A Battle of Desire – Lessons from Ezra and Augustine

It has often be said within Christian circles that there are two ways to live. One way, is to live a life that rejects God as ruler and instead choose to run life our own way thus incurring the condemnation and judgement of God. The other way to live is to submit to Jesus as our ruler, rely on his work and as a result be forgiven by God and attain eternal life. For those who have been familiar with street evangelism, this approach is all too common. Personally, I myself have used this approach in street evangelism before.  Yet on hindsight, while recognising that there are truths and merits to this approach, there is also in my opinion a fairly big problem. Essentially, this approach places too heavy an emphasis on where one goes after death – heaven or hell. The unintended result may be that people end up turning to Christianity because they want to escape hell not because they actually have any longing to be with God.

This understanding of Christianity as an escape from hell has huge ramifications. Two related examples come to mind. Firstly our motivation for confession and secondly our understanding of what sin is.

Our Motivation for Confession

If the Christian life is about escaping judgement, then naturally this means confession will always be driven by fear – fear of judgement and punishment. To be clear, fear of punishment need not be a bad thing. For when we do something wrong, we ought to be afraid of the punishment that lies ahead. But if fear is the only thing that drives our confession, then we must seriously start to wonder whether true repentance has in fact taken place. As Charles Spurgeon once famously commented “If I hate sin because of the punishment, I have not repented of my sin. I merely regret that God is just”.[1] In essence, to confess or repent out of fear, may not necessarily indicate a realization that what is done is truly wrong as it expresses a regret that one got caught because nothing escapes the eye of God.

A Flawed Understanding of Sin

Secondly, to understand the Christian life as essentially an escape from hell leads one to settle for legalistic definitions of what sin is thus failing to recognize the depth and pervasiveness of sin. Admittedly, I think this position is perhaps the most subtle and prevalent in all of our Christian lives. Many years ago, as a youth, I remember sitting in the office of my pastor. I was questioning him on what he thought the boundaries for dating were. I distinctively recall challenging him saying that the bible only prohibited premarital sex. Following that logic, I thought that there were a lot more things that were permissible in so far as it was not explicitly condemned in scripture (you only need to use your imagination to know I mean). The same would apply when it comes to dating non-Christians or even going overseas alone with your girlfriend/boyfriend for that matter. Since scripture only prohibits marrying non-Christians, then dating a non-Christian or even a very new believer who still did not attend church should and could not be considered sin – or so I thought. As a young 17-year-old youth, I considered my argument rock solid and that there was no way for my pastor to make a comeback. To my surprise, he looked at me with a frown and said that I had it all wrong. He told me off that to even think in such a manner was itself sinful because what I was essentially trying to do was to see how close I could get to sinning without committing sin. But such a position and posture was in itself utterly sinful in so far as it was still self-seeking. At the end of the day, what I wanted was to please myself without incurring any punishment and this resulted in a very reductionistic and legalistic approach to sin by trying to push the boundaries. What I failed to realize was that sin went beyond particular prohibited actions in scripture and extended even to our fundamental desires.

A Way Out?

If these two approaches to confession and sin is inadequate, what then would be a corrective? At this point, I find the prayer of Ezra as found in chapter 9 and the early church father Augustine (354 – 430 AD) helpful.

In chapter 9, Ezra break outs into despair as he laments over the sin of Israel. But what is most striking about Ezra’s prayer is his awareness concerning God’s faithfulness. In verse 7, Ezra already acknowledges the presence of sin among the Israelites. However he highlights the contrast between God and Israel in verse 8 by saying “But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the Lord our God…” He does this again in verse 9 “For we are slaves; yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery.” Finally in verse 13 he admits saying “you our God have punished us less than our iniquities deserved”.

Not to be missed in Ezra’s confession is one that is fundamentally motivated by God’s love and graciousness. Was there fear of God concerning Israel’s trespasses? No doubt. But ultimately the travesty of sin was that it failed to reciprocate in loving God back. What made Ezra confess and repent was the realization that Israel still did not love God with all her heart and hence disobeyed.

Complementary to this is the topic of sin and here Augustine’s insight and brilliance shines through. For Augustine, human beings are rational creatures with a disordered desire. Defining sin, Augustine says “My sin was that I sought not in God himself, but in things he had created.”[2]  This description of sin as that of a wrong desire helps us see the depth of sin as going beyond mere actions to the way we think and the things we want. Going back to the story of my younger self, it helped me realize what exactly was so sinful in my thought process. It was sinful precisely because there was no desire for God at all. Even if I had indeed stayed away from all that was explicitly prohibited in scripture, the attitude of trying to push the line revealed a posture that was nonetheless sinful in so far as I still had a greater desire to please myself than to please God. I “sought not in God himself, but in things he had created.” In this regard, I was not far from the rebellious Israelites. Perhaps a bit wiser to stay away from commands explicitly mentioned, but definitely as sinful in so far as my desire was not focused on God.

At this point, I’m guessing some of you might be wondering…so what? To start with, I think this two correctives on confession and sin necessitates seeing the Christian life as more than escaping hell. Perhaps the image of union is a more accurate description. In coming to faith, we are drawn into union with Christ as we join his body. This means that first and foremost we abandon setting our eyes on God’s lowest benchmark. To use an illustration closer to home, there is a world of difference in trying to live your life without upsetting your parents versus living a life that seeks to please them. The former does the minimum. The latter is willing to go the extra mile. Similarly, to say yes to Jesus isn’t simply saying no to hell. It means setting our eyes towards what God delights regardless of what that benchmark may be. It means slowly through the help of the Spirit, redirecting our desires back to God. Will there be times where we fail? Of course. But the comfort is in knowing that we can confess because God loves us and hears us. In fact, he has offered himself to us through his Son Jesus Christ.  And I reckon that it is through this love that we can truly confess with a contrite heart.

[1] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “The Pierced One Pierces the Heart,” The Spurgeon Center, June 19, 1864, accessed August 22, 2019, https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/the-pierced-one-pierces-the-heart#flipbook/.

[2] Augustine, Confessions, trans. Sarah Ruden, First edition. (New York: The Modern Library, 2017), 1.20.31.

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