The hour Augustine became a Christian is a watershed moment in Christian history, for this young man would go on to become not only a beloved bishop in a small town in north Africa but arguably the tallest intellectual mountain in the history of the church. Before his conversion, Augustine was engrossed in one of the heresies of his day, something that caused much grief to his pious mother, Monica. Following his assent of the Christian faith, however, he devoted his vast intellectual energies to exploring and expounding upon the Christian doctrines, producing a great number of works, including the Confessions and the City of God, which would have a lasting influence in such fields as psychology, philosophy, history, politics, and even war (e.g. Just War theory is often traced to Augustine). His famous conversion story is a powerful example of the power of Scripture – God’s revealed thoughts and will – to pierce the heart and spark new life. If you never read the Confessions (though I hope you don’t deprive yourself of such a treat!), at least read of the conversion of this mountain of the church, a great moment in history.
(The passage begins when Augustine, with his equally philosophically-oriented but heretical friend Alypius, are sitting at a friend’s house listening to a man tell the story of St. Antony, one of the first monks who retreated to the desert and whose monastic life of deep sacrifice and devotion inspired many to follow in his steps. This provokes Augustine to reflect seriously upon his own spiritual condition, causing him to leave the house in anguish.)
“I probed the hidden depths of my soul and wrung its pitiful secrets from it, and when I mustered them all before the eyes of my heart, a great storm broke within me, bringing with it a great deluge of tears. I stood up and left Alypius so that I might weep and cry to my heart’s content, for it occurred to me that tears are best shed in solitude… Somehow I flung myself down beneath a fig tree and gave way to the tears which now streamed from my eyes, the sacrifice that is acceptable to you. I had much to say to you, my God, not in these very words but in this strain: Lord, will you never be content? Must we always taste your vengeance? Forget the long record of our sins. For I felt that I was still the captive of my sins, and in my misery I kept crying, ‘How long shall I go on saying, “tomorrow, tomorrow”? Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this moment?
“I was asking myself these questions, weeping all the while with the most bitter sorrow in my heart, when all of a sudden I heard the sing-song voice of a child in a nearby house. Whether it was the voice of a boy or a girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain, ‘Take it and read, take it and read.’ At this I looked up, thinking hard whether there was any kind of game in which children used to chant words like these, but I could not remember ever hearing them before. I stemmed my flood of tears and stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall. For I had heard the story of Antony, and I remembered how he had happened to go into a church while the Gospel was being read and had taken it as a counsel addressed to himself when he heard the words Go home and sell all that belongs to you. Give it to the poor, and so the treasure you have shall be in heaven; then come back and follow me. By this divine pronouncement he had at once been converted to you.
“So I hurried back to the place where Alypius was sitting, for when I stood up to move away I had put down the book containing Paul’s Epistles. I seized it and opened it, and in silence I read the first passage on which my eyes fell: Not in revelling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature’s appetites. I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, confidence flooded my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.” (177-178)
It’s easy to feel happy and be nice when life is going well, but how do you react when things get difficult? How do you treat others, how do you view life, and what do you think of God when affliction comes knocking? Perhaps it’s not even dramatic suffering, such as losing a loved one, but even mundane, ordinary inconveniences and difficulties. To use the metaphor below, do you begin to shake in the wind and lose your leaves at the first drop of temperature? And if you say you believe in God and his promises, does this faith flee at the first sign of misfortune?
In his classic work, Holiness (Charles Nolan, 1877), the Bishop of Liverpool, J.C. Ryle (1816-1900), wrote the following about the power of affliction to reveal our true nature:
“The winds of winter soon show us which of the trees are evergreen and which are not. The storms of affliction and care are useful in the same way. They discover whose faith is real, and whose is nothing but profession and form.”
St. Augustine, a giant of the Church unrivaled in his brilliance, also wrote on the effect of affliction in City of God (Penguin, 2003), which he wrote following the fall of Rome:
“The fire which makes gold shine makes chaff smoke; the same flail breaks up the straw, and clear the grain…in the same way, the violence which assails good men to test them, to cleanse and purify them, effects in the wicked their condemnation, ruin, and annihilation. Thus the wicked, under pressure of affliction, execrate God and blaspheme; the good, in the same affliction, offer up prayer and praises. This shows that what matters is the nature of the sufferer, not the nature of the sufferings. Stir a cesspit, and a foul stench arises; stir a perfume, and a delightful fragrance ascends” (14).
Related to this topic, I encourage you to see my post about the failure of modern society to account for suffering here.
As we pause to consider the start of the new year, and the opportunity to grow in different areas of our lives – such as health, intellect, relationships – let’s not neglect to give attention to the most important area of our life: our spiritual condition. This condition, the state of our soul, must be given life and nurtured because it reflects the quality of our relationship with our Maker, and determines our posture toward life and its inevitable trials.
We must always stand ready to examine our own souls before the searching but gentle Spirit of God; but as J.C. Ryle wrote in his classic Holiness (1877), certain seasons afford a welcome opportunity to set about this happy and most important business, the business of our souls:
“To every one who is in downright earnest about his soul, and hungers and thirsts after spiritual life, the question ought to come home with searching power. Do we make progress in our religion? Do we grow?
“The question is one that is always useful, but especially so at certain seasons. A Saturday night, a communion Sunday, the return of a birthday, the end of a year – all these are seasons that ought to set us thinking, and make us look within. Time is fast flying. Life is fast ebbing away” (99).
My favorite books of 2013, in order:
1. Seven Men: And the Secret of their Greatness by Eric Metaxas.
I’m breaking a rule with this one: including it as one of my top reads before I’ve finished it. But I’m just over halfway through the book, and it’s already my favorite! Expertly employing historical narrative, Metaxas introduces us or reminds us of these seven great men: George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddel, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jackie Robinson, Pope John Paul II and Chuck Colson. Their greatness, Metaxas explains, is in their use of their power and position to serve others. Indeed, we can and should all recognize this as that which makes one truly great.
2. The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God by Timothy Keller.
I read this to prepare for marriage this year, and it’s a book my wife and I will go back to many times during the course of our marriage for guidance and motivation when the going gets tough. Keller expounds on the biblical principles laid down for husbands and wives and shows us the power, the essence, and mission of marriage. It’s replete with useful principles and examples of meaningful, Christ-centered marriage, but one of the most helpful insights I took was the view of marriage as, ultimately, “spiritual friendship” between two sinners in need of God’s grace. Five months into my marriage, I affirm that this is indeed the bread-and-butter of our union – daily friendship and companionship in which we not only greatly enjoy one another, but also encourage and gently push each other to grow in our love for God and others. Keller’s important book explains the theology and teaches the practice behind meaningful marriage.
3. Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled his Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk.
Most people recognize the greatness of Abraham Lincoln, but few know the crucial role of his struggle with lifelong, persistent clinical depression in forming and strengthening his character. Shenk sheds light on Lincoln’s condition, which began in his 20s when he had his first severe bout of depression, with the understanding of our modern understanding of this illness, and he demonstrates how Lincoln’s trials with depression prepared him for the gargantuan trials of his presidency and the nation. This book illuminates and consistently fascinates, besides being eloquently and delightfully written.
4. The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr.
Though too few today have heard of him, Reinhold Niebuhr was a towering theologian and public intellectual at mid-century. He wrote this book as a critical self-examination for our nation, which following WWII found itself as the unchallenged superpower in a world threatened by the menace of Communism. Clear-eyed about the evil and perversion of communism, Niebuhr called on the American public and their leaders to not be blind about our own contradictions and ironies, such as professing noble universal ideals of peace and freedom while securing them through the threat of nuclear annihilation, as demonstrated in Japan at the close of the war. He argued that as the necessary and often tragic exercise of leadership in the world meant that we would not be able to keep intact our professed innocence and virtues. Still, he was clear that the consequences of inaction and isolationism are worse still. This profound and prophetic work, written in 1952, remains as relevant as ever today.
5. Making Sense out of Suffering by Peter Kreeft.
“This is a book for anyone who has ever wept and wondered, ‘Why?'” begins this book. A philosophy professor at Boston College, Kreeft takes the reader by the hand and brings him to the feet of philosophers, theologians, artists and writers to help him better understand the why behind the painful but universal reality of suffering. Kreeft’s gentle wisdom is displayed on every page, making this a deeply personal and moving journey in addition to an intellectual examination of the various and often inadequate answers to suffering found in different religious and philosophical worldviews.
Twentieth-century theologian, public intellectual, and prophet, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote powerfully about America’s role in the world. He beckoned Americans to examine their own values in light of their professed virtues and noble national goals, reminding a nation of the need for humility and faith even as it pursues justice and confronts real evil in a morally ambiguous and often tragic world. In his classic The Irony of American History (University of Chicago, 1952), he achieved the nearly impossible: critiquing his own society from within, like an astute and wise outside observer, but with eyes of faith which transcended the events of his day.
A short sampling of some of my favorite excerpts:
“A sane life requires that we have some clue to the mystery so that the realm of meaning is not simply reduced to the comprehensible processes of nature. But these clues are ascertained by faith, which modern man has lost.”
“Genuine community is established only when the knowledge that we need one another is supplemented by the recognition that ‘the other,’ that other form of life, or that other unique community is the limit beyond which our ambitions must not run and the boundary beyond which our life must not expand.”
“The God before whom ‘the nations are as a drop in the bucket and are counted as small dust in the balances’ is known by faith and not by reason. The realm of mystery and meaning which encloses and finally makes sense out of the baffling configurations of history is not identical with any scheme of rational intelligibility. The faith which appropriates the meaning in the mystery inevitably involves an experience of repentance for the false meaning which the pride of nations and cultures introduces into the pattern. Such repentance is the true source of charity; and we are more desperately in need of genuine charity than of more technocratic skills.”
“…the whole drama of human history is under the scrutiny of a divine judge who laughs at human pretensions without being hostile to human aspirations.”
“…humility…is the prerequisite of every spiritual achievement.”
“Those who succeed in life, whether by the acquisition of power, wealth, or wisdom, do incline to value their achievements too highly and to forget the fragmentary character of all human achievements.”
A wise friend recently gave me a book titled Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work (Dutton, 2012) by Timothy Keller (pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and author of the excellent and highly acclaimed The Reason for God). I haven’t read many books on integrating faith and work, but Keller’s may be the most complete book on the subject. Keller not only expertly brings Scripture to bear on our experience with and approach to work, but as can be expected from him, he also draws on insights from literature, philosophy, current events, and popular culture in ways that resonate with his readers. Below is an insight that struck me, particularly as I am at the critical point in life where I am about to launch my career, having recently graduated from college. _______________________________________________________________
“[Competency at work] is a form of love…if you have to choose between work that benefits more people and work that pays you more, you should seriously consider the job that pays less and helps more – particularly if you can be great at it. It means that all jobs – not merely so-called helping professions – are fundamentally ways of loving your neighbor. Christians do not have to do direct ministry or nonprofit charitable work in order to love others through their jobs” (79).
2012 has been a year of many great reads, but these were the standouts.
5. Augustine of Hippo (Peter Brown)
Peter Brown’s masterful Augustine of Hippo is widely considered the definitive biography of the bishop, and with good reason. He is exhaustive in his use of original sources and other scholarly material (it seems that every other line has a footnote); he skillfully re-creates the world in which Augustine moved, giving us a tangible feel for the rich and volatile atmosphere of North Africa in the 3rd century; and most gratifying, he writes beautifully, making it a great pleasure to read and soak in. For the uninitiated in Augustine, this book should be like the main course that comes after some appetizers that can give you a taste for what is to come. It also is abundant in details, concerning not just Augustine but surrounding controversies and political problems, which might not interest the reader meeting Augustine for the first time. For such a reader, I recommend beginning with his Confessions.
4. Confessions (Augustine)
Augustine’s Confessions is an important and rich work. It’s important because it is the first autobiography of the modern world, containing deep psychological and existential reflections, long before such terms and concepts came into popular use. And it is a rich work in that it is no mere recounting of events and reflections on these, but rather a lengthy prayer to God that takes the reader (and as a renowned and popular bishop, Augustine knew he would have many readers) from the earliest memories of infantile selfishness (he shows us why babies are not really “little angels”) to the loftiest meditations on the nature of time and memory, and his place in God’s cosmic plan. The Confessions give us Augustine in full measure: the young and promiscuous “lusty stallion,” the demanding and intense friend, the brilliant rhetorician and philosopher, the loving son who never spoke a harsh word to his mother (she commended him for this in her dying moments), and ultimately, the giant of the church who was, through and through, a true lover of God.
3. Churchill (Paul Johnson)
The list of Churchill biographies is almost endless. This is part of what makes Paul Johnson’s book a great contribution: it gives us a great sense of the man, and covers the crucial events of his outsized life. More than this, Johnson generously shares all those quirky and fascinating details that have made Churchill one of the most closely studied persons of history (e.g. his talent for going from hard-charging, energetic work to being able to, almost at will, relax and recuperate his energies; it helped that he was a great napper!). Johnson writes of Churchill, whom he once met, with warmth and affection, yet he does not try to hide character defects and other less than flattering facts about him. And in true form to the kind of historian he is, he concludes his brief but highly enjoyable biographical portrait with five lessons (see my post, listing these, below) we can take away from the life of Churchill.
Just Courage was the most challenging book I read this year. It is International Justice Mission president Gary Haugen’s highly personal account of his work to end human trafficking as well as an impassioned call to Christians to take justice seriously, because justice matters to God. He compellingly shows that justice for the vulnerable (e.g. the poor, the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan) is a major concept in Scripture which we ignore to our own spiritual loss. One thing I appreciate about Haugen is that he understands the fears and hindrances that keep many of us, with our comfortable jobs and pretty houses and neat lives, from engaging in this kind of work (granted, not everyone is called to fight human trafficking halfway around the world; many can do it from their own house or church, even). He admits that it can be scary to leave what to us mean comfort and security and predictability, and to go risk your safety by upsetting the snake pit that is the world of human trafficking. But as a man who knows and loves Jesus, he then reminds us that we have better reasons not to fear: because God is the one doing the work; we are but the instruments he chooses to use to accomplish his purposes in this world.
Before he wrote the recent, highly acclaimed biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy), Eric Metaxas wrote of another great man: William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was a highly successful Member of Parliament from the late-18th century to the early 19th century, whose lifelong mission as a gifted politician was to abolish the slave trade. This was my favorite book not only because it is about my historical hero, but also because it is superbly written. Furthermore, It is not an exhaustive biography of Wilberforce. It focuses on his conversion to Christianity and his subsequent decades-long struggle to abolish the slave trade. Metaxas does a great job of showing us Wilberforce the person – lively, cheerful, witty, indefatigable, and keen on putting his faith into action. This was not only a pleasurable read, but personally important in that it painted a picture for me of how a committed Christian can successfully navigate the dangerous world of politics, and not just survive or keep his position, but accomplish a great victory in the cause of justice in this dark world.