“From the window of my house…I have perceived among the youth, a young man lacking sense…And behold the woman meets him, dressed as a prostitute, wily of heart…With much seductive speech she persuades him; with her smooth talk she compels him. All at once he follows her, as an ox goes to the slaughter.” ~ Proverbs 7:6-7, 10, 21-22
Augustine writes, “I want to call back to mind my past impurities in the carnal corruptions of my soul, not because I love them, but so that I may love you, my God. It is for the love of your love that I do it, going back over those most wicked ways of mine in the bitterness of my recollection so that the bitterness may be replaced by the sweetness of you, oh unfailing sweetness, happy sweetness and secure!” (2:1)
Unlike so much confessional literature written today, there is a sublime beauty and purpose behind the stories which Augustine shares in Confessions. He doesn’t write to shock the reader, or push the envelope of decency. This wasn’t The Catcher In The Rye of the fourth century. He doesn’t write to ask for validation of his identity. It’s not a ‘coming out’ book. His point is not to say, “This is who I am; accept me.”
He is convinced that divine standards exist, and that the God who established those standards will call him to account for deviating from them. Instead of ‘coming out’, he writes to ‘call out’ each of his readers to live life mindful of those same standards. But he doesn’t write to make excuses either for his choices, or to blame others. Sure his parents were selfish; sure the academic system was rigged to promote sin. But he doesn’t use his book to vent his grievances or rage against the machine.
He uses it instead to look up at God and say, “My bad. Because I’m bad. And I thank you that your goodness changed all that.” Confessions is really a love letter to his God.
The lesson which Augustine drove home to my heart as I read his book (and you heard me say this earlier on) is that when I sin, it’s not because I love sin too much – it’s that I love God too little. The only thing in the end that will compel my heart to turn away from the bitter pleasure of sin is to replace it with a far greater pleasure. That far greater pleasure is learning to rest in and reciprocate the love of my Savior. Until I can say it, and mean it, and feel it deep in my soul – O God, my unfailing sweetness – I will remain adrift.
Augustine will learn that evil – far from being a pre-existing substance equal to good and to God (as he was taught in Manichaeism) – actually has no substance at all. It is a corruption of good. It is misguided love. Evil is birthed when, rather than direct our love upwards to the eternal God who will not fail us or fade, we direct our love to a lower and lesser thing expecting to find in it lasting pleasure or meaning. The irony is that these lower things are themselves gifts from God to increase our happiness on earth – friendship, sexual love, power to rule, knowledge, beauty, art. The shame is that rather than thank God for these gifts and let them pass through our hands back to him, we cling to them desperately, then despair as one by one they fail us or fade away.
At the end of book 1, Augustine writes, “All these things are the gifts of my God…Good, therefore is he who made me, and he is my good, and in Him I rejoice for all those good things which even as a boy I had. For my sin was in this – that I looked for pleasures, exaltations, truths not in God himself but in his creatures…and so I fell straight into sorrow, confusions, and mistakes.”
In books 2 and 3, he then chronicles his descent into depravity, hastened by the arrival of his sexual awakening. Notice first Augustine’s emphasis on his sin being in reality a search for love.
And what was it that delighted me? Only this – to love and be loved…I was among the foggy exhalations which proceed from the muddy cravings of the flesh in the bubblings of first manhood. These so clouded over my heart and darkened it that I was unable to distinguish between the clear calm of love and the swirling mists of lust. I was storm-tossed by a confused mixture of the two and, in my weak unstable age, swept over the precipices of desire and thrust into the whirlpools of vice. Your wrath had gathered above me, and I was not aware of it.… I was going further and further from you, and you let me be,…I boiled over in my fornications. And still you were silent, oh my joy so slow in coming! (2:2)
Maybe you’ve never been able to put words to it, but isn’t Augustine speaking in some fashion for what’s going on inside of you? Muddy cravings of the flesh. (How dirty all this makes us feel.) Storm tossed. Swept over the precipices of desire. (How out of control we are when in the grip of this madness.) Foggy exhalations. Clouded over in my heart. Swirling mists of lust. (How confused it leaves us as we drift further and further from God’s safe harbor of truth.)
Can you imagine Augustine with access to pornography? Yet his heart was so overrun with lust, that he didn’t need it. And when he moved from home to Carthage to continue his studies, the sin in him doubled-down on him. He begins Book 3 saying, “I came to Carthage, and all around me in my ears were the sizzling and frying of unholy loves.”
Looking back on it, he knows that what he needed more than anything was for God to fill his heart.
I was starved inside me for inner food (for you yourself, my God), yet this starvation did not make me hungry. I had no desire for the food that is incorruptible, and this was not because I was filled with it. No, the emptier I was, the more my stomach turned against it.
He hints at experimenting with homosexuality, which pagan culture largely accepted.
I muddied the clear spring of friendship with the dirt of physical desire and clouded over its brightness with the dark hell of lust.
He hints at masturbating…in church.
Once when your solemnities were being celebrated within the walls of your Church, I actually dared to desire and then to bring to a conclusion a business which deserved death for its reward.
In the midst of these stories which Augustine shares about his sexual misadventures, he then inserts a curious tale of how one night he and some friends stole pears from a neighbor’s vineyard (2:4). He then goes on for the next six chapters [each chapter in Confessions is very brief] to dissect its spiritual significance for his life. To the casual reader, it seems like an odd and petty detour from his larger discussion. But for Augustine it’s far from a useless recollection. For him, the theft of the pears gets at the marrow of his spiritual rebellion. First, he explores his motive behind the theft.
I was not forced to it by any kind of want…For I stole something of which I had plenty myself, and much better than what I stole. I had no wish to enjoy what I tried to get by theft. [After a bite or two, they threw the pears away.] All my enjoyment was in the theft itself and in the sin…Our real pleasure was simply in doing something that was not allowed…I became evil for nothing, with no reason for wrongdoing except the wrongdoing itself. The evil was foul, and I loved it; I loved destroying myself.
He next ponders why it is that people commit particular crimes, and concludes that for most, there is a rationale of sorts behind it. However misguided their thinking, they are attempting in the crime to obtain some good for themselves. They think that they need something, which then prompts the wrongdoing. A murderer may kill a man to have his wife, or his property, or to secure vengeance. The soldier who attacks a city may do so to obtain ‘honors, commands and riches’.
Why then did I – ‘wretched I’ – steal the pears? Augustine asks himself. What did I need? He then runs in his mind a list of all possible motives. And for each possible explanation, he observes how God ought to have been sufficient to have met that need. Was it the beauty of the pears? No, because he quickly threw them away. And besides, their beauty came from God, the “most beautiful of all”.
Was it pride, striving to appear high and lofty? That would be foolish for God is “high over all”.
Was it ambition, the craving for honor and glory? But “you alone and before all else are to be honored”.
Was it anger, and a desire to inspire fear in others, as many great men strive to do? “But who is to be feared except God alone?”
Was it curiosity, a zeal for knowledge? That would be foolish, for curiosity should lead to a seeking of God, who knows everything.
Was it laziness? Laziness at its heart looks for rest, but “what sure rest is there except in the Lord?”
Was it envy or greed? “Avarice wishes to possess much, but you possess everything.”
In the end, the best he can figure is that he stole the pears for the approval of his friends. And what drove that choice? The evil imbedded in his heart. “It was the sin itself and not in those pears that my pleasure lay – a pleasure occasioned by the company of others who were sinning with me.”
But what is this evil inside of him? What Augustine realizes as he runs this list is that his sin is a refusal to love God first. Everything we should be seeking for in God alone, we instead seek to find in lesser things. The craving we should satisfy in the Creator, we attempt to satisfy in creation. Created to love God above all else, we rebelliously direct our love elsewhere, which is why Augustine speaks of this not as idolatry, but more frequently as adultery.
So the soul commits fornication when she turns away from you and tries to find outside you things which, unless she returns to you cannot be found in their true and pure state. So all men who put themselves far from you and set themselves up against you, are in fact attempting awkwardly to be like you. And even in this imitating of you they declare you to be the creator of everything in existence.
As he often does in Confessions, Augustine pauses to offer God his thanks for rescuing him from these sins of his youth.
What shall I render unto the Lord, because while my memory recalls these things, my soul is not terrified. I will love Thee, O Lord, and thank Thee and confess unto Thy name, because you have forgiven me these great sins and these evil doings of mine. To your grace I owe it, and to your mercy, that you have melted away my sins like ice. And to your grace too I owe the not doing of whatever evil I have not done… (2:7)
It’s a profound observation he makes here – that grace shows itself mighty in a believer’s life not only when God delivers us from great sin, but when God keeps us from great sin. Many Christians think their testimony is weak if they can’t point to a scandalous, dark sin in their past from which Christ rescued them. Another set of Christians, lacking the scandalous sin, are prone to ugly pride when they see that dark sin in others – as though it is their virtue and wisdom that has kept them pure in that area.
But such believers are dead-wrong, Augustine says. For the same foul weakness and frailty is in us all, and given a different set of variables in life – different parents, a different birthplace, different schools, different friends – your life may have turned out shockingly different. “I am what I am by the grace of God,” Paul wrote (1 Corinthians 15:10), a lesson which Augustine owns, and wishes his readers to own.
So for Augustine, his stealing of the pears fits like a hand in glove to this section of the story where he is reliving his sexual depravity. And sadly, for Augustine, he knows as he looks back on this chapter in his life that he yet has years of wandering before he comes home.
Who can disentangle this most twisted and most inextricable knottiness? It is revolting; I hate to think of it; I hate to look at it. It is you that I desire, O justice and innocence… I slipped from you and went astray, my God, in my youth, wandering too far from my upholder and my stay, and I became to myself a wasteland. (2:10)
What ideas in this reading did you find helpful or challenging?
“The problem when we sin is not that we love our sin too much, but that we love God too little.” Write a few thoughts reflecting on this sentence.
What did his sin of stealing the pears have to do with the great sexual sin of his adolescence?
Why should a person never think that he or she is too far gone from God’s reach? Why should a Christian never feel arrogance for avoiding a sin that others have committed?
Prayer and Worship
“Father, I thank you for…”
“Father, please help me with…”
“Father, please be with…”
“In the name of Jesus, who died for my sins, who rose from the dead and who is with me now through the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Today’s Worship Suggestion: “My Savior, My God” (Aaron Shust)
This Week’s Memory Verse
“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” ~ 1 Corinthians 10:13