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It’s rare for people to admit they’ve made big mistakes in the past.
A pair of church historians, William Cook and Ronald Herzman, recall the time the moderator of a political forum asked the candidates vying in a local election to acknowledge a single personal misstep – anything at all – and what they had learned from it. Silence. One brave soul finally admitted a minor infraction, something on the order of going 33 mph in a 30-mph zone.
No one in the crowd was tempted to conclude they had somehow been blessed with the most faultless candidates of any generation.
That’s because most people are terrified of going public with their “real story” – the one that spotlights their most foolish decisions, secret sins, and darkest moments.
Which brings us to the Preacher’s Dilemma. The leaders of God’s people know they need to be transparent. Members of the flock are reassured when they find out that their pastors and teachers are bona fide sinners, just like everyone else.
Transparent, yes. But not too transparent. If you’re our spiritual leader, you’d better not reveal that you’re a world champion sinner – because then you can’t be our leader after all. It’s a thin line to walk: Be authentic, but don’t be a hot mess.
The tragic result is that all too many pastors retreat into varying degrees of hiding. They live behind masks. It doesn’t feel safe to tell the whole truth about their temptations, their loneliness, their depression, and their moments of outright moral failure.
One of history’s most famous spiritual leaders decided to go a different way.
It’s not a stretch to say that Augustine, the bishop of Hippo (a town on the north African coast), belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of Christians theologians. He changed forever the way that followers of Jesus think about God, truth, Scripture, and time. He also authored the world’s first spiritual autobiography – a “tell-all” book that astonished readers at its publication in 400 A.D., and remains a fascinating read 17 centuries later.
The Confessions, comprised of 13 sections written in Latin, is framed as a prayer to God. Its opening paragraph includes one of church history’s most quotable quotes: “For You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
Augustine, who was in his early 40s when he wrote this work, reveals that he had frequently prayed another memorable prayer: “Make me chaste, Lord…but not yet.”
He admitted that he had spent most of his adult life ravaged by lust. He acknowledged multiple liaisons and fathering a child with a live-in lover. He had spent years dabbling in astrology, and had been active in a religious cult. This was not the sort of track record one would normally associate with a bishop. It’s just possible that Augustine wrote his masterpiece as a way of heading off future detractors. By coming clean, they would have nothing to say. He had said it all himself.
No one had ever done this before. Very few spiritual leaders have done it since.
Confessions includes two particularly memorable anecdotes.
The first is Augustine’s shameful recollection, at the age of 16, of hanging out with some other teenage boys. One day they decided to steal the ripe pears from a neighbor’s tree. It was mindless anarchy. They already had access to better pears. But it felt thrilling to be destructive just for the sake of being destructive. Augustine remembers eating a few of the pears and throwing the rest to the pigs. Looking back, he realized this was evidence that human hearts are hopelessly skewed.
During his 20s, he came to believe that Jesus was who the Gospels said he was. It was finally time to make a decision, to start painting or get off the ladder. But he didn’t want to.
He felt caught between surrender and doubt, purity and lust. At age 33 he was still on the outside looking in – a truly miserable human being.
Which brings us to the second anecdote. Augustine reports that one day he was agonizing over these matters in his garden – Should I or shouldn’t I follow Jesus? – when he heard the voice of a boy or a girl (he never knew which) chanting over and over again the Latin words Tolle Lege, Tolle Lege (pronounced “tol-lay lah-jhay”). Those words mean “Take up and read, take up and read.” He tells us that he had never heard this chant before, and was unaware of any children’s game that declared, “Take up and read.”
It occurred to him that maybe he should do just that. But take up and read what? Just a few steps away was a copy of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Augustine opened the book at random and read the first line he saw. It was Romans 13:14: “Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and stop thinking about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.”
For Augustine, this was the turning point. He decided to follow Jesus.
So, did he now live happily ever after? Christians love to hear stories in which somebody crosses the line of faith and is never again troubled by doubt, worry, or failure. Every day becomes a joy ride. Based on the experience of millions of people, however, we have good reasons to believe that few people, if any, ever experience such “victorious living.”
This is what the historians Cook and Herzman have found so deeply satisfying about the Confessions.
Augustine says, “Here’s my story. I’ve battled temptations my whole life. And I can assure you, they’re still there. Jesus didn’t magically whisk them all away.”
But even though Jesus didn’t eliminate Augustine’s problems, he now was in a relationship with a Problem Solver who was fundamentally stronger than anything he had to face.
It’s hard to admit we’ve made big mistakes in the past.
But if by God’s grace we’re willing to do so, we can know that we also have a Forgiver and a Restorer who will never leave our side.
To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.