Having recommended books by A. W. Tozer and John Owen, let me backtrack in time to a man that both of them would recommend reading – Augustine of Hippo (354-430). If for no other reason, one ought to read Augustine simply for the purpose of understanding Western church history. Barring the apostles themselves, it is hard to think of any one man who has had more influence than Augustine. If you explore the terrain of church history you will inevitably find him a landmark to take your bearings by.
But I would encourage you to read Augustine not only for the depth and breadth of his theology and philosophy but primarily for a first-hand account of a soul panting after God. For this, there is no better place to begin than with his Confessions.
In the Confessions, Augustine tells the story of his life from his birth to shortly after his conversion to Christianity. Born to a Christian mother and a pagan father, Augustine received a good education and showed great promise intellectually. His abilities in rhetoric opened up opportunities for study and teaching. He moved to Milan, where he was converted under the ministry of Ambrose. He later became a bishop of Hippo, a post which he held until his death in 430. In reading his Confessions, however, it is quickly apparent that Augustine is not interested in narrating the events of his life, per se. This is an autobiography of the heart in relationship to God. The opening paragraph begins, “You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised,” and closes with the immortal words, “You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”1
Augustine sees his life as an example of that restless longing for God. As he explains in Book II, “I intend to remind myself of my past foulnesses and carnal corruptions, not because I love them but so that I may love you, my God. It is from love of your love that I make the act of recollection.” This recollection was painful to Augustine, for in his youth he “ran wild in the shadowy jungle of erotic adventures.” But he is not content merely to remember. He wants to examine and understand the workings of the human heart. With deep insight he reflects, “The single desire that dominated my search for delight was simply to love and to be loved.” But instead of finding his delight in God, he rushed after the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, “incapable of rest in my exhaustion.”
One of the benefits you will gain from reading Confessions is a deep understanding of the workings of sin in the heart. Augustine illustrates his own slavery to sin with a story of how he stole some pears and fed them to pigs as a sixteen year old. Many people would think that this was a fairly minor offense, especially when compared to his behavior with women. But Augustine refused to see it that way. The reason this story stuck out in his mind as a major illustration of his wickedness was that here was a sin which he committed purely for the sin’s sake. He got no benefit whatsoever from the stolen pears. He didn’t even want to eat them. He simply wanted to sin. This was pure evil.
By the grace of God, Augustine did not remain in the wasteland of sin. His restless search led him through Manicheism and Neoplatonism. Ultimately, the prayers of his mother were answered when he found his rest in Christ. One cannot read the Confessions without standing in awe of the goodness of God, bringing a wayward sinner to himself by grace.
All after pleasures as I rid one day,
My horse and I, both tir’d, body and mind,
With full cry of affections, quite astray,
I took up in the next inn I could find.
There when I came, whom found I but my dear,
My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief
Of pleasures brought me to him, ready there
To be all passengers’ most sweet relief?2
This brings me to a greater reason to read the Confessions. All things considered, it really is not an autobiography, at least not in the sense that we use that term today. You must read this work looking for God. The protagonist of the entire work is God, not Augustine. This helps to explain why the last three books of this work deal with Genesis 1, time, and creation. The Confessions is one of the outstanding works in all of world history dealing with God and man. If you want to know God and know yourself, read this book.
I have known some who gave the Confessions a superficial reading and disliked it for its ‘morbid introspection.’ I can only reply that such a reading misunderstands the work completely. Also, in our day some may be turned off from reading Confessions by the autobiographical exhibitionism of some widely known pastors. Let me assure readers that although Augustine is completely honest about the sins of his youth, he treats these matters in the exact manner in which they ought to be treated. There is nothing here which would steer the mind into unwholesome thoughts, no crude or gratuitous details. In fact, his work still stands as a model for how Christians ought to think and talk about their own sins. Augustine constantly steers our thoughts to praising, loving, enjoying, and resting in God. Engaged with a good will, this work will leave you with the shocking sense that you are a minnow trying to comprehend the ocean.
“What man can enable the human mind to understand this? …Only you can be asked, only you can be begged, only on your door can we knock (Matt. 7:7-8). Yes, indeed, that is how it is received, how it is found, how the door is opened.”