Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Devotion on Augustine's Confessions

Your hands have made and fashioned me; give me understanding that I may learn your commandments.
Psalm 119:73
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The Good Giver

On your exceedingly great mercy rests all my hope. Give what you command, and then command whatever you will (223).
-St. Augustine, The Confessions

My wife likes to make lists. She makes lists of things to do at home, at work, on vacation, what to buy at the store, books she has read, books she would like to read, songs she likes, and, just about anything else that you can imagine making a list for. She is a list person. In many ways, I am the opposite. I enjoy living somewhat more spontaneously, but I have my lists. I like to make mental lists of all the good things I have done. When I unloaded the dishwasher, all the times I cleaned out the cat box, when and where I went to church, etc.
These are two very different ways of making and keeping lists. These lists are pretty common, and, even though I sometimes feel like I’m boasting, I don’t mind admitting to keeping these kinds of lists of “good things.” But there is a different list that I keep, and I’m sure to some degree everyone keeps a similar list. It is the list that comes unbidden on a sleepless night, the list that comes after a failure, the list that comes when you know you are wrong, that list of our failures. You know what this list is like. You are lying in bed after a hard day, you are tossing and turning and you just cannot get that one particular thing out of your head. It is this kind of list that haunts us, that gives that ache in the heart, that makes the stomach quiver a bit. It is this list that we all keep, but do not want anyone else to know about: our list of sins.

It is this same kind of list that Augustine enumerates in detail in book 10 of his famous confessions. Here we see the most private, at times absurd, at times heart-wrenching confession of one of Christendom’s great men of faith. This man is revered by Christians of all stripes, and yet he is so unlike those Christians who revere him. Quite unlike the attitudes of self-righteousness, holier-than-thou Christians we have all encountered (and perhaps have been), this beautiful saint of God in Christ shows us just how depraved he is. It’s not enough for him to simply confess to a general sinfulness, he goes through the senses and enumerates in painful detail just how sinful he is.

And yet, there is no sense of over-powering shame. There is no sense of hopelessness or despair in these confessions. Rather there is a sense of great relief. A relief that comes from knowing your disease and the cure. A relief that comes from having the answer in all its simplicity: “Give what you command, and then command whatever you will.” Augustine is a saint, not because he was perfect, not because he is credited with certain miraculous signs or an extraordinarily holy life. Augustine is one of those most beautiful and precious saints of God because he places all his failures in God’s hands and receives all of God’s riches in return. This is the wonder of these confessions of St. Augustine, that he is so honest in his shortcomings and so bold in faith.

I will continue to make my lists. I will continue to fail, to fall short, to embarrass myself and to sin against God. I will continue to feel terrible about all of those sins on sleepless nights. That is part of being human. But instead of hiding those lists in the deep recesses of my heart, I will hold them up in beggar’s hands before the face of my glorious King and loving Father. I will hold them up as an unworthy offering and He will give me that most perfect righteousness that is found in His only Son, Jesus Christ.

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Holy Lord, You know the list of my heart. You know my ways, You know my unworthiness, and yet You still love me with and ever-lasting love. How can I please You? What offering could I make for so great a gift as this? I will offer up to You my weakness and sinfulness and You will provide me with the righteousness of Your only Son. I will give You my nothingness and You will give me Your holiness. What amazing love this is to be given so freely. On Your exceedingly great mercy rests all my hope. Give what you command, and then command whatever You will.

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