything else, even a family. All Christians must “die” to self (Gal 2:20-21, 1 Cor 15:31), but only some live in God. In his early years, Augustine believed he would have been “excessively miserable” if he didn’t have the arms of a woman around him. He later saw this attitude as a sickness that needed the medicine of God’s mercy.
Augustine was undoubtedly not a middle-of-the-road kind of man and a man of his time. This was often to his benefit, but in this case, it was to his detriment. Pursuing knowledge and wisdom is undoubtedly more accessible when no one is tying you down or competing for your attention. But this assumes the Aristotelian notion that wisdom proper deals with the abstract, fundamental metaphysical truths of reality.
In Scripture, wisdom is practical, not abstract. Wisdom is for those who live life, not those who avoid it. Wisdom is for those who live with and among others to prosper, not a mere exercise of facts. Augustine’s position of Chasity, in the end, is not his problem. Rather, his problem is his hard position for it. Some are called to be chaste, but those who have that calling are no more “in God” than those who do not.
But there is wisdom to find in Augustine’s heart. Read the quote above one more time and reflect on what Augustine says. Though his focus may be misplaced, he is not entirely wrong. A person may die to self regularly but still not live in God. We may desire a happy life but look for it in the wrong place.
An atheist can practice self-restraint for self-improvement. One can be stoic without living in God. A smoker can stop smoking, a drunk can stop drinking, a liar can stop lying, and an irascible person can control their emotions by simple logic. People can say no to all the harmful and evil things in life because they want to be happy and recognize that life is better without them. This is the cycle of misery; doing all that is necessary to be happy but never being satisfied.
While I cannot speak for the happiness of the unbeliever, I can speak for the believer's happiness. The Christian who dies to self but does not live in God is bound for unhappiness. Then what is “living in God?” Although Augustine does not answer this question here, let it be enough to say for now that it is living within the freedom and truth of God’s grace (John 8:36).
It is torture to deny oneself while not being free. Self-control without freedom turns into legalism and guilt. But when we live within the grace and freedom of Christ, saying no to ourselves is a freeing choice rather than an imposition.
So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.—John 8:36 NRSVue.
Lord, may I not put off living in you. May I live freely in your grace so that I may live the happy life I am searching for.
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.