5 Principles For Purity From A 4th-Century Sex Addict
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. Here are five of them.
Purity Training Must Begin In The Home
Augustine begins Confessions by reflecting on his childhood and bitterly laments the lack of moral guidance he received, both at school and at home.
During a break from his studies, Augustine is with his pagan father at the baths, who observes that his son is ‘growing toward manhood’. But rather than take his son underwing to prepare him for sexual adulthood, he merely boasted to his wife that grandchildren would soon be on the way.
His Christian mother Monica did slightly better. She pulled her son aside and warned him “not to commit fornication and especially not to commit adultery with another man’s wife”, fearing more for her son’s safety than his purity.
But Augustine, looking back as a 45-year-old bishop, wishes his parents had given him far more guidance during this time. His mother’s counsel was good, but insufficient.
How I wish that there had been someone at that time to put a measure on my disorder and to turn to good use the fleeting beauties of these new temptations and to put limits to their delights.
One of my hopes as a pastor and writer is to encourage the launching of “holy conversations” between husbands and wives, parents and children, and church leaders and parishioners about God’s good and holy gift of sex. The more talking, the better. Leave it to the professionals, or trust your school’s curriculum, or let your child ‘just figure it out’ is madness. Augustine would know.
I slipped from you and went astray, my God, in my youth, wandering too far from my upholder and my stay, and I became to myself a wasteland.
Surround Yourself With Good Friends
One thing that stands out in Confessions is that Augustine is always in the presence of friends. Though he enjoyed growing fame as a rhetorician, it was more than his soaring personality or popularity that drew others to him. Augustine had the intuition that he needed friends.
When the death of his closest friend sends him sinking into depression, it is other friends who lift him up. When he struggles to emerge from the fog of a cult group which he joined for several years, it is a friend who helps give him doctrinal clarity. When he cannot see how to break his addiction to sex, he seeks counsel from a wise and older believer. Naturally, on the day of his break-through and conversion, he is with friends.
If in your own struggle for purity you are convinced that you can do this on your own, just you and Jesus, you could not be more mistaken. Jesus loves you too much to allow you to do life solo, apart from community. He intentionally mediates his presence and power to us through others. “When two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them,” Jesus said (Matthew 18:20).
If Augustine had no qualms about this, neither should you. Your freedom is waiting in the presence of godly friends.
Ask Prayer Warriors To Intercede For You
Augustine describes his mother Monica as a woman of constant prayer and piety. She tried to enlist the help of a local pastor to go to Augustine and show him his need for Christ. But the pastor replied that her son was too full of himself, ‘not yet fit to be taught’. “Let him alone and keep praying,” the pastor counseled her.
Monica left Augustine alone, but not the bishop, whom she continued to pester, begging and weeping for him to reconsider. Exasperated, the bishop finally showed her the door once and for all, but added, “As you live, it is impossible that the son of these tears should perish.”
In time, Monica would be venerated by the Catholic church for the example she set of a praying, faithful mother. (Here’s a fun-fact: Santa Monica, California is named after her).
In Augustine’s eyes, his mother was one of God’s mightiest tools in bringing him to faith, without whose intercession and intervention he would have been lost. If you have warriors of faith within your family or church, Augustine would encourage you to be open with them about your struggles, however painful or embarrassing it might seem.
Your freedom is waiting in the presence of godly friends.
Attend To The Spiritual Disciplines
It’s insightful to observe that as the day of Augustine’s conversion drew ever closer (though he himself could not see it coming), we find him diligently attending church and reading his Bible.
The sermons of the local pastor, Ambrose, lit a fire in his heart. “Though I did not realize it,” he confessed to God, “I was led to him by you so that…I might be led to you by him.”
The final push that brought him across the line of faith came when he looked down at an open Bible one day as he had been studying the writings of Paul. While writhing in great emotional agony, Augustine heard a child’s voice cry out from a nearby house, “Take and read. Take and read.”
In response to the voice, he plucked the Bible up from the table and let his eyes fall on where it opened. It opened to Romans 13:13-14, where he read, “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
Augustine described what happens next.
I had no wish to read further. There was no need to. For immediately I had reached the end of the sentence it was as though my heart was filled with the light of confidence and all the shadows of my doubt were swept away.
God may speak to us all day long in our spirit, but we usually have no capacity to sort out his voice from the others. It’s when you sit down with an open Bible in your lap, or plop yourself down in a chair or pew at church, that God can now get a word in edgewise.
Even though it may seem counter-intuitive, even hypocritical, to attend to the spiritual disciplines while your life is so out-of-control, the worst thing you can do is to abstain from them altogether.
Put Pleasure In Its Place
One of the hallmarks of the “last days” is that people will be “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:4). How foolish, Augustine would argue.
First, because God is the creator of every pleasure we enjoy, so how dare we swap out pleasure for God in our lives?
This makes our craving for pleasure above God not only idolatrous, but worse yet, adulterous.
So the soul commits fornication when she turns away from you and tries to find outside you things which, unless she returns to you cannot be found in their true and pure state.
But our lust for pleasure is foolish for a second reason – because no pleasure can last.
As Augustine looks back on the intense grief he felt when his friend died, he sees his mistake. He thought that this friendship was a pleasure he would be able to enjoy unendingly. Which of course was foolishness, since everything on earth ends, but one thing.
This being the case, the only way a pleasure cannot be lost is to love it in God – by allowing it to pass through your hands, enjoying it in its time, then giving it back to God.
Blessed is the man who loves you, who loves his friend in you…He alone loses no one dear to him, for they are all dear to him in one who is not lost. And who is this except our God, the God who made heaven and earth and who fills them…Wherever man’s soul turns, except toward you, it is fixed to sorrows, even if it fixes itself on things of beauty outside you and outside itself. These things of beauty would have no existence at all unless they were from you.
If you’re struggling with purity issues today, let Augustine’s thought and example show you the way home. Here are some questions to ponder:
- How was sex talked about in your family of origin? What things were you taught?
- Do your closest friends know of your struggles? If not, why not? Find a way to begin to share with them.
- Think of two or three prayer warriors in your orbit whom you can ask to pray regularly for you. Then go and share with them.
- One of the best spiritual habits for you to develop is regular (i.e. daily) Bible reading. How are you doing with this? If it’s still a struggle, ask a pastor or stronger Christian to mentor you.
- Meditate on the subject of pleasure for one week. Look up Bible verses about it. Ask yourself questions about it. Think deeply about why a person would choose pleasure over God. Write down your reflections as you go along.