Lessons from the Life of Augustine
Augustine was born in 354 to a mother, Monica, who was a devout Christian. His father, on the other hand, was a pagan through and through. His mother was persistent in her commitment to Christ and desired that her son be exposed to the Christian faith. So from his earliest years, Monica took Augustine to church, prayed for him and taught him faithfully at home. Yet despite such a solid upbringing Augustine turned from the Christian faith in his teen years. But his mother was a woman of prayer and would not let her son flee his boyhood faith so easily. Augustine would write to God later in life, “My mother, Your faithful servant, wept for me before You more than mothers weep when lamenting their dead children.” So committed was she to praying for her wandering son that her local bishop told her, “It cannot be that the son of these tears should perish.” Not the greatest pastoral advice, but it demonstrates the fervor with which Monica prayed for her son. Here it is that we find lesson #1 – we need to be faithful in witness and prayer for the lost. Monica witnessed and she prayed. She pounded on the doors of heaven and she remained faithful in her earnest endeavors to witness to her son. The result - eventually, when her son was in his early 30's, he converted. We must do the same with those around us who are lost, even those who may seem lost beyond finding. We may not see the same result as Monica did, but ours is not the result but the obedience and effort.
“O Lord, give me chastity, but not yet.” This was Augustine’s prayer as a young man living in the sin city of Carthage, North Africa. He writes of this city upon moving there that “... all around me hissed a cauldron of illicit loves.” In fact this is why he moved to Carthage in the first place. He desired to abandon the chains of his Christian home and to satisfy his immoral pleasures to the utmost. But after a while, and no doubt as a result of his mother’s persistent prayers, he began to feel that this was not the way to live. He described his attitude change thus, “God touched with a bitter taste all my illicit pleasures.” God was beginning to enlighten Augustine to the emptiness of sin and to the possibility of finding hope. So Augustine engaged in further, deeper study of Neo-Platonic philosophy and at one point even joined an obscure cult known as the Manichees only to find that the emptiness remained and the hope was further off. Yet the relenting nature of God’s grace would not abate, and it placed him in the most unlikely of places, for Augustine that is. It placed him in the pews of the church in Milan.
Augustine desired to make a career out of rhetoric; someone who was as good a wordsmith as Augustine could make quite a living teaching rhetoric, and who happened to be the most renowned rhetorician of his day? Ambrose the bishop of Milan. So Augustine moved to Milan and began to find himself in church every Sunday listening to the beauty of Ambrose’s words. At first, Augustine said, “My pleasure was in the charm of his language,” but soon he admitted, “I began to like him. At first, indeed not as a teacher of the truth, for I had absolutely no confidence in your church, but I began to like him as a human being who was kind to me.” Let me stop here for lesson #2 – the power of each and every person to influence someone for Christ by simply taking an interest. This is the beginning of discipleship, this is the beginning of soul-saving. In a world that is so impersonal - text messages, email, Facebook, Twitter, phone calls, etc. - a little bit of personal interest and face to face kindness can have an eternal influence. Ambrose acted kindly toward Augustine and it had a soul-saving influence. Think you could do this?
Back to the story. So Augustine is sitting in church listening to Ambrose and beginning to speak with him outside of the Sunday services and God began to ever more strongly tug upon his heart. It was so strong of a pull that one day Augustine found himself in his garden sitting under a fig tree in a state of utter despair. I’ll let Augustine himself tell you what happened next. It’s a beautiful recollection:
I cast myself down I know not how, under a certain fig-tree, giving full vent to my tears; and the floods of mine eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to Thee. And, not indeed in these words, yet to this purpose, spake I much unto Thee: and Thou, O Lord, how long? how long, Lord, wilt Thou be angry for ever? Remember not our former iniquities, for I felt that I was held by them. I sent up these sorrowful words: How long, how long, "to-morrow, and tomorrow?" Why not now? why not is there this hour an end to my uncleanness? So was I speaking and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo! I heard from a neighbouring house a voice, as of boy or girl, I know not, chanting, and oft repeating, "Take up and read; Take up and read. " Instantly, my countenance altered, I began to think most intently whether children were wont in any kind of play to sing such words: nor could I remember ever to have heard the like. So checking the torrent of my tears, I arose; interpreting it to be no other than a command from God to open the book, and read the first chapter I should find. For I had heard of Antony, that coming in during the reading of the Gospel, he received the admonition, as if what was being read was spoken to him: Go, sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and come and follow me: and by such oracle he was forthwith converted unto Thee. Eagerly then I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there had I laid the volume of the Apostle when I arose thence. I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence. No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.
So at the age of 32 Augustine finally became a believer. Here is lesson #3 – there is no lost cause. Praise God - there are no lost causes! No matter what our eyes see, no matter what we may think about those around us, the power of God’s saving grace is greater than anybody’s sin. Let this be an encouragement to you as you pray for, witness to, and disciple those who just may not seem to get it. Let it be an encouragement to reach out to those around you with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For in his powerful working, there is no lost cause.
3 lessons, 3 powerful challenges. May God find us faithful.
Soli Deo Gloria