I wrap up this three part series (read Part 1 & Part 2 here) with a look at how one hero of the faith describes his own journey from chasing the fleeting shadows of self to resting in the stronger shadow of God.
It is an act of grace that God reveals himself and awakens us to his goodness and his glory. The following quote is from Augustine (354-430). He is clearly drawing on Psalm 36, which is the same psalm that we explored in Part 2, and he answers the question: what is it like to hide yourself in God?
“The soul of men shall hope under the shadow of Thy wings; they shall be made drunk with the fullness of Thy house, and of the torrents of Thy pleasures Thou wilt give them to drink; for in Thee is the fountain of Life, and in Thy Light shall we see the light? Give me a man in love: he knows what I mean. Give me one who yearns; give me one who is hungry; give me one far away in this desert, who is thirsty and sighs for the Spring of the Eternal country. Give me that sort of man: he knows what I mean. But if I speak to a cold man, he just does not know what I am talking about…” *
God’s grace is a magical, mysterious, hope-drenched wonder. When we limit it to mere doctrine or morality or religiosity or family heritage or common sense, we can never capture what Augustine describes here. Augustine is forced to use comparisons to make his point. He says that you will know what it is like if you know what it means to be in love; or know what means to thirst in the desert; or know what it is like to ache and groan for a better world. The cold or dispassionate or guarded man won’t get it; he will never comprehend what it means to be overwhelmingly satisfied by God. There is a delight with God that is greater than our proper demeanor. To speak of being drunk on the fullness of God’s house is a uncontainable joy. In our legal circles, people who are drunk on alcohol are said to be “under the influence.” When God’s grace enters our lives, it also exerts its influence on us but to a much better end.
(By the way, if you were hung up on word drunk, you have likely missed the point.)
The following verses tell us how we come to know this love:
- “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19)
- “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Romans 2:4)
The order is important–God loves us and leads us first. Reverse the order, and you are doomed. In both verses, God initiates, and we respond. Functionally, however, many of us live as though we are the cause of God’s love and kindness. Mistakenly, we think that our repentance leads to God’s kindness, and we act as though our love to God earns his love in return. If we think this way, we will find ourselves saying things like “if I get this decision right, then God will bless me” or “if I devote myself to this good cause, then God will give me peace.” Of course, such thinking will stress you out. How will you know when you have loved God enough to earn his love in return? How will you determine when you’ve achieved enough good in the world to merit his care and affection? But take it the other way round (the way the Bible teaches it), and your outlook will be much better.
Grace is about the good we receive from God. 1 Corinthians 4:7 was very significant in Augustine’s thinking on this issue. This single verse helped to change his entire paradigm of the spiritual life. It says, “What do you have that you have not received? If then you received it, why then do you boast as if you did not receive it?” The verse is saying that there is nothing naturally in you that makes you better than anyone else. It is all of grace. If you are more mature or more faithful or more missional or more passionate or more moral, it is only because you have received something good from God. The verse is a mighty ax swinging away at our pride. What good do you possess that you did not receive from God? Answer: nothing at all.
In his Confessions, Augustine describes his journey from rebellion to surrender. He insists that his rescue was not found in an act of his own will or wisdom. Instead, it was God’s work within Augustine that brought about the change.
“During all those years [of rebellion], where was my free will? What was the hidden, secret place from which it was summoned in a moment, so that I might bend my neck to your easy yoke?” **
The answer to these rhetorical questions is obvious: his will did not help him find Jesus. Yet, God burst into Augustine’s heart to change his life forever.
“How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose!…You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy. You drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than pleasure, though not to flesh and blood, you who outshine all light, yet are hidden deeper than any secret in our hearts, you who surpass all honor, though not in the eyes of men who see all honor in themselves…O Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation.” ***
When Ultimate Joy comes to us, our happy response is to enjoy this greater joy and to let our little joys go. That is why Christians so often speak of surrender. It is not that we, being smarter and better than others, have searched for and discovered something great. Instead, something great has come to us, and we surrendered ourselves to it.
This is what grace is all about. God comes to us, not because of our goodness but in spite of our badness. We see this in the cross of Christ, who became sin for us and died for us: “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). Jesus lovingly took the bad that we deserved, and we received the good that he deserved.
When you know grace like this, you want to shout like an Olympian who won a gold medal when he deserved to lose. The gospel is such good news that you never recover from it. It marks all of your life. It reorients all of your life. It fuels all of your life.
Whenever people have lost a sense of wonder and awe about the gospel, the church has lost it’s way. One of the times when the church especially seemed to drift away from the gospel of grace was in the centuries prior to the Reformation. People began to depend more on their own goodness and religiosity than on the grace of God, and the church suffered. This is why the Reformation caused such a stir. The issue wasn’t that a few theologians slightly tweaked some doctrinal stances or religious rituals. No, the Reformation was a recovery of the sense of worship and passion that overtakes a man when he knows the grace that comes through the cross of Jesus. The renewed exaltation of the true gospel was a shock and awe attack on the religion of the day. For those that experienced it, it was a joyous revolt against the tyranny of false religion, and such a revolution of God’s grace deserved a great celebration.
I love the way Robert Farrar Capon describes it: ****
In our day, I pray that we will be increasingly overcome by the gospel. This is the only way forward. May we drink deeply of God’s grace. Like the prodigal that returns home to his father’s hug and excessive celebration, may we always treasure the gospel party thrown by the one who is our Ultimate Joy.
Have you ever really tasted this grace? How does this understanding of grace shape your life? Are you living with a sense of awe and wonder at the gospel?
* Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, pp.374-375 (Tractatus in Joannis Evangelium, 26,4).
** Aurelius Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin Books, 1961), p.181 (IX,1). NOTE: I think that originally saw this quote and the quote that follows in something that John Piper wrote, but my books are in boxes from our recent relocation so I’m unable to find the quote.
**** Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon & Three: Romance, Law & the Outrage of Grace (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996).