If you’ve been around Calvary Church for any time, you will know that Augustine’s famous prayer, “Give what you command, command what you will” is mentioned often. What did Augustine mean when he prayed this in his spiritual classic, The Confessions? While I won’t cover it here, in his later book, The Gift of Perseverance,Augustine actually admitted he wrote it to irritate a theologian named Pelagius. The church later branded Pelagius a heretic!1
It’s important to understand what follows. The longer quote is “Give what you command, command what you will. You order us to practice continence.” (Confessions,29.40) It might be helpful to start with the definition of “continence” and it’s not the problem associated with wetting your underpants you get older…
The Greek philosophers understood continence in terms of self-control that was self-empowered. When Augustine speaks of continence, he speaks of it as something that is done by us yet it can only be done as we first bring ourselves to God in need to receive His power (2 Tim.1:7). In other words, you must show self-control but it’s only through your openness to God’s empowering that you can then show restraint.2 Augustine goes on, “A certain writer tell us, ‘I knew that no one can be continent except by God’s gift…’”(Confessions, 29.40).
What are you restraining then? Continence is being empowered by God to restrain yourself by gathering your soul in unity (re-collection) and not be torn apart by desires/emotions pulling you in all directions. This should speak volumes to we modern people who somehow are seeking an identity lived out in a bundle of desires and emotions that pull every which way. Desires and emotions are often good things, as many are real human desires. However, we always have to remember what sin does by infecting good desires, warping them so they become all important. We seek to fulfill these desires in the wrong way, at the wrong time, toward the wrong person, with too much strength, and toward the wrong end. As a result, we are a conflict of desires (inordinate or excessive) and somehow the desire for God gets submerged in the whirlwind.
So we can understand Augustine to be praying, “Lord, I am open to your divine work, empower me to do what you command. Now command whatever you will. You command me to be continent” (2 Peter 1:5-7). The power God gives us through His Spirit’s work in our lives is intended to enable us to re-collect our fragmented selves into a whole. Soren Kierkegaard spoke of this as, “Purity of heart is to will one thing” or “to will the one will.”3 Continence is how God works in you to re-arrange your desires through self-control so that your will becomes aligned with God’s. This is aimed toward the end of loving God for who He is and not for anything else (pleasure, answer to prayers, out of a sense of duty, etc.). Rather than using God as a means to get something else, continence is intended to help us lean into loving Him as the sole good in our lives (Psalm 73:28).
1 In short, Pelagius maintained that God’s grace is helpful to make obedience easier, but it was not a prior gift absolutely necessary for obedience. Now you get into questions of how deadly was Adam’s sin and what did sin do to a person? How you answer the question demonstrates how important God’s grace was in salvation.
2 Yes, Augustine had a serious problem with sexual desires. His book, The Confessions, really is about God taking a person who was broken only to redeem and renew him through conversion. However, the problem is when Christians speak of continence today it’s usually limited to the area of the sexual. Particularly, the Catholic understanding grew to be continence was synonymous with celibacy. Continence is at least relevant to sexual desires but it’s much bigger given that our desires have a much greater range.
3 Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing