SELF-CENTEREDNESS & St. Augustine’s Insights on a Gospel of Self-fulfillment

Glennon Doyle Melton’s Gospel of Self-Fulfillment

by Jen Pollock Michel, Christianity Today, 11/22/16.

… For those who have religiously read her blog since its inception in 2009, Melton’s news is dramatic—even earth shaking. And yet the “sky is not falling” because her story, like Elizabeth Gilbert’s before her, is hardly new. The gospel of self-fulfillment has been centuries in the making. As Charles Taylor explains in his dense, scholarly A Secular Age, the new invention of the modern age is a self-sufficing humanism that “accept[s] no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true.” In other words, happiness is our only duty today, self-betrayal our only sin. It’s not simply that the lines of morality have blurred in modern times, making truth relative. It’s not even that religious belief has waned. Rather, the good life has been radically redefined according to the benefit of the individual while the former measures of flourishing—God’s glory, society’s health, the family’s well-being—have been displaced. We’re all on the throne now.

…St. Augustine’s conversion story, more than 1,500 years old, is still a resonant story of desire. Despite having a Christian mother who prayed for him and taught him the truths of the gospel, Augustine did not become a Christian until he was in his early 30s. He was taken with his own vain ambitions for professional success, and in The Confessions, he writes of his insatiable sexual desire. At some point, Augustine discovers that, although he has answered some of his biggest intellectual questions about Christianity, he still faces an ongoing obstacle to spiritual surrender: his lust.

“My old loves held me back,” he writes. “They tugged at the garment of my flesh and whispered, ‘Are you getting rid of us?’”

Augustine has a vision of a woman whom he calls, “Lady Continence.” In his despair, she says to him, “Why are you relying on yourself, only to find yourself unreliable? Cast yourself upon [Christ], do not be afraid. He will not withdraw himself so that you fall. Make the leap without anxiety; he will catch you and heal you.” It’s then that Augustine hears a voice, which implores him to pick up and read. He happens upon a copy of the Bible, opens to Romans, and the book falls open to 13:13–14: “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

Augustine understood that human beings don’t flourish because they obey their most instinctual desires and follow their own yellow brick road of happiness. “Without [God], what am I but a guide to my own self-destruction?” he confessed. He had a better story of desire—the one Christ himself had, who for his greater joy and our greatest flourishing, forsook his immediate good. Thy will be done.Good news, indeed…

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