Taking the advice of C. S. Lewis, we want to help our readers “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds,” which, as he argued, “can be done only by reading old books.” Continuing our Rediscovering Forgotten Classics series we want to survey some forgotten Christian classics that remain relevant and serve the church today.
Speaking, preaching, and writing for publication can be a spiritual tightrope. On the one hand we’re told as Christians not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, and on the other we’re told that as writers and speakers we should talk about ourselves so that audiences can identify with us. By being vulnerable we can draw in readers and listeners, and so help them benefit from our life and work.
John Stott—well-known London pastor, writer, and speaker who died in 2011—was famously reluctant to say anything about himself. Though his books sold millions and he spoke to thousands all over the world, he almost never said anything about his own life. Stott navigated the tightrope by simply getting off it. He remained staunchly Bible-focused.
That is clearly one valid way to resolve the issue. Yet we can benefit greatly from writing and speaking directly about ourselves, telling stories about ourselves. Doing so can be an exercise in remembering. And when we remember, we have an opportunity for confession and for thanksgiving to God.
If we do decide to write or speak directly about ourselves, how can we be sure we don’t fall into self-absorption? Perhaps we can gain some clues from one of the most famous instances of a Christian writing about himself. In fact, his book essentially created the whole genre of spiritual memoir more than 1,500 years ago. I’m talking, of course, about Augustine and his Confessions.
Augustine, the great African theologian and churchman, lived from AD 354 to 430. He migrated to Italy, where he converted to Christianity. He then returned to Africa and became bishop of Hippo (present-day Algeria). He was a prolific writer. Other than the Confessions, his book The City of God is probably his best-known volume.
Confessions chronicles his life from his earliest days (even offering reflections on what was possibly going on in him while still in his mother’s womb!) into early adulthood. He does not systematically tell us everything about himself but instead focuses on his moral and intellectual development as they relate to and culminate in his conversion to Christianity at age 31. For me, several aspects stand out about how Augustine exercised the spiritual discipline of gaining perspective, even while focusing on himself.
1. Confesses His Sins and His Faith
The book is called Confessions for good reason. Augustine confesses to God in two ways. One, obviously, is by confessing his sin. He notes his propensity for stealing, gluttony, and cheating as a child and a teen along with his strong sexual urges. He confesses disobeying parents and teachers, as well as his thirst for the praise of others.
He also admits his narrow, inadequate intellectual efforts. He evaluated some of his previous thinking this way: “I didn’t yet see that the pivot of such an important matter is in your artistry, All-Powerful One, since on your own you make wonders” (97–98). He couldn’t really understand the fullness of beauty or reality if God was not in the picture—especially if he didn’t see that God was the artist who painted the picture.
In addition he doesn’t just mention sins he’s already conquered but is honest enough to discuss those he still struggles with. “Actual drunkenness is a far cry from my life; you will be merciful and keep it from coming anywhere near me,” he tells his Master. “But sometimes too much drinking creeps up on your slave; you’ll be merciful in putting that, too, at a great distance from me” (318).
Yes, this is Saint Augustine. He doesn’t claim drinking any alcohol is wrong, but he knows what too much is (as do the rest of us) and acknowledges his dependence on God for the fruit of the Spirit of self-control when it comes to the fruit of the vine. Augustine’s honesty calls me to ask, Am I being honest about myself as I write?
Augustine doesn’t just confess his faults, however. He makes a confession of faith. He confesses God’s mercy, grace, generosity, wisdom, and more. Thus he balances his weaknesses with God’s greatness. He is asking himself, Where do I see God’s hand in this episode, this story? What do I learn about God and his world as a result? What can I praise him for? The answers to these questions may or may not work their way into our writing. But asking and answering them should work their way into our lives.
2. Uses Self-Deprecating Humor
Augustine puts himself in perspective by using self-deprecating humor. Famously he says that before his conversion he had prayed to God, “Give me chastity and self-restraint, but don’t do it just yet” (318). Learning to laugh at ourselves is one of the healthiest spiritual exercises we can engage in. When we take ourselves too seriously, we’re more prone to be offended by others, to let ourselves get in the way of what God is up to.
Learning to laugh at ourselves is one of the healthiest spiritual exercises we can engage in.
Making myself the butt of my own jokes is good for my spiritual and psychological health. It also has the advantage of reducing the distance between me and my audience. I’m not an authority seated high above them but one of them, on a journey like them, trying to make some sense out of life. We are alike.
3. Honors Other People
Augustine makes sure he isn’t always the hero of his own story. His mother, Monica, stands out. She is tenacious in prayer and even follows him from Africa to Milan after he left town on a ship, keeping his plans hidden from her. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, is another major influence who helped him begin to see there was some sense in Christianity after all.
We don’t have to be the one with the new insight, the new strategy, the initiative that helped people. When we learn something from others or see their good deeds, we should be quick to give credit.
4. Submits to Scripture
Augustine puts himself in perspective by putting himself under the authority of Scripture. Though Augustine occasionally references passages explicitly, he regularly alludes to the Bible without directly quoting, usually once, twice, or three times a paragraph. Footnotes in modern translations show this clearly. His mind was saturated with the language, the stories, and the teaching of the Bible.
He also overtly submits himself to Scripture. When talking about the authority God has given humans to judge, he offers this exception:
It doesn’t apply to your book [the Bible] itself. . . . Thus, a person, though he’s already of the Spirit and renewed by the recognition of God according to the image of the one who created him, ought to be a doer of the law, and not a judge of it. (462)
One of the great works of Western literature, from perhaps the most important thinker of Christian antiquity, in a revolutionary new translation by one of today’s leading classicists
Sarah Ruden’s fresh, dynamic translation of Confessions brings us closer to Augustine’s intent than any previous version. It puts a glaring spotlight on the life of one individual to show how all lives have meaning that is universal and eternal.
To achieve perspective in this way, we need to read the Bible regularly and widely. But we also need to study it in a way that shows respect for it. Too often we atomize the text, pulling out isolated verses here and there and smashing them together as seems right to us. The Bible, however, is not a book of timeless truths or the “Sayings of Chairman God.” Instead of putting ourselves in charge of how Scripture is organized, we let the Bible itself guide our study. We do this by emphasizing the study of whole books of the Bible, trying to discern what the author was aiming to get across in the entire book, not just in pieces.
When we learn something from others or see their good deeds, we should be quick to give credit.
In a dramatic shift, Augustine spends the last three of his 13 chapters not by talking about himself but by offering a thorough and deep reflection on an extended passage—the first chapter of Genesis. He analyzes it as a whole. Yes, he is a man of his times and often resorts to an allegorical reading that I wouldn’t generally encourage. Nonetheless, he shows his intent to have his mind and heart fully shaped by God’s Word taken as a whole.
5. Sees the Grander Story
This shift from his own story to Genesis can seem odd. Why, after spending 300 pages on himself, does he switch in the last 100 pages to the beginning of Genesis? It seems like he has started an entirely different book.
In doing this, however, Augustine puts himself in perspective—by setting his story in the context of a larger story. His story is not the main event. It is one piece of a majestic cosmic narrative of God and his works. This gives Augustine’s story and mine a sense both of proportion and of significance. My story is only part of a larger whole, so I do not take too much credit. But, oh, how magnificent is that story—from creation to consummation, from promise to fulfillment, from death to life—and I am a part of it!
6. Writes to God
The final way Augustine helps us is by his example of addressing the entire book to God. He writes to an audience of One.
Doing this makes sure he continually redirects his focus away from himself to God. It gives him perspective on his life, reminding him that he is not the primary character in the story of his life. Rather, God is. He credits God, for example, with giving him the ideas that expose the errors of the Manichaeans, saying, “It’s you, truthful God, who repudiate these people, proving them wrong, and find them at fault” (230). Augustine then proceeds to lay out an argument on why they are wrong. Obviously, these are Augustine’s arguments, but he acknowledges God as their source.
The spiritual discipline of perspective. That is the gift Augustine offers those of us who talk about ourselves.
All the while, Augustine is clearly aware other people will be reading the book. He asks:
To whom am I telling the story? It isn’t of course to you, my God, but in your presence I’m telling it to my race, the human race, however minute a snippet of that might stumble on my writing, such as it is. And what’s the story’s purpose? Obviously, it’s so that I and whoever reads this can contemplate from what depths we must cry out to you. (37–38)
Augustine wrote the Confessions about a dozen years after becoming a Christian and just a few years after becoming a bishop. As a result, a significant part of his purpose seems to be pastoral. He wants to offer a model, one way in which someone might become a Christian, whether the struggle was moral, intellectual, or both. He wants to show a way that seekers in Hippo and elsewhere might come to know and love the Lord he has come to know and love. What God has given him, he offers back to God.
We don’t have to write a whole book addressed to God to practice the spiritual discipline of perspective. But we can still ask, Where did my ideas come from? Who gave me this facility with words? Who was the main actor in my life as I experienced success or failure? What am I learning about God even as I tell my own story? Such a focus takes the pressure off me. I can worry less about how many listeners I get or if they will be pleased with my message. I can instead concentrate on whether it pleases God.
The spiritual discipline of perspective. That is the gift Augustine offers those of us who talk about ourselves. It’s a gift we can give thanks for.