Tag Archives: Augustine’s Confessions

It Makes No Sense

Once there was a young man hanging out with his friends.  They were bored so they decided to do something exciting.  One of the people in the neighbourhood had some pear trees.  He was one of those people obsessive about his trees.  He didn’t want people on his property taking his pears.  In other words, he was the perfect target for these bored young people.  They jumped the fence, snuck into his yard, and stole a bunch of his pears.  They ran back out as quickly as they could, hoping not to get caught — or maybe to get caught and make a close escape.  Once they made their get-away, they looked at the pears.  They were ugly and inedible.  They threw the pears to some pigs.

The young man was Augustine, who later became known as one of the church fathers.  He wrote about this in his classic book Confessions – which, if you’ve never read it, you really need to.  It’s the most readable book by Augustine and tremendously edifying.  Augustine reflected on the pear incident in Confessions.  Why did he do it?  Simply, he says, for “the excitement of stealing and doing something wrong.”  Augustine goes on to write about how sin is always irrational and self-destructive, and yet we love it just the same.  This is what he says:

I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself.  It was foul, and I loved it.  I loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself….I was seeking not to gain anything by shameful means, but shame for its own sake.

Augustine did this when he was still an unbeliever.  He wasn’t converted to Christ until much later.  But if you read further in his Confessions, it becomes clear how the irrational and self-destructive nature of sin hounded him his whole life, even after becoming a Christian.  He’s really honest about that.

I can relate and I’m sure you can too, if you’ve given it any thought.  Why do we sin?  If we’d stop and think for a moment, we’d see the utter stupidity of what we’re doing.  But sin blinds us.  It makes us deaf to reason.  Sin turns us into fools.  We know God is holy.  We know he hates sin.  We know he will punish sin with unquenchable wrath.  Yet we do it.  We sin every day with our thoughts, our words, and our actions.

Now the gospel tells us that God will forgive all our sins through Christ and so we go to Christ to escape the coming wrath.  We’re assured of forgiveness through him.  You’d think that would make us into people filled with love and thanksgiving, people wanting to obey and please our Father in heaven who has loved us so much.  Yet instead, so often, we forget his love, we trample on the gospel, and still want to do things our own way.  Does it make any sense?  Not to me.  And yet, sin has compelled me and sin will compel me.  The same is true for you.  For all of us, we’re burdened with the utter irrationality of our wickedness.  For a Christian, it’s totally frustrating.

But let me encourage you.  If you see the senselessness of sin, take heart because this is God’s work in you with his Holy Spirit.  If sin frustrates you, it’s because God has opened your eyes through regeneration.  The way forward involves awareness of your plight and God grants that gift to all his children.

God doesn’t stop there.  The Holy Spirit also works with the Word so there is actual growth in our lives.  True Christians can and will make progress in holiness.  The growth may be slow and many times it can be imperceptible.  Sometimes, sadly, Christians backslide too.  Nevertheless, the overall trend in a Christian’s godliness is upward.  That’s something we want, something we strive for, and something God graciously grants.  By God’s grace, we are being set free from the senselessness of sin.  We are on our way to a place and state where everything we do, say, and think will finally make sense.


Quotable Church History: “Our heart is restless…”

This is the third in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

Africa’s greatest theologian of all time must surely be Augustine of Hippo (354-430).  His influence has spanned the centuries.  Reformation theology, too, owed a huge debt to Augustine.  For example, no other author is referred to more often by John Calvin in his Institutes than Augustine — in the McNeill/Battles edition there are over six pages of indexed references.  Augustine is remembered for several memorable expressions.  One of them is the Latin “tolle legge” (take up, read) — life-changing words he overheard chanted by some children in a Milan garden.  But the most well-known quote from Augustine is undoubtedly this:  “For you made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”  For the Latinists:  “Quia fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te.”

The quote comes from Augustine’s Confessions.  In fact, it occurs almost at the very beginning of the book — depending on the translation, it comes at the third or fourth sentence.  The Confessions is a remarkable book.  When God caused me to become serious about being a Christian, this was one of the first books I read.  Despite its antiquity, this is one of the most readable works by any early church father.  Augustine wrote it in the middle of his life as a reflection on his spiritual journey up to that point.  It is a sort of spiritual autobiography, filled with insights not only into Augustine’s conversion, but also his subsequent struggles with sin.  As Peter Brown describes it, this book is “not the affirmation of a cured man:  it is the self-portrait of a convalescent” (Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, 171).  The book deftly speaks of God’s redemptive grace to a sinner and how that sinner’s affections and will were slowly being transformed.  Struggling sinners in any era can and should read this volume and take heart from Augustine’s experiences and encouragements.

Looking at the quote in more detail, Augustine draws attention to the purpose of our creation.  Human beings were created not as ends unto themselves, but for the purpose of glorifying God by living in fellowship with him.  This was the Creator’s design.  When the design is forsaken, there are consequences.  Among those consequences is a restlessness within.  We are out of sorts when we reject the purposes for which God created us.  Later in his Confessions (6.16.26), Augustine aptly compares this restlessness to insomnia:  “O crooked ways! Woe to the audacious soul which hoped that by forsaking you it would find some better thing! It tossed and turned, upon back and side and belly — but the bed is hard, and you alone give it rest.”

The most important question of all is:  are these biblical sentiments?  Most certainly!  The Bible teaches that we were created by God and for God (Rom. 11:36).  We were designed to exist for his glory — “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory…” (Ps. 115:1).  When we reject God’s plan for us, there are consequences and they extend to our inner life.  This finds powerful expression in Isaiah 57:20-21, “‘But the wicked are like the tossing sea; for it cannot be quiet, and its waters toss up mire and dirt.  There is no peace,’ says my God, ‘for the wicked.'”  Those alienated from God through their rebellion can’t expect to have rest or peace within.  Instead, there is a tumultuous restlessness akin to a raging ocean.  But when the gospel is heard and believed, we do find rest in God.  The gospel is about rest.  Jesus promised that we will find rest for our souls in coming to him (Matt. 11:28-30).  Ultimately, the good news promises that we will experience the full scope of spiritual rest in the hereafter — then there will no more struggles with sin or coping with the consequences of sin, whether ours, others’, or of sin in general:  “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Heb. 4:9).

My hope is that this brief reflection on Augustine’s famous words will stir up your curiosity to see what other spiritual treasures might be found in his Confessions.  To use his other well-known quote, tolle lege (take up, read!).  You won’t be disappointed.

Previous posts in this series:

“The blood of the martyrs…”

“Outside the church no salvation.”