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