What We Believe
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Augustine’s Short Prayers in His Confessions

Shane P. Lems

Many Christians today would probably agree that their prayers are sometimes mediocre. I confess that my own prayers are not always full of deep and heartfelt words. Thankfully, Christ always intercedes for us, and God is a loving Father. This means he always hears the prayers of his children.

However, we should want to grow in our prayer life. It’s a positive thing to desire more fervent and passionate prayers.

Though Scripture should be our primary guide for prayer (see Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 186), it is often beneficial for Christians to read the impassioned prayers of God’s people in the past. Their prayers can help us better speak to the Lord from the innermost recesses of our hearts.

The North African theologian Augustine (354–430) is a good help for those who want to pray better. The way he articulated the desires and thoughts of his heart in prayer is a beautiful example of a believer intimately communing with the Lord. As we listen in on Augustine’s prayers, we not only learn more about prayer, we’re also spiritually moved by the God-ward longings of his heart.

It would take a book to examine all of Augustine’s prayers and comments about prayer. For now, however, I will focus only on his Confessions. This entire book might be considered an autobiographical prayer. To keep it brief, however, I want to point out some of Augustine’s short prayers in the Confessions. My hope is that a look at these prayers will teach you to pray better and encourage you to open your hearts more as you commune with the Lord in prayer.

Reflective Confession of Past Sin

Before Augustine turned to the Lord in faith, he lived for his own sinful pleasures. Augustine’s prayers recounting his prodigal adolescent years are not restrained: “Lord my God, I sinned by not doing as I was told by my parents and teachers” (12). “I abandoned you to pursue the lowest things of your creation. I was dust going to dust” (16).

Augustine also understood the strong sinful pull of his depraved heart: “As an adolescent I went astray from you (Ps. 118:76), my God, far from your unmoved stability. I became to myself a region of destitution” (34). “You were with me, and I was not with you” (201). He made no excuses. Augustine didn’t blame Satan or the very sinful culture in which he lived. Instead, he prayed, “My stiff neck took me further and further away from you. I loved my own ways, not yours. The liberty I loved was merely that of a runaway” (38). The imagery is striking. Augustine realized his own depravity led him to stray from God into a destitute region where he was like a runaway slave with no true freedom. And again, he confessed as much to God in his prayers.

Prayer Lesson

When we confess our sins to God, it is beneficial sometimes to include our past sins. We should not pull up our old sins and despair over them—they are fully forgiven in Christ! However, even David thought about the sins of his youth and asked the Lord to remember them not (Ps. 25:7; cf. Jer. 3:25). The sins of our youth might be a burden that is difficult for us to bear. Scripture calls us to cast our cares on the Lord, and he will sustain us (Ps. 55:22; 1 Pet. 5:7). So speak freely and candidly to God about your past sins, confess them, and remember that he forgives them (Ps. 32:5).

Remembrance of God’s Mercy

Augustine was also aware of his ongoing sinfulness and continued need for God’s mercy. He prayed for more mercy: “‘Lord hear my prayer (Ps. 60:2) that my soul may not collapse (Ps. 83:3) under your discipline (Ps. 54:2), and may not suffer exhaustion in confessing to you your mercies, by which you have delivered me from all my evil ways” (17). Augustine knew that even when he was a wayward youth, it was in God’s providence: “For you were always with me, mercifully punishing me, touching with a bitter taste all my illicit pleasures” (25). Augustine was deeply thankful to God for this “bitter” mercy. “You are the physician, I am the patient. You are pitiful [full of pity], I am the object of pity” (202). “You pierced my heart with the arrow of your love” (156).

Augustine also knew God’s mercy had brought him out of destitution into the light of his love. “You had pity on it [my heart] when it was at the bottom of the abyss [of sin]” (29). “My entire hope is exclusively in your very great mercy” (202). He confessed that God was the author of his conversion even though he did not realize it at the time. “My God, how I burned, how I burned with longing to leave earthly things and fly back to you. I did not know what you were doing with me” (39). Notice the great imagery:

I will love you, Lord, and I will give thanks and confession to your name because you have forgiven me such great evils and my nefarious deeds. I attribute to your grace and mercy that you have melted my sins away like ice. (32)

Indeed, “There is one hope, one ground of confidence, one reliable promise—your mercy” (207).

Prayer Lesson

When looking back at our past sins, we should also remember God’s great mercy in delivering us from them. And we should always express thanks for this mercy! It is true that God was “long beforehand” with our souls as the hymn puts it and as Augustine experienced. We can talk to God candidly and freely about this and share with him our heartfelt thanks for his patient mercy (Ps. 28:6; 116:1).

Prayers for Spiritual Growth

Augustine recognized his ongoing need for spiritual growth. “The house of my soul is too small for you to come to it. May it be enlarged by you. It is in ruins; restore it” (6). He longed to grow in love for God. “Bring to me a sweetness surpassing all the seductive delights which I pursued. Enable me to love you with all my strength that I may clasp your hand with all my heart” (17–18). On the other hand, Augustine also wanted to experience God’s love for him more deeply.

[Lord,] I intend to remind myself of my past foulnesses and carnal corruptions, not because I love them but so that I may love you, my God. It is from love of your love that I make the act of recollection. The recalling of my wicked ways is bitter in my memory, but I do it so that you may be sweet to me, a sweetness touched by no deception, a sweetness serene and content. (24)

Prayer Lesson

It is right for us to pray fervently for spiritual growth. We should often pray for more love to God as we reflect on his great redemption (Ps. 107:43). Christians can furthermore talk to God about his great love for us and ask him to give us a richer experience of it (Ps. 85:7; 86:13).

Conclusion

The short prayers in Augustine’s Confessions are a good example of how to reflect on God’s merciful work in our lives, talk to him about it openly, give thanks for it, and ask him for continued spiritual growth. You may want to put Confessions on your “to read” list for resources on prayer! And, of course, don’t forget to ask the Lord to help you pray better and open up your heart to him in the intimacy of prayer.   

The author is pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Hammond Wisconsin. All quotations are from Saint Augustine, Confessions, translated by Henry Chadwick (Oxford University Press, 1992). New Horizons, June 2022.

New Horizons: June 2022

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