Over the years, I have accepted the reality I certainly will face when reading through any one of the great Christian classics again. Whether it is J. I. Packer’s “Knowing God,” John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress,” or perhaps less familiar, that time where the boy Shasta, in his perilous emptiness, meets Aslan in C. S. Lewis’ “The Horse and His Boy.” I am accustomed to the places where my emotions will overwhelm me when I read these works. It is as if the crinkled pages of these worn copies serve as reminders of the tears, which I could not hold back in past readings.
This sort of experience happened a few weeks ago when I read through St. Augustine’s “Confessions” once again. I could hardly get through the first page without choking up. Remember, for example, it is in the opening paragraph of Book One where one of Augustine’s more famous lines appears: “The thought of you stirs him [man] so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you” (p. 21). That’s profoundly true of our restless souls!
We rightly praise Augustine as a defender of the faith against the significant theological threats of his day (Manichaeism, Donatism or Pelagianism, for example) and we rightly praise his careful pastoral wisdom and care. No one questions his indelible influence upon the Christian tradition. But as I read through his “Confessions” once again, I was struck anew by his commitment to living his life Coram Deo.
Please don’t be put off by this Latin phrase, for it captures a necessary aspect of what it means to live the Christian life. Coram Deo refers to something that takes place in the presence of, or before the face of, God. Thus, the Christian life is meant to be lived in the presence of God, under his divine authority, for the pursuit of his glory, no matter what task may be before us. There’s no compartmentalization here and no subtle gesture or thought to live independently of God. Coram Deo living is a commitment of the will to live under the benevolent gaze of our Father in all things (For example, see Psalm 51:9-12 where David pleads, “Cast me not from your presence”). So naturally, the question emerges: How does one go about living his or her life Coram Deo?
Obviously, a number of biblical answers to this question exist, as any one of the spiritual disciplines (Bible reading, prayer, fasting, etc.) would suffice. But we can grab ahold of one particular practice from Augustine that will, over time, allow us to thrive in the freedom of Coram Deo living. To say it simply, when confessing his heart’s affections to God (including his desire for repentance, his fears, his hopes), Augustine never lost sight of just what God had saved him from. In his “Confessions,” we learn how at age nineteen he left for Carthage to study, his mother urging him to resist fornication and temper his lustfulness. His struggles with lust were a clear and present danger and he was powerless to overcome his sinful appetites which ailed his affections and burdened his soul.
Of this period in his life, Augustine says, “my inner self was a house divided against itself” (p. 19). Years later, in late August of 386, just before turning 32, Augustine is converted. Plagued by his bondage to lust, he tastes the freedom of saving grace. With spiritual eyes to see, Augustine admits, “O Lord, my Helper and my Redeemer, I shall now tell and confess to the glory of your name how you released me from the fetters of lust which held me so tightly shackled and from my slavery of things to this world” (p. 166; read the full story of his conversion in Book 8 of the “Confessions”). There’s something to learn here.
When in confession to God, Augustine remembered the precise chains which held him in bondage and he praises God for the explosive freedom of redemption. Living Coram Deo, for Augustine, included a recognition of what he was saved from as well as what he was saved to. It should be no different for us.
Christians understand the importance of confessing our sins to God (1 John 1:9) and we know the instruction and benefit of confessing sins to one another (James 5:16). Clearly, there are individual and corporate aspects of what it means for Christians to be confessing beings. As Christians confess sin, we acknowledge our need for God’s sanctifying grace. We have been set apart as God’s children (1 Corinthians 6:11), but our daily lives prove we still sin (see how Paul frames this battle in Colossians 3:1-11), so our practices of confession, prayer and repentance move us into Coram Deo living. Included in the confession portion of these practices is a recognition of our former bondage and sin.
Now, some might say, but didn’t Paul tell us to forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead (Phil. 3:13)? Well, yes, our pursuit of Christ is always in front of us, rather than behind us, but there is an aspect of looking back which proves beneficial. We should only look back, as Augustine did, for the sake of pressing forward. This is Paul’s argument in Ephesians 2:11-13. Memory has a special place in Coram Deo living, and we can learn from Augustine how to speak of “the wondrous deeds” of the Lord (Psalm 26:7) while actively seeking to live in holiness before his presence.
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- Saint Augustine, Confessions, Penguin Classics, 1961.