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“Confessions” – Book VIII Chapters 1-6




In Chapter 3, he writes, “There is no pleasure in eating and drinking unless it is preceded by the discomfort of hunger and thirst. Drunkards eat salty things to make their throats dry and painful, so that they may enjoy the pleasure of quenching their thirst.” Likewise, “It is customary, too, for girls who are engaged to be married to delay the wedding for fear that a husband who has not suffered the trials of a long courtship may think his bride too cheaply won.”  He says that, “It is always the case that the greater the joy, the greater is the pain which precedes it.”  Do you agree with his statement here?  Does a sense of delayed gratification bring about greater joy to those who get it later as opposed to immediate gratification?  Is the sense of joy always greater after one suffers for a while to obtain what he was after in the first place?



I don’t necessarily agree with the statement “It is always the case that the greater the joy, the greater is the pain which precedes it,” but I do see the value of working hard or suffering for some benefit.



Although it would be nice for overnight success or gain, suffering or working for it does increase one’s appreciation.  Sometimes we don’t appreciate the treasures we have, almost taking them for granted.  Something hard earned though would be valued more since we worked toward that goal, measuring and understanding the cost.



Our culture is filled with stories of people not appreciating what they have until it is taken away.  Some stories have replacements with an ideal and the protagonist finds the ideal replacement underwhelming to the “inferior” original.



There is also the danger of working hard for something and not obtaining it or being disappointed once having obtained it, realizing that it wasn’t worth the sacrifice.  It would be nice to be presented with a good meal.  Making it yourself may seem to increase the enjoyment, since there was effort mixed in with a sense of pride for a job done well.   There is also the bitter disappointment of trying to make the meal and after tasting it, realizing that it was awful.



There is something to be said of delayed gratification.  Sometimes the anticipation or the pursuit is what drives us and not necessarily the end goal or the thrill of the chase.    Still, delay does heighten our desire, though it can be disappointing once the goal has been obtained.  This is not to say that the end goal is bad, but that it just may not have lived up the hype we’ve built up in our own minds.



The more one understands the cost of something precious, the more it can be appreciated.   In many ways, converts appreciate God more than those who’ve been raised Christian.  They are more aware of their sinful state before God and can more appreciate how much God loves them and the bleeding cost of his forgiveness which is not cheap grace.



“Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon replied, ‘I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.’ ‘You have judged correctly,’ Jesus said.”

  • Luke 7:42-43 NIVUK






Q: In Chapter 2, Simplicianus reported that Victorinus had said that “Is it then the walls of the church that make the Christian?” He felt compelled to go to church, be baptized, and publicly declare his conversion because “He was seized by the fear that Christ might deny him before the holy angels if he was too faint-hearted to acknowledge Christ before men.”  Is church the only true and proper place to declare yourself a Christian in a public environment?  Can one do it privately, as in one’s bedroom?  Is that better or make it more real?  What difference does it make to be baptized or to make a public declaration of your conversion, if any?  Also, is church the only true and proper place to learn about the faith?



First the question that needs to be asked is, what is the central idea behind a church?  If you are a church-going Christian, it is quite likely you observe the same perfunctory order of worship every time you go to church.  It does not matter what stripe of Protestantism you belong to, be it Baptist, Methodist, Reformed, Presbyterian, Evangelical, Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, CMA, Pentecostal, Charismatic, or nondenominational, your Sunday morning service is virtually identical to that of all other Protestant churches.  Granted some churches like the Vineyard or Hillsong use contemporary choruses while other use hymns (i.e. Redeemer Presbyterian Church).  Some churches use a written liturgy, while others observe the Lord’s supper weekly and others observe it monthly.  Regardless of the variations, the order of worship is essentially the same in virtually all Protestant churches.



Look closely at the order of worship and you’ll notice that it includes a threefold structure: (1) singing, (2) the sermon, and (3) closing prayer/song.  This order of worship is viewed as sacrosanct in the eyes of many present-day Christians.  But why?  It is due simply to the titanic power of tradition, and that tradition has set the Sunday morning order of worship in concrete for five centuries since the Reformation.  Pastors who routinely tell their congregation that they do everything by the Book and still perform this ironclad liturgy are simply not correct.



You can scour your Bible from beginning to end and you will never find anything that remotely resembles our order of worship.  This is because the first and second century Christians knew no such thing.  The meetings of the early church were marked by every-member functioning, spontaneity, freedom, vibrancy, and open participation (see 1 Corinthians 14:1-33 and Hebrews 10:25).  The first and second century church meetings were fluid gatherings, not static rituals and it was often unpredictable, unlike the contemporary church service.



So where did the Protestant order of worship come from?  It has its basic roots in the medieval Catholic Mass.  Significantly, the Mass did not originate with the New Testament; it grew out of ancient Judaism and paganism.  According to Will Durant, the Catholic Mass was “based partly on the Judaic Temple service, partly on Greek mystery rituals of purification, vicarious sacrifice, and participation.”  Gregory the Great, the first monk to be made pope, is the man most responsible for shaping the medieval Mass.  While Gregory is recognized as an extremely generous man and an able administrator and diplomat, Durant notes that Gregory was also an incredibly superstitious man whose thinking was influenced by magical pagan concepts.



Gregory the Great (540 – 604)  Project Gutenberg’s “Young Folks’ History of Rome” by Charlotte Mary Yonge

Here, it’s important to note how influential Augustine’s teachings were on Gregory the Great.  Gregory, in effect, made Augustine’s writings the foundational theology of the Western church and Augustine heavily influenced the ideologue of the Church-State alliance and the fabrication of medieval mentality.  Augustine’s theology dominated Catholic philosophy until the thirteenth century when Thomas Aquinas arrived on the scene.  Gregory embodied the medieval mindset, which itself was influenced by paganism, superstition, magic and Christianity.  Therefore, it shouldn’t be too shocking that the medieval Mass reflected the mind of its originators.  The Mass was a blending of pagan and Jewish ritual sprinkled with medieval theology cloaked in Christian vocabulary. (It should be noted that Augustine and many of the church fathers between the third and sixth centuries were themselves pagan philosophers and orators before they became Christian.  In fact, some scholars would argue that they never fully relinquished their pagan thoughts and instead incorporated them into Christian theology.)




Will Durant points out that the Mass not only was deeply steeped in pagan magical thinking but also in Greek drama.  In his book, Caesar and Christ, he writes, “The Greek mind, dying, came to a transmigrated life in the theology and liturgy of the church; the Greek language, having reigned for centuries over philosophy, became the vehicle of Christian literature and ritual; the Greek mysteries passed down into the impressive mystery of the Mass.”  In effect, the Catholic Mass that emerged in the sixth century was fundamentally pagan and Christians later incorporated the vestments of the pagan priests, the use of incense and holy water in purification rites, the burning of candles in worship, the architecture of the Roman basilica for their church buildings, the law of Rome as the basis of “canon law,” the title Pontifex Maximus for the head bishop, and the pagan rituals for the Catholic Mass.



Once established, the Mass changed little over a thousand years, and the first liturgical adjustments only came when Martin Luther entered the scene in the early 16th century.  In 1520 Luther launched an impassioned campaign against the Roman Catholic Mass, railing against the miters and staffs of the Roman Catholic leadership and its teaching on the Eucharist.  In Luther’s mind, the cardinal error of the mass was that it was a human “work” based on an inaccurate understanding of Christ’s sacrifice.  Thus Luther set forth his own revisions to the Catholic Mass and at the heart of the changes was this: preaching or the sermon rather than the Eucharist became the center point of the worship service.  These revisions have now become the foundation for worship in most Protestant churches and accordingly the pulpit as opposed to the altar table became the central element. (As a side note, Luther rejected “transubstantiation” or the idea that the bread and wine turned into the actual body and blood of Christ, but he still believed that the “real presence” of Christ’s body and blood existed in the elements of bread and wine.  This belief later became known as “consubstantiation.”)



Subsequent reformers that followed in Luther’s footsteps like Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, John Knox, Martin Bucer and Theodore Besa made their own adjustments to Luther’s liturgy including theological ones, but the centrality of preaching in worship service nevertheless remained.  In sum, the major enduring changes that Luther and the Reformers made to the Catholic Mass were as follows: (1) service was performed in the vernacular rather than in Latin, (2) the sermon, as opposed to the Eucharist, became the central point in the gathering, (3) congregational singing was introduced, and (4) the congregation was allowed to partake of the bread and cup instead of just the priest in traditional Catholic practice.  But aside from these changes, the liturgy of the Protestant service varied little from the Catholic Mass.



So what is exactly wrong with this picture?  Clearly both the Catholic and Protestant order of worship did not originate with Jesus Christ, the Apostles, or in the New Testament but rather by the paganism of its time.  This is not to say the order of worship is misguided, but it has no biblical basis and, more importantly, it does not lead to the spiritual growth God intended.



Consider the following issues.  The Protestant order of worship represses mutual participation and growth of the Christian community.  It puts a choke-hold on the functioning body of Christ by silencing its members.  There is absolutely no room for anyone to give a word of exhortation, share an insight, start or introduce a song, or spontaneously lead a prayer.  You are essentially forced to be a muted, staid pew-holder.  You are prevented from being enriched by the other members of the body as well as being able to enrich them yourself.  Like every other lay person, you may open your mouth only during the congregational singing or prayer.



For many Christians, the Sunday morning service is shamefully boring.  It is without variety or spontaneity and instead it’s highly predictable, highly perfunctory, and highly mechanical.  There is little in the way of freshness or innovation and has remained frozen for five centuries.  To put it bluntly, the order of worship embodies the ambiguous power of the rote.  In the past, the rote may have been necessary to dispense church teachings to the illiterate and ill-informed, but the rote can very quickly decay into the routine, which in turn becomes tired, meaningless, and ultimately invisible especially in the traditional Roman Catholic Mass which was conducted in Latin up until the 1960s following the Vatican II reforms.



Modern-day churches, particularly those of the Pentecostal/Charismatic variety, have recognized the sterile nature of the church service and in response have incorporated a vast array of media and theatrical modernizations into the liturgy.  This has been done to market worship to the unchurched and by employing the latest electronic technology, many megachurches have been successful at swelling their ranks.  As a result, they have garnered a large portion of the American Protestant market share, but despite the added entertainment it affords, the market-driven seeker-sensitive churches are still held captive by the pastor and the liturgy.  Congregants continue to be muted spectators only that they are more entertained by their spectating!!



The fundamental problem with being a Christian in today’s churches or declaring one’s faith in the church is that the liturgy actually hinders spiritual transformation.  It does so because (1) it encourages passivity, (2) it limits functioning, and (3) it implies that putting in one or two hours per week is the key to the victorious Christian life.  Every Sunday, you attend the service to be bandaged and recharged like a wounded soldier.  The reality is that the bandaging and recharging never takes place.  The reason is quite simple- the New Testament never links sitting through an ossified ritual that we mislabel “church” as having anything to do with spiritual transformation.  We grow by functioning and not by passively watching and listening.



Perhaps the only sure way to learn about the Christian faith is to make a dramatic break with the Sunday morning ritual.  May we not be found guilty of our Lord’s bone-rattling words: “Full well do you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition.”  (Mark 7:9, see also Matthew 15:2-6, and Colossians 2:8)








Q: In Chapter 6, he writes about his encounter with a fellow countryman from Africa, Ponticianus, who introduced him to the life of St. Anthony. Who was St. Anthony?  What was he most known for?  Many people think that converting to Christianity means to live a more ascetic way of life, do you believe this to be so?  Is a form of asceticism necessary to mature in Christ?



In Chapter 6, Augustine describes how he had received a visit from a fellow African Christian, Ponticianus, who was surprised that the professor of rhetoric was reading the epistles of Paul.  Ponticianus told Augustine and his friend Alypius the story of Anthony of Egypt, who had lived a life of great holiness as a hermit in the desert.  He was surprised that they had never heard of the Desert Fathers or the monastic communities that had become so popular among those seeking a closer devotion to God.  Augustine writes of Ponticianus describing to him how he and some of his colleagues were in the city of Treves (now known as Trier in present-day Germany) at an imperial palace and had stumbled upon a book, most likely The Life of Antony of Egypt, that was most likely have been written by Athanasius.  A couple of them were so stirred after reading the work that they felt compelled to abandon their civil careers, their upcoming marriages, and become hermits like St. Anthony themselves.  They asked Ponticianus to join them in becoming a monk, but he politely refused and instead gave thanks to God for their new holy calling upon their lives.


“The Torment of St. Anthony” by Michelangelo, copy of an engraving by Martin Schongauer, c. 1487-9, Oil and tempera on panel


Anthony of Egypt (c. 251 – 356), or later known as Anthony the Great or the “Father of All Monks,” was one of the first Christian hermits.  He was originally the illiterate son of wealthy Egyptian landowners, and around 269, at the age of 18, walked into a church and heard the Gospel being read: “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Matt. 19:21)  He then gave away all his possessions to the poor and devoted himself to a life of asceticism and retired into the Nitrian Desert located west of Alexandria in Egypt to a deserted fort and locked himself in around the year 285.  He is known to have been the first Christian ascetic to go into the wilderness.  He is best known for his story of having fought with demons disguised as wild beasts in the forms of wolves, lions, snakes, and scorpions.  It was said that Satan had attacked him with boredom, laziness, and images of scantily clad women.  But he clung to God in prayer and was able to defeat them all.  It was reported that he had several more bouts with the Devil afterwards, but prevailed each and every time. After two decades of solitude, his discipline and holiness attracted huge numbers of disciples and in 305 he returned from the desert to organize them into a community of hermits who lived under a common rule.  In his return to society, he began a ministry centered around healing the sick, conducting exorcisms, and engaging in apologetics.  He returned to the desert 5 years later but was later influential in supporting the Nicene party against the Arians in 338.  The book, The Life of Antony of Egypt, was highly regarded throughout the east and the west for its teaching on Antony’s asceticism and also as a masterpiece of hagiography.



Hearing about Anthony’s life made a profound impact on Augustine.  He was filled with a great sense of shame after hearing about Anthony and was convicted of how far away he was from God in terms of devotion.   Anthony and the monastic movement set out an ideal of Christian commitment by displaying a passion and willingness to follow Jesus as his first followers did by leaving their families, possessions, and jobs.  This definition of the Christian ideal at the time was a large part of the reason why Augustine and others like Ponticianus felt it was impossible to both maintain a career in the world and commit themselves to God as it seemed like serving two masters.  As we will see in the next chapter, the story of Anthony’s conversion and the impact Anthony’s story had upon Ponticianus’s friends would play a pivotal role in Augustine’s conversion to the Christian faith.



Asceticism in modern Christian life has almost all been forgotten.  The closest most preachers say is that you shouldn’t harbor too much desire for a certain thing (like food or sex) that might lead you to habitual sin.  Certainly Paul preached this, as in the mortification of inordinate desires (Rom. 6: 8, 13; 2 Cor. 4: 16; Gal. 5:24; Col. 3:5), union with God in all thoughts, words and deeds (1 Cor. 10:31; Gal. 6:14; Col. 3:3-17), and an active love of God and your neighbor (Rom. 8:35; 1 Cor. 13:3).  In relation to Christ, Jesus in many instances strongly advocated a life of self-denial and carrying the cross as conditions for His discipleship (Matt. 10:38; 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; 14:27).  Christ also recommended fasting (Matt 4:2; 17:20; Mark 9:28).  Jesus blesses those who have voluntarily become eunuchs and praises them in Matt. 19:12, “And there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it” thus advocating a form of celibacy.  However, he does seem to imply that though marriage is the ordinary state of affairs for people in general, celibacy for God’s sake is just a strong suggestion or counsel.  He certainly did not condemn it.  For Jesus, he commanded obedience to God to be the primary way of attaining the most intimate union with God (John 14:23).



The word ascetic derives from the Greek word askesis which means “practice” or the “practice of self-discipline.”  It is a practice of self-denial, love, and service so that we can become more and more Christ-like.  There is also much correlation with Greek philosophical ascetic traditions, which is not surprising since Christianity came from a Greco-Roman environment and appropriated much of its ways directly or indirectly.  I have to admit that this is something that is not often stressed far enough in terms of discipleship.  I had come into this writing thinking that much of Christian asceticism was a misappropriation of Christ’s teaching or something taken to the extreme.  But upon some closer inspection, Christianity is at its core extreme in many ways.  It seems evident that in the Gospels a form of asceticism was strongly present, unless my interpretation is off.  In today’s church, much of the gospel message has been diluted to cater to our materialism, narcissism, need for security and comfort, so these words about self-denial seems antithetical to the popular and dominant American/Western consumerist theology.  In fact, it is a direct challenge to everything modern society or our modern churches cherish and value the most.  The mystics and monks were onto something, (these decisions aren’t made out of thin air) and asceticism is a vast topic and lost discipline that needs to be further explored and read upon.




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