by: Fr. Erik Arnold
One of my favorite stories about the power of God’s Word comes from the life of St. Augustine, one of the greatest of the early Fathers of the Church.
You’re probably familiar with the basic story of Augustine’s life. He was a brilliant young man who restlessly searched for love and truth as he made a name for himself as a teacher and writer in the Roman Empire. His mother, Monica, was a fervent Christian, but he resisted her attempts to bring him to faith in Christ. For years he carried on a personal and intellectual struggle. Finally, Augustine became convinced of the truth of the gospel. He knew that he should accept baptism and become a Christian, but he hesitated at the brink of conversion, embroiled in a spiritual struggle with the sins he knew he had to leave behind:
I was held back by mere trifles, the most paltry inanities, all my old attachments. They plucked at my garment of flesh and whispered, “Are you going to dismiss us? From this moment we shall never be with you again, for ever and ever. From this moment you will never again be allowed to do this thing or that, for evermore.”
They no longer barred my way, blatantly contradictory, but their mutterings seemed to reach me from behind, as though they were stealthily plucking at my back, trying to make me turn my head when I wanted to go forward. Yet, in my state of indecision, they kept me from tearing myself away, from shaking myself free of them and leaping across the barrier to the other side, where you were calling me. Habit was too strong for me when it asked, “Do you think you can live without these things?” (Confessions VIII, 11)
In spiritual agony, Augustine cried out to the Lord. How long? How long is it to be? He describes what happened next:
As I was saying this and weeping in the bitter agony of my heart, suddenly I heard a voice from a nearby house chanting as if it might be a boy or a girl ... saying and repeating over and over again, “Pick up and read, pick up and read.” At once my countenance changed, and I began to think intently whether there might be some sort of children’s game in which such a chant was used. But I could not remember having heard of one.... I interpreted it solely as a divine command to open the book [a copy of the letters of St. Paul] and read the first chapter I might find. (Confessions VIII, 12)
His eyes landed on a passage from Romans:
Let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Rom 13: 13–14)
The passage told Augustine something that he had known for some time—that he needed to leave the old life behind and accept the new life of Christ in baptism. But now the conviction moved from his head to his heart. In a flash, he received the power he needed to act on what he knew to be true. Augustine was soon baptized and became a Christian. Where did Augustine find the power to overcome the fears and doubts that had plagued him for so long? Not from himself. The power came from the Word of God in Scripture.
Here we discover one of the most important differences between God’s Word and mere human words: God’s Word contains in itself the power to accomplish the very things it declares. Unlike the latest self-help book, which may have good advice for my life but leaves me to do the work, God’s Word is able to make happen exactly what it proclaims. This opens up for us a whole new way of reading Scripture — a way in which we expect God’s Word to accomplish in us the very thing we are reading!