Losing our lives, gaining dignity
Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.
A comedian … promised .. that at his next show he would tell the audience what they wanted. So on the appointed day … he said … ‘You all want to buy cheap and sell dear.’ … [Cicero said], ‘To want what is not right is itself a very unhappy situation; in fact, not to get what you want is not so unhappy a state of affairs as to want to get what you have no business to.
The Trinity, book XIII, Augustine
One of the more interesting things about reading a book from 1600 years ago is to realize those people back then are not too different from us today. Augustine tends to meander in his arguments, beating around the bush to get us to understand the lay of the land of his topic. Of course, this might just mean getting lost in lots of weeds, but it also means we get to over hear stuff like I’ve quoted above. A snarky comedian and a know-it-all Cicero.
Let’s take the comedian first. He nails the desires of the whole theater on the head. He knows us too: we too want to buy cheap (and so we have Menards and Wal-mart) and we want to sell dear (and so we are surprised when no one wants to pay our marked up prices for the things we sell at our garage sale or on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. We scoff at the price of a plumber (ugh, he charges $100 just to come out) as if that were enough to support a man making a living. In other words, we only understand these things from our self-centered perspective. Of course, Augustine suggests the comedian could have said, ‘You all want to be happy, and no one wants to be unhappy.’ In a similar way, this is true of what we all want. No one wants to suffer, and if they do, they really have a sick happiness in suffering. To me, this is an interesting path Augustine takes since the comedian’s saying implies that his audience doesn’t have what they want. They aren’t fully content in their lives, and their desires aren’t fulfilled. They all want to be happy, but they don’t really know how to get there. And as far as the Roman empire goes, one of the great difficulties is that many desires were fulfilled, but they kept coming for more. Boys at the age of 12 were told to satisfy their desires on prostitute row, and yet, happiness was out of reach. Suffering was quite common. I don’t think we’re much in a different spot today. I recently ran across a story of the actor for the Flash movies (I had never heard of him nor have I seen his movies). He’s well known for being some sort of LGBTQ but not wanting to be labeled as such a person, really he doesn’t even want to be classified as human I guess. He’s pursuing his life as he wants it as far as money can buy it for him. But that doesn’t change the fact that his public behavior displays a deep unhappiness. Whether getting in a fight in Iceland or Hawaii, his police records show an arrogant man who still can’t have everything he wants. I don’t think our own human tendencies are much different. When we interact with our children, are we tempted to similarly pursue our own desires at their expense instead of seeking to edify them? When we are upset at our neighbors, family or church members who bug us a bit, aren’t we tempted to think our happiness is found in getting what we want at their expense?
Cicero said then it’s not really a good thing to want what is not right or good, and I think he’s right. He’s not a Christian, but he’s reflected on human nature enough to know that a man simply wanting bad things isn’t a good thing. Perhaps this is why he was murdered by agents of the second triumvirate since he was standing up for what he thought was the good at the expense of his life. But it’s interesting because we can’t force anyone to love what is good. I referenced Carl Trueman’s book last week, and he mentions a liberal pastor who famously invited girls to mail their purity rings to her so she could make a protest statue rejecting ‘purity culture.’ The purity ring never made girls pure nor did it change their hearts. So even though sex within a covenantal marriage between a man and woman is good, it does not necessarily tame evil desire in the deepest heart of a man or a woman. But it is still good, very good; it’s how God created humanity, as his creative word abundantly created us.
I’d suggest that in order to ‘unlock’ a higher level where we don’t spit in the face of God’s good order, we’ve got to begin with repentance. Cyprian said this, ‘Confession is the beginning of glory, … but it initiates dignity.’ Repentance throws us off our pride and arrogance and our pursuit of selfish desires; and daily we follow that same path, battling sin, repenting of those attitudes and actions that are contrary to God’s good order, and we put our faith in Christ who will work for us; who has sent his Spirit to empower us to taste and see the good plans of the Lord.
You see, we’ve actually got to be willing to lose our lives, lose the desires we once loved so much for the sake of life. But we’ve got to be willing to sacrifice for the right reasons. Where does so much of our exhaustion come from? Is it because you’ve sacrificed for the good that God has laid out in his word? I don’t always think so. It’s graduation season, so we’ve got to get the party ready or we’ve got to go to all the parties. Of course, you should go ahead and have a party- it is good to celebrate these milestones. We just need to distinguish between things. Enjoy a good party, but don’t call it a sacrifice for the gospel. And there are a million other things that fill our lives and schedules that end up hindering our life of faith. And then we don’t actually plan for a day of rest, full with worship of God. I’ve said this before, but we’ve over-extended ourselves nowadays, and there’s not a perfect answer for us as to how to solve this. And often churches don’t help much with this busy-ness, or they make it worse.
But if confession is the beginning of glory, if it initiates dignity as we begin to be conformed to a healthier image of God in Christ, then we will slowly grow into appreciating what is truly good and slowly put away the sin that so easily hinders with the aim of reaching the highest good: unhindered fellowship with our Lord and Savior. And having lost our lives, there we will find it in its redeemed splendor.