Reading Augustine’s Confessions During Lent
Sam Ochstein

The first time I read Augustine’s Confessions was in seminary. It was a required text for a church history class. Even though I’d already earned two degrees in theology and had been pastoring for several years, I suddenly felt very adult in my faith. To read something so classic, so ancient, so weighty seemed significant. This is what mature Christians do, I thought.

I enjoyed and was challenged by Confessions so much I told myself that I’d read it every year during Lent. It would be like a spiritual discipline; something you do because it’s good for you and helps shape you into the kind of person you want to become. The very title of the work seemed appropriate for the season of penance, prayer and self-reflection. And what could be more inspiring and formative for my own spiritual journey than reading and reflecting on Augustine’s account of his circuitous and blundering pilgrimage to Christ?

There was much I resonated with, especially Augustine’s struggles with sin, doubt, and intellectual wrangling. My own life was fraught with these things. I thought reading Confessions during Lent could be an annual re-anchoring and re-centering for my soul, a reminder that I wasn’t alone in my struggles. And more, Confessions would remind me of God’s grace and healing. I needed to hear the truth that God is “very powerful in shaping what is misshapen in us” and that he “frees us from the chains we’ve made for ourselves.”

Further, God’s providence and sovereignty permeate almost every page of Confessions. How comforting to hear that God was at work guiding me, even when I knew nothing of it and failed to discern his still small voice through the cacophony of competing voices and commitments of my life. Perhaps I could find comfort and contentment, even a sense of peace, in the midst of my wanderings and wonderings.

That was in the fall of 2015. Since then I’ve succeeded spectacularly in not reading Confessions every year during Lent. Not entirely anyway. It hasn’t been for lack of planning or attempting with good intentions. I’ve started and stopped multiple times, typically not getting much past the halfway point and not even reaching the climactic scene of Augustine’s conversion in Book 8.

I’ve even purchased different English translations in anticipation of practicing my Lenten discipline over the years. Confessions isn’t what I’d call an easy read. It’s a dense work. I thought having a more readable translation would aid my comprehension of Augustine’s ruminations and perseverance to finish the book.

I currently have three different versions of Augustine’s Confessions, not counting the one included in my thirty-eight-volume Early Church Fathers collection. I used to have a fourth translation—the Barnes & Noble Classics edition. I got rid of it for reasons I can’t recall. But I suspect it had something to do with the realization that one doesn’t need four or five different English translations of Confessions. Especially if you’re not reading them regularly.

The deeper truth—the truer truth—is that I wanted to be the kind of person that read Confessions during Lent and had multiple editions of it prominently displayed on the shelves of my library. I wanted to be the kind of person that others saw reading Confessions during Lent and were impressed by my deep spirituality. I wanted to be the kind of person that perhaps one day wrote articles about reading Confessions during Lent.

Like the younger Augustine, I longed “to be fashionable and sophisticated.” Rather than hungering and thirsting after righteousness, I craved knowledge for the sake of knowledge and yearned for recognition. Chasing “the inanity of public acclaim” is how Augustine describes himself and his intellectual friends during the formative years of their liberal arts education. He had much to teach me.

The thing about reading Confessions, at least for me, is that it confronts me with myself. It shatters my pious pretensions and the image I work hard to maintain that basically I’m okay and have everything together, spiritually and otherwise.

I’ve been in church most of my life and was an ordained minister and lead pastor for ten years. One thing I’ve learned is that we Christians are often masters at impression management. I know I am, anyway. But reading Confessions peels back the masks I wear, revealing the ugly and dark places in my heart I’d rather pretend don’t exist.

“You again confronted me with myself and forced me to look, so that I would find my sin and hate it,” Augustine prays. “I knew it, but I tried to pretend I didn’t; I tried to squelch any awareness of it, and to forget.”

I do that. I like to forget my sins, pretend they don’t exist, or squelch any awareness of them. Most frequently, I imagine that they’re not as bad as they are. I tend to be optimistic about the human condition and self-deceived about our ability—my ability—to choose the good.

Yes, I sinned, I might say, but we all sin. We’re all messed up and trying to muddle our way through. Besides, God is loving, merciful, and gracious. He knows that we’re dust.

Somehow I convince myself that this gets me off the hook. I’m just a wayward pilgrim on the journey. But at least I’m on the journey. A sinner saved by grace.

True enough, of course. But God does call us to genuinely change. Repentance, after all, comes from the Greek metanoia, meaning not merely a change of mind, but to actually turn around and go in a different direction. If we haven’t, by God’s grace, changed, can we truly say we’ve repented?

Augustine’s severity in recounting his sins always initially strikes me as off-putting. For example, can he really be so distressed with his fifteen-year-old self and his hooligan friends that shook down some pears from a neighbor’s tree, ate some of them, and chucked the rest at pigs? Not the best thing in the world, of course. But not the worst either. Boys will be boys, right?

Yet Augustine perceives something more sinister. The pear tree incident is a paradigmatic example of our disordered and inordinate desires. For Augustine, the petty crime revealed something fundamental about himself and the human condition. He and his friends stole those pears merely for the sake of doing it and the illicit thrill they got from getting away with it. How often do I do the same?

I’m pretty sure Augustine had a sex addiction. In Book 8 he confesses the infamous prayer of his younger years: “Give me chastity and self restraint, but don’t do it just yet.” He continues, explaining the rationale for the prayer, “I was afraid that you’d hear my prayer quickly and quickly cure me of the disease of lust, which I preferred to have satisfied rather than nullified.”

The first time I read this I laughed. We all have our pasts. Some of our pasts are more sordid than others. And who doesn’t like sex?

But this was deadly serious for Augustine and the cause of significant pain in his life. He writes of being overwhelmed by “a lunatic lust” and “an insatiable lasciviousness”—a way of being in the world that “held [him] violently captive and tortured [him].” Augustine confesses that he suffered from “the deadly sweet disease of carnality” and that his “yearning for sex” was like a chain that held him tautly. He put off his conversion for many years in part because he liked sex too much to remain chaste.

This is the most prominent example of inordinate and disordered desires that Augustine wrestles with throughout Confessions. Sex was his vice. Even after his conversion and commitment to celibacy, memories of his sexual exploits and images of indecent acts popped into his mind, sometimes haunting his dreams. This tortured him and he prayed, “Isn’t your hand, all powerful God, powerful enough to heal all the diseases of my soul, and through your grace as it flows more plentifully, can’t your hand even quell the lewd movements of my sleep?” 

Perhaps only a recovering sex addict can identify with Augustine’s “lunatic lust” and appreciate the depths of despair he felt during weak moments, the battle of wills between the lust of the flesh and the Spirit, and unsolicited memories polluting his mind. It resonates with me and I’ve discovered a kindred spirit in Augustine. Because I’m a recovering sex addict.

I was in the throes of decade-long battle with sex addiction all the times I read Confessions from 2015 to 2018, but I hadn’t yet faced my addiction. So although I saw a struggle with which I related, I somehow had the ability to remove myself from the reality of my situation. That’s not me, I told myself, even while knowing deep down it was.

Addicts are notorious liars and self-deceivers. We create narratives to convince others and ourselves that things really aren’t that bad, that we’re in control, that we can stop any time. But, of course, they are, we’re not, and we can’t.

“Inordinate desire,” writes Augustine, “arises from a twisting of the will; and in the course of slavery to this desire, habit forms; and through lack of resistance to this desire, a certain inevitability emerges. With these links, as it were, interconnected (and that’s why I’ve called this a chain), a harsh slavery held me tightly in check.”

That’s perhaps one of the truest things I’ve read that describes my experience with sex addiction. And it’s only by God’s grace, with an assist from Augustine, that I have nearly a year of sobriety in recovery as of this writing.

I read Confessions this year during Epiphany. The entire thing. Yes, it was partly because I was preparing to write this piece. It was also partly because I’d still like to fulfill my annual Lenten discipline of reading Confessions. I just did it a bit earlier this year.

But I believe there’s a deeper truth to the timing. “It happened,” as Augustine says of an incident in his life, “because, I’m convinced, you [God] arranged for it through your mysterious means.” Perhaps for the first time I was ready to not merely read Confessions but, more importantly, receive what God had for me through reading and reflecting on it. This time it truly was a spiritual discipline.

In Book 10 Augustine asks in prayer what business he has in sharing his story. “Human kind is quite inquisitive about someone else’s life, but quite lazy about correcting their own. Why do they ask to hear from me about who I am, when they don’t want to hear from you about who they are?”

What I’ve discovered is that I hear from God about myself through the testimony of Augustine. I like to think of myself as someone with high emotional intelligence, someone that’s very self-aware. But the truth is, I often hide myself from myself. Publicly and privately, I accentuate the good while minimizing or flat out conveniently overlooking and ignoring the bad. And like Adam and Eve crouching behind the trees and undergrowth in the Garden, I often hide myself from God.

Yet Augustine teaches me this is purely self-deception. “What would be hidden in me, even if I didn’t wish to confess it to you? I could hide you away from myself, but not myself from you,” he prays.

Reading Confessions, I’m invited to consider how my attitude and actions, even my inclinations and the secret yearnings of my heart, are either aligned or, more often, misaligned with the way of Jesus.

Augustine’s prayer in the opening of Book 9 is especially poignant for me:

But who am I, and what sort of person? What evil has been absent from the things I’ve done? And if not from the things I’ve done, then from the things I’ve said? And if not from the things I’ve said, then from my inclinations?

Yet you, God, are good and compassionate. With your right hand, you explored the depths of my death, and from the floor of my heart you drained out the sea of rot. But the whole of what brought this about was that I stopped wanting what I had been wanting, and instead wanted what you wanted.”

When it comes right down to it, I think Psalm 27:4 captures the truest and deepest longing of my heart: “One thing I asked of the LORD, / that will I seek after: / to live in the house of the LORD / all the days of my life, / to behold the beauty of the LORD, / and to inquire in his temple.”

But like Augustine, my misdirected, disordered, and inordinate desires keep getting in the way. Impure and distorted thoughts, a harsh word here, an inconsiderate act or lack of kindness there. Even on my best days I’m a mishmash of mixed motivations and desires.

The beauty of the Gospel is that God refuses to give up on me, and he is actively at work reshaping what’s misshapen in me. The incarnation teaches us that God enters into the mess of our lives and the world. And also this: Though the darkness is often pervasive and overwhelming, the darkness did not and cannot overcome it. Not even darkness of our own making.

Reading Augustine’s Confessions during Lent, or any other time, reminds me of all this and more. It confronts me with myself. It redirects me towards God. And it moves me to prayer and praise for the loving kindness and grace of Christ.


Sam Ochstein is a writer and Christian thinker. He blogs regularly at www.formerlyreverend.com.


Works Cited

Augustine, Confessions. Trans. Sarah Ruden. New York: The Modern Library, 2017.

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