5 More Tips For Purity From St. Augustine
Maybe one of the greatest purity manuals ever written was a classic from the 4th-century called Confessions, written by the one we know today as St. Augustine. He wrote the book less as a biography and more as a psalm of praise to God for delivering him from his life of sin. And one of the dark behaviors that haunted him before his conversion was addiction to sex.
From his conversion forwards, Augustine’s life completely changed. So much so that this former sex addict was able to embrace in exchange, not marriage, but complete celibacy. The prodigious output of his life as a pastor, writer and theologian poured out from this transformation.
So what was it in the end that won the day for Augustine? It was the question burning inside of me. Why could he let go of his sexual lust and I – a Christian and aspiring pastor – couldn’t?
As I read, and re-read, Confessions, poring over my notes, and mulling over what I had underlined, a number of vivid principles emerged which became like buoys in storm-tossed waters to guide me safely into harbor. In an earlier article I discussed the first five. (To read that article, click here.)
Here are five more principles that sealed the deal for me.
Ponder Eternity Frequently
This isn’t just work for the philosophers among us to do. Christian values cannot be satisfactorily practiced without regularly setting our minds on “things above” (Col.3:2).
What Augustine came to realize is that everything in existence on this side of eternity – even time itself – has a beginning, middle and end. We see this law at work even in our very speaking. The first words we speak in a sentence must go and make room for the next to follow, or the meaning of the complete sentence could not be appreciated. So it must be with the pleasures of life. We cannot hang on to things too tightly.
Instead what we must do is love, then let go, and give what we love back to God. And if we see things properly – through the lens of eternity – we will learn to gladly let go, for in eternity we will receive the pleasure back from God, but this time, not just the tiny part we grasped on earth, but the entire, majestic whole.
What is withered in you will flower again, and all your illnesses will be made well, and all that was flowing and wasting from you will regain shape and substance and will form part of you again…and abide with you forever before God who stands and abides forever.
Why then be perverse, my soul, and why follow your own flesh? Will you not rather turn and let your flesh follow you? [It’s a question every porn user should ask themselves.] If bodies please you, praise God for them and turn your love back from them to their maker, lest you should displease him in being pleased by them…It is he whom we must love; he made all this and he is not far off.
These words of Augustine’s, when first I read them, slammed against my frozen heart like an ice barge, and it didn’t take long for cracks to appear. Sure, the pleasure of the sexual experience was among the most intensely satisfying of any pleasure. What of it? How foolish to make this the central core of one’s life, to the exclusion of friendship, love, conversation, and a thousand other life-enriching pursuits.
Like spring returning to Narnia after that long frozen winter, I slowly came back to my senses, back to myself, back to my Lord. Augustine would summon you to do the same.
Draw Lessons From The Lives Around You
Despite his soaring intellect, Augustine was very much a practical theologian. He never forgot he was a pastor first, and so had little use for theoretical ideas if they couldn’t be lived out at street level. He constantly learned lessons simply by observing people.
The laughter of a town-drunk gave him insight into human happiness. Meeting the unimpressive leader of his cult group so soured him, that he soon abandoned it. Conversely, watching Ambrose up close, even observing little things like his studying and reading habits, drew Augustine ever closer to Christ.
His final push across the line of faith came in the form of two conversations Augustine had where he heard stories of several dramatic conversions. One was of a famous Roman scholar named Victorinus, whose writings Augustine knew. As a friend shared with him the story of how Victorinus had courageously accepted Christ despite the certain loss of prestige and fortune, Augustine writes, “I was on fire to be like him.”
We live in a cynical age which loves to explore the underbelly of good people, celebrate the anti-hero, and wallow in failure. We’re conditioned to look for loopholes and ask, “What’s the catch?” Augustine’s example is a reminder to draw inspiration and delight from the ‘saints in the land’ (Psalm 16:3) who by grace show us that godliness in an ungodly age is possible.
As Victorinus was for Augustine, so Augustine became for me a lamp lighting the way toward freedom.
Submit Your Body, Mind And Will To Training
Perhaps the biggest epiphany I received in reading Confessions was the insight that in my fight to be pure, I face two obstacles: a sin nature for which I need Christ’s power to overcome, and an untrained nature for which I need Christ’s discipline. Sin not only needs to be repented of, but unlearned.
When Paul instructed Timothy, “Train yourself to be godly” (1 Timothy 4:7), he meant it. The solution for learning how to sit at a computer or sit in a hotel room alone on a business trip without plunging into forbidden places is not just to pray more, but to become physically, mentally and emotionally strong.
Augustine offers some fascinating glimpses into the inner workings of his heart and mind as he writes about what happened when he pushed back against his sin.
Early on, his prayers were laughably weak. Most any addict could relate to this prayer that Augustine offered at first.
I, wretched young man that I was…had begged you for chastity and had said, ‘Make me chaste…but not yet.’ I was afraid that you might hear me too soon and cure me too soon from the disease of a lust which I preferred to be satisfied rather than extinguished.
But as he begins to attend church more regularly and read his Bible, he notices that a change is happening in how he thinks of Christ. A new will was kicking and stretching within him.
The new will which I was beginning to have and which urged me to worship you in freedom and to enjoy you, God, the only certain joy, was not yet strong enough to overpower the old will which by its oldness had grown hard in me.
His old habits protested and resisted. They even spoke to him.
They were holding me back, pulling me by the garment of my flesh and softly murmuring in my ear, ‘Are you getting rid of us?’ And, ‘From this moment shall we never be with you again for all eternity?’ And ‘From this moment will you never for all eternity be allowed to do this or do that?’
But Augustine noticed that their voice was growing dimmer.
Violence of habit spoke the words, ‘Do you think that you can live without us?’ But by now it spoke very faintly.
And very soon after, Augustine was well. And free. And whole.
Those lost in porn or any similar addiction have developed terrible habits of heart, mind and body. As Augustine experienced, the first time you walk away from the computer without saying hi to your ‘friends’ will be agonizing.
But push back, and push through, you must do if you’re to come to freedom, and in the resistance comes a strengthening, as with any muscle that is pushed to its limit. “Virtue – even attempted virtue – brings light,” said C.S. Lewis. “Indulgence brings fog.”
With Augustine’s encouragement, a growing strength came to my own heart. Early on I could hardly sit at a computer without a terrible gnawing going on inside me. But in time, those desires muted and then became dormant. Not only was a spiritual transformation occurring, but as science has now shown us, I was literally rewiring by brain for new behaviors.
I was training myself for godliness.
Realize That Until You Move Past This, Your Usefulness To Christ Will Be Limited
Stepping back from Confessions, there was a more sweeping observation to be made from Augustine’s life which was a powerful incentive for me to leave my sin behind.
Augustine would go on to write more than a hundred works in his career, ranging from classical sermons, to surgical attacks on various heresies, to magisterial theological treatises. The blessing this was to the church cannot be over-exaggerated.
But had his mind and heart never been cleansed of that fog of lust, it is doubtful that he ever would have made anywhere near such an impact on the wider Church. His sin would have dissipated his achievements and diminished his testimony, and we’d all be saying, “Augustine, who?”
Yet it’s not Augustine I’m thinking of right now. It’s you, my friend. It’s anyone who’s reading this, who finds themselves caught in this awful web, or anything similar. It matters that you break free. It matters that this not have the last laugh over you.
Right now, as things stand, you are stealing from God. He invested in you gifts and abilities which he intended to be used for the promotion of his goodness upon the earth. Right now, as things stand, you are stealing from your family and friends because they don’t get you at your best. Right now, as things stand, you are stealing from yourself, denying yourself the satisfaction of enjoying your Maker and enjoying a life lived for his glory.
We’re not saying that you’ll be the next Augustine. Or that porn is standing between you and greatness. But it is standing between you and faithfulness. God will not judge you because you didn’t measure up to the Bishop of Hippo. He’ll judge you for not being you.
The Greatest Sin-Breaker Is A Heart Filled With The Love Of Christ
I’ve saved the best lesson Augustine would teach us for last. A few chapters after describing his conversion, Augustine offers this beautiful psalm of praise.
Late it was that I loved you, beauty so ancient and so new, late I have loved you! And look, you were within me and I was outside, and there I sought for you and in my ugliness I plunged into the beauties that you have made. You were with me, and I was not with you. Those outer beauties kept me far from you, yet if they had not been in you, they would not have existed at all. You called, you cried out, you shattered my deafness. You flashed, you shone, you scattered my blindness.
As I read Augustine’s words back in the days I was lost in my sin, my first discovery was that I couldn’t even bring myself to honestly speak to God in the way he did. Oh, I could say the words, but they would ring flat. “Beauty so ancient and so new…bla, bla, bla.” Then it dawned on me. I had ‘lost my first love’ for Jesus (Rev.2:4).
A wise old preacher had once said, “When we sin, it’s usually not because we love our sin too much; it’s that we love God too little.” After all, hadn’t Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey me”? (John 14:15). It took reading Confessions to show me the true wound of my heart.
How though do you fix a love-deficit in your relationship with God? It wasn’t as if I could just flip a switch and love God more. Again, Augustine pointed out for me the path to walk.
First, I had to remember all the ways that God had loved me first.
This love Augustine had for his Lord was not something that he manufactured. It was not a product of his effort. He didn’t work himself up to feeling it. Long before the tiniest pulse of love for God beat in his heart, Augustine was first immersed in love from God.
“You were within me and I was outside…You were with me, and I was not with you…You called, you cried out, you shattered…you flashed, you shone.” Augustine understood what the apostle John meant when he said, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
I had forgotten the heart and the soul of the gospel. Forgotten all that my Lord had done for me. Both in his days, as the Word made flesh, and in my days.
Second, I then had to repent for that forgetting. There is never an excuse for our sinning. There is only a sacrifice.
Thankfully by God’s grace, I made like a long-jumper and flung myself headlong back into Jesus’ arms. I knew I couldn’t just wake up the next morning and decide to love God more, any more than a candle could light itself. To be lit, a candle needs to be immersed in flame.
I asked Jesus, begged him, pleaded with him to forgive me, and to help me do what I could not do for myself.
Augustine described my repentance:
Let truth, the light of my heart, speak to me and not my own darkness!…I went astray and I remembered you. I heard your voice behind me, calling me back, and I could scarcely hear it for all the noise made by those without your peace. And now, look, I return thirsty and panting to your foundation. Let no one hold me back! I shall drink of it, and I shall live of it. Let me not be my own life! I lived evilly of myself. I have been death to myself. I come back to life in you.
Perhaps as you’re reading this right now, your heart is thumping wildly in your chest with the realization that this is what you must do, right here, right now. I wouldn’t delay, my friend. I wouldn’t put it off for another day. Those tossing emotions and restless thoughts are God’s way of calling you home. Of calling you back to yourself. Of calling you back to life, by filling you with a new and holy love for the one who died for you.