Have Yourself a Merry Little Identity Crisis

It’s no secret to those attending services at Hill City Church recently, or who are connected with me on social media, that I’ve got a bit of a man-crush on Saint Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430).

The long-dead bishop is enjoying something of a revival here in the late-modern, post-Christendom West. This is probably because Augustine was living, pastoring, writing, and trying to figure out who he was at the end of the Roman Empire. Like our time, his was a time of a multitude of question marks, and plenty of apocalyptic, alarmist predictions about the future.

“St Augustine and Monica” (1846), by Ary Scheffer.

Augustine addresses the global identity crisis of his day in his magisterial City of God,which one day I shall endeavor to read. For the time being, I’m wading through his account of his personal identity crisis in his Confessions.

“I have become a question to myself.”

“I am a weighty burden to myself.”

“I am a land of difficulty over which I toil.”

“I saw myself and was horrified, and there was no place to which I could flee.”

Not only before he began to follow Jesus, but also after, Augustine’s was a life of puzzlement over himself. He could not find a stable “self”, an anchored identity, in his academic and intellectual pursuits, in the esteem of his mentors, in the arms of women, in the praise of his followers, and certainly not through “positive self-talk”—a strategy he would have above all else found laughable, no—cryable.

St. Augustine as painted by the Italian painter Sandro Botticelli in 1480

Here in the post-modern West, there are basically two paths to secure that secular salvation we’ve come to know as ‘authenticity’. You can either embrace your fragmentary identity and playfully confess yourself to be no one in particular—a happy scramble of who knows what. Or you can will yourself into a stable self.

Augustine is more brave, more grave, and yet in the end, more happy, than either of our post-modern self-helpers. His approach? To hell with my supposed ‘authenticity’!

The Confessions are confessions both of sin and of faith (both of which we do every week at Hill City Church). They’re prayer and praise. They’re full of poor self-esteem safely enveloped in the the Self-Giving of the only Stable Self, the Three-in-One God. They’re full of self-second-guessing and auto-interrogation done before the face of One who, in facing Augustine, can whisper a benediction (a “good word”) that alone can de-center not just himself but, thankfully, even his interrogation of himself:

“You planted me right before my own eyes, that I might see my own injustice and hate it.”

“You love without frenzy, you are jealous yet secure, you regret without sadness, you grow angry yet remain tranquil…you are never in need yet you rejoice in your gains, never avaricious, yet you demand profits.”

Augustine teaches us that, if we follow his Savior, we can breathe easy, even while we decrease and Another increases in our place:

“Great are you, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise! Your power is immense, and your wisdom beyond reckoning. And so we long to praise you–we who carry our mortality about with us, carry the evidence of our sin and with it the proof that you thwart the proud. Yet we, due prat of your creation as we are, still long to praise you. You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

I hope you’ll join me and Saint Augustine in having yourself a merry little identity crisis. If you are planting or pastoring a church, leading a community group, or participating in accountability, I hope you’ll lead sinners and saints into a merry little identity crisis.

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