One of the things I like about the writings of the Christian church father St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) is his rich use of analogies1 in talking about critical theological topics. An analogy, of course, is a comparison between two things (how they are like and unlike), usually for the purpose of providing explanation. In his most popular work, Confessions,2 Augustine compares the human soul to a house and offers hope for all souls that need housekeeping.
Comparing a Soul to a House
One of the unique features of the Confessions is that Augustine wrote the book as an ongoing prayer to God. It records his prayerful communication and reflections. So he says this in prayer to the Lord:
“My soul is like a house, small for you to enter, but I pray you to enlarge it. It is in ruins, but I ask you to remake it. It contains much that you will not be pleased to see: this I know and do not hide. But who is to rid it of these things?”3
The soul in Christian theology is traditionally thought of as the immaterial aspect or essence of a human being. You could say that the soul is the true human “self.” A house, in comparison, is of course a dwelling, a place of habitation.
Augustine describes the house (his soul) as small and therefore not easy for the Lord to come into (interestingly, Scripture says that the Holy Spirit indwells Christians: 1 Corinthians 3:16). It seems by “small” Augustine means the soul is impoverished (poor or weak). But he asks the Lord to enlarge it (make it richer and stronger).
He further relates the state of his soul as being like a house in ruins (suffering decay, collapse, or disintegration). But he asks the Lord to remake it—tantamount to a spiritual transformation.
Augustine also likens his soul to a house containing many things that are a displeasure to its maker (reflecting divine disapproval). Yet he candidly admits this reality about his soul being in disarray and doesn’t dodge his responsibility before God. Knowing and admitting to God that one’s soul (self, life) is impoverished and engaged in things that displease him is really a severe mercy (a painful gift or benefit). Sin tends to blind people to the state of their own soulish situation (Romans 1).
But Augustine then asks what appears to be a rhetorical question. Who will get rid of these things that are divinely displeasing? In other words, who will clean up the house? Well, the Lord is the maker of the soul like a builder is the maker of a house. So God will not leave the soul filled with displeasing things but will instead transform it by his grace (specifically the work of the Holy Spirit: 1 Corinthians 6:11). That’s humanity’s great hope. Despite how messy the house may be, God chooses it as his habitation and will ultimately make it look impeccable.
Reflections: Your Turn
Does Augustine’s analogy work for you? Can you relate to his prayerful reflection?
- Augustine’s use of personal analogies regarding the Trinity in his work On the Trinity is both distinctive and somewhat controversial.
- For an introduction to St. Augustine and his key ideas as well as his book Confessions, see chapter three of my book Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction.
- Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin, 1961), Bk. 1, 5, p. 24.