Confessing With Augustine, Part II

This is part of a series; you can find the other parts here. The hosts of a great podcast, Mere Fidelity, are discussing Augustine’s Confessions (Henry Chadwick’s translation). Here I’ll submit some thoughts on each “book” of Confessions after reading and listening to the most recent discussion. No promises on writing pace. Now let’s talk about pears, y’all.

Imitation: Like the Most High

The fourteenth chapter of Isaiah depicts an ominous celebration. We learn of God’s people praising the Lord for their spiritual and physical freedom. What makes this celebration ominous is what comes next. We get to look behind the curtain, into the heart of the Day Star who is “fallen from heaven”–namely, Satan. In his heart, Satan says, “I will make myself like the Most High.” This hellish ambition should make the hearer shudder.

Even in his evil pursuits though, Satan affirms that the one true God is just that: the one and only right Lord of all. His imitators on the earth and under the earth will never measure up. They can only hope to be “like the Most High,” playing God as it were in their own parody kingdoms.

Sin works similarly. It can only make cheap distortions of what God has established in Christ. Yet in its half-baked imitations of good things, sin actually points back to those good creations and characteristics of God. Augustine picks up on this ironic result. Notice how he points the imitating vice back to the original good.

Pride imitates what is lofty; but you alone are God most high above all things. What does ambition seek but honour and glory? Yet you alone are worthy of honour and are glorious for eternity. The cruelty of powerful people aims to arouse fear. Who is to be feared but God alone?

Curiosity appears to be a zeal for knowledge; yet you supremely know all. Ignorance and stupidity are given the names of simplicity and innocence; but there is no greater simplicity than in you. And what greater innocence than yours, whereas to evil men their own works are damaging? Idleness appears as desire for a quiet life; yet can rest be assured apart from the Lord?

Augustine goes on for nearly a whole page listing avarice, envy, anger, and other vices. All of these reveal something of the way the world ought to be. They reveal something of the God they are imitating. Augustine claims these “vices have a flawed reflection of beauty.” Like a carnival mirror’s reflection, vice is an ugly knock-off of good.

These flawed reflections become relevant when we consider the reasons behind our sins. Extending gossip, road rage, even cursing all are distortions of the true and good things they’re reflecting.

Augustine describes a somewhat innocuous–dare we say, small–sin he committed with other teenage boys. This band of “naughty adolescents” approached a nearby pear tree late at night. The pear tree didn’t belong to any of their families, but a neighbor. That didn’t stop them from stealing “a huge load” of pears, not to eat…but “to throw to the pigs.” As Alastair Roberts pointed out in the Mere Fidelity discussion, the similarities to Eden (stealing fruit from a tree, multiple sinners convincing themselves sinning is okay, a small sin having big implications, etc.) are immediate. Later in Book II, Augustine’s repentance is a model for our turn from sin and trust in Christ alone.

Augustine digs deep into his heart for the source of this fruit(less) sin. He goes down the list looking for some rational reason. Were the pears beautiful? Were they delicious? No, they were “attractive in neither colour not taste.” Was Augustine lacking food? No, the pears were “something which [he] had in plenty and of much better quality.” He indeed “had no motive for [his] wickedness except wickedness itself.”

Some sins fall into the “flawed reflection of beauty” category of vice, but still others happen for the love of sin itself. For the pleasure of doing what is not allowed. For the thrill of doing what is wrong. (In Part I of this series, I began by claiming Confessions is a strikingly human work, and here is another example of that raw humanity).

But we need some way of thinking about these unexplainable sins. If they don’t even qualify as imitations of good, then what are they? To help us, Augustine also provides another model of sin—another hole in our nature apart from Christ.

Inversion: Trading the Higher For the Lower

Some sins, like Augustine’s pear thieving escapade, do not even attempt to imitate the character of God. They do not have a “flawed reflection of beauty.” They are altogether ugly and backwards. These sins are backwards in the sense of a scale turned around on itself, inverted.

Yet sin is committed…when, in consequence of an immoderate urge towards those things which are at the bottom end of the scale of good, we abandon the higher and supreme goods, that is you, Lord God, and your truth and your law (Ps. 118: 142). These inferior goods have their delights, but not comparable to my God who has made them all. It is in him that the just person takes delight; he is the joy of those who are true of heart (Ps. 63: 11).

Augustine uses this scale analogy as a framework for humans: desires of the mind (reason, virtue) being higher, desires of the body (cheap thrills, sexual appetites) being lower, and desires of the soul being caught in the middle able to go higher or lower. This juxtaposition of the mind and body is foreign to the Bible, but it is still helpful as an overlaying grid. Like in children’s educational books, if we flip the next clear overlaying page on top of Scripture we can learn more of God’s character and more of our own.

Sometimes we sin because our minds try to “play God” in a sense, like the imitation described above. Yet other times we sin because it feels good. Our bodies like it. It is that simple. We are not fooled into thinking our sin is actually good. We merely feel the thrill of it in the moment, then the moment is gone. When we steal something for no reason, speed while in no real hurry, give in to momentary sexual temptation, or speak an untrue coarse statement—these sins and others are destructive thrills. They excite, they entice, they coax, but they never, never, ever deliver.

Here is where Augustine’s extrabiblical opposition of mind and body can help. When we invert our scale of virtue, when we trade the higher goods for the lower vices it is like a child trading a crinkled-up 100-dollar bill for a particularly shiny quarter. The child’s desires are out of order, and so are ours. Our God-given moral scales are flipped around, and so we trade the higher for the lower. Only Christ’s work and the Holy Spirit’s ministry can flip the scale back, only God can recalibrate our hearts by giving us new ones.

Christ’s work (on His way into the tomb and His way out of the tomb) secured our freedom, and the Holy Spirit shows us how to use that freedom. The freedom we have in Christ is not a base debauchery with simply no limits. It is more like the warm freedom felt by a child wrapped up in her father’s arms. Like the empowering freedom felt by a bride perfectly loved by her man. The freedom we have in Christ is more like the utter dependence the five thousand had on Jesus’ compassion before He satisfied their bellies and their souls.

These ideas of freedom go well beyond Augustine’s writing in Book II, but it is helpful to understand just one or two of the “higher and supreme goods” we so often abandon. Let us not trade the higher goods for the lower evils. Let us not go the way of Esau, trading our birthright for a bowl of stew.

Friendship: Nest or Enemy?

Augustine’s account of pear theft also highlights another dimension of sin: fellow sinners. Friendship is an inherently powerful facet of human life. It is powerful either for good or for bad.

Human friendship is also a nest of love and gentleness because of the unity it brings about between many souls.

And the same man writes just a few hundred words later:

Friendship can be a dangerous enemy, a seduction of the mind lying beyond the reach of investigation.

What high praise, yet what an indictment. In Book II, Augustine understandably focuses more on decrying friendship’s temptations. His friendships were certainly more dangerous enemies than nests of love. While examining some different models of sin–bodily, mental, higher, lower–Augustine makes several asides similar to this concerning what we might call groupthink.

Yet had I been alone I would not have done it…As soon as the words are spoken ‘Let us go and do it’, one is ashamed not to be shameless.

So while examining our hearts for patterns of sin, let us examine one another’s hearts as well. Always restoratively, let us call one another back to Christ who offers true friendship. The friendship of Christ does not ensnare us; it is not a “seduction of the mind.” Indeed the friendship of Christ and His church is a real communion of the freed.