Introductory Note:

How can Augustine’s exhortation to order our loves well—giving neither too much or too little attention when less or more is needed—be lived out practically without our falling into another time-management or self-help trap? That is, how can we abandon our need to be in control of what we rightly wish to order correctly?

Carolyn Arends looks at the tension between our worthy endeavors and our desire for self-mastery in this timely piece that may help us put the whirlwind and stress of the upcoming holiday season into proper perspective, open the door to spiritual transformation, and release us from the bondage of having to do it all on our own.

Renovaré Team

Taped to the side of the mon­i­tor in my office, next to pic­tures of my fam­i­ly and a few dozen Post-it notes regard­ing mat­ters of var­i­ous lev­els of urgency, I have a sheet of paper bear­ing this pas­sage from Augustine’s On Chris­t­ian Doc­trine:

… liv­ing a just and holy life requires one to be capa­ble of an objec­tive and impar­tial eval­u­a­tion of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a less­er or greater love for things that should be loved equally. 

Some­times I look at that quote and feel encour­aged. It does seem to me my loves are right­ly ordered — I val­ue mean­ing­ful work more than emp­ty pur­suits, fam­i­ly more than work and, supreme­ly, the Cre­ator more than all He’s cre­at­ed. But then I look at my sched­ule, or the debris accu­mu­lat­ed at the end of a par­tic­u­lar­ly fraz­zled day, and I sus­pect my life betrays a pro­found scram­bling of those affections.

I have way too many irons in way too many fires, and absolute­ly noth­ing in the oven. 

I long for a right­ly ordered life.

Recent­ly I was express­ing my dis­may over all this to a friend. She lis­tened empa­thet­i­cal­ly and then asked, What would a right­ly ordered life look like?” 

I think what I’m aim­ing for,” I con­fessed, is Martha Stew­art and Broth­er Lawrence coex­ist­ing in a remark­ably fit body.” 

Hmmm,” said my friend. Good luck with that.” 

Then she asked me a tougher ques­tion. Do you think you are aim­ing for self-mas­tery more than you are for spir­i­tu­al transformation?” 

This was not play­ing fair. My friend knew she’d get through to me by bring­ing up trans­for­ma­tion. She’s well aware I’m con­vinced the death and res­ur­rec­tion of Jesus offer us hope not only for the after­life, but also for the one pre­cious earth­ly life we live now. She knows I believe we real­ly can be pro­gres­sive­ly healed of our com­pul­sions and dis­tor­tions, and changed into the peo­ple we were cre­at­ed to be. And she agrees with me that the Apos­tle Paul was not jok­ing when he told us all the mis­shapen aspects of our­selves could be grad­u­al­ly con­formed to the image of [Jesus]” (Romans 8:29), even as our entire lives are being trans­formed into His image with ever-increas­ing glo­ry” (2 Corinthi­ans 3:18).

My friend and I also con­cur that God invites us to co-oper­ate with Him in His desire to trans­form us. Rather than sit­ting idly and wait­ing for change to come, we can seek out God’s King­dom and draw close to His side — par­tic­u­lar­ly through prac­tices like Scrip­ture med­i­ta­tion, prayer and worship.

So you can under­stand why I was irri­tat­ed with my friend for refus­ing to see my pin­ing for a right­ly ordered life as a prop­er pos­ture toward spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion. But, because this friend is a soul friend (one who even has the courage to serve for­mal­ly as my spir­i­tu­al direc­tor), she pushed fur­ther. Are you aim­ing to become increas­ing­ly depen­dent on the grace and guid­ance of God, so that His strength is made per­fect in your weak­ness?” she asked, brazen­ly quot­ing 2 Corinthi­ans 12:9. Or are you try­ing to get such per­fect con­trol of your life that you won’t need Him anymore?” 

Her ques­tions wouldn’t have been so aggra­vat­ing if they weren’t so on the mon­ey. It’s aston­ish­ing how quick­ly a hunger and thirst for right­eous­ness can dis­tort into some­thing like spir­i­tu­al ambi­tion. It’s sober­ing how often spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines can be down­grad­ed — from prac­tices of friend­ship with the tri­une God into tech­niques for self-improve­ment. And it’s painful to dis­cov­er a long­ing for a right­ly ordered life might just be a spir­i­tu­al­iza­tion of the pride­ful desire to have it all together. 

So what does a right­ly ordered heart look like? I sus­pect it is, in its basic ori­en­ta­tion, more poor in spir­it than on top of its game. It seeks first the King­dom, even in the mid­dle of a messy kitchen, and trusts the right things will fol­low, in the right order. And it longs for and antic­i­pates total trans­for­ma­tion — but loves the Heal­er even more than the healing. 

Text First Published October 2016 · Last Featured on June 2021

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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