True-Life Confessions: The Precedent-Setting Revelations of Augustine's Restless Heart
Perhaps Augustine is best-known for these words from his Confessions, but they are far from being the only meaningful or intriguing words in this precedent-setting autobiography.
Though written nearly 1,600 years ago, it still remains one of the most widely read religious works in the Western world. It offers keen insights into Augustine’s life and a sharp understanding of the human heart. Western theology and culture owe a great deal to this unique autobiography.
Augustine may have intended his Confessions as a consecration of himself for his work in the church. He wrote it between 397 and 401 A.D., shortly after being named bishop of Hippo. Repeatedly he reminds himself that God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble.
A confession, by nature, brings an indictment against oneself before God. Appropriately, Augustine’s Confessions takes the form of a prayer. Thus it is not merely a recital of his life story, nor does he melodramatically embellish the good in his life or deemphasize the evil. When we confess in prayer to God, who knows us better than we know ourselves, we are honest. And Augustine is painstakingly honest as he describes the profundities of the human heart. Sensitive readers will find, in his confession, a confession of their own.
The long prayer of St. Augustine consists of 13 books, or chapters, which may be divided into three major sections. Books 1–9 tell the story of Augustine’s life up to his conversion and just afterward. Book 10 is a philosophical discussion of time and memory. Books 11–13 turn to the early verses of Genesis to explore the nature of God and creation and what it means to be human. Throughout each section, Augustine weaves together three major themes: the restlessness of human beings; the mystery of God; and human affection.
The Restless Heart
In the most-famous quotation from the Confessions, Augustine states his grand themes:
“And man wants to praise you, man who is only a small portion of what you have created and who goes about carrying with him his own mortality, the evidence of his own sin and evidence that you resist the proud …. Yet still man, this small portion of creation, wants to praise you. You stimulate him to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
Augustine begins his own story in the context of the restlessness endemic to human experience. Although he cannot relate from memory anything about his infancy, he knows these are important years. He observes the behavior of other infants, assuming that his own experience was similar. Like the psalmist, he describes himself as “conceived in iniquity,” and in need of God’s mercy. Only custom and reason prevent adults from holding restless infants accountable for their self-centeredness, tempers, and jealousies. At the earliest ages, human beings crave what they cannot provide for themselves.
From his early educational experiences, Augustine discovers another aspect of restlessness, the false joy of receiving unearned awards. Like many students, he says he would not study unless driven to it. Reading, writing, and arithmetic he found boring. The only educational ventures he pursued with enthusiasm were those from which he could derive pleasure without having to work for it. He was swept away by vanity, lost in the darkness of his affections.
An even deeper restlessness emerges in Augustine’s 16th year. He and some friends rob pears from a pear tree; the theft lives in the bishop’s mind years later as if it had happened just the day before. For Augustine, the theft opens a window into the soul. Why did he steal? Why does anyone steal? As Augustine examines the common justifications for such an act, he realizes that they do not apply. He is not starving; he is not even hungry; and the food is not particularly tasty. He does note that, without the approval of his companions, he probably would not have done it. So why did he?
Eventually Augustine decides that his theft was a perverse imitation of God. It was not the pears he desired, but, in an arrogant spirit of truncated liberty, he tried to produce a darkened image of omnipotence.
The next decade of his life witnessed a flurry of frustrated affections, as he rehearses them in the Confessions. He sought the love of a woman, of the theater, of philosophy, and of a rational religion. It was a cauldron of at least four unholy loves, about which he tersely explains: “I was not yet in love, but I loved the idea of love.”
Augustine gives us little historical information about the first unholy love, his relationship with his concubine. We do not even know her name. We do know they had a son, Adeodatus, and that they were together for several years. We also know that Augustine did not find this love satisfactory. When it came time to marry, he sent her away, and became engaged to another woman, one more suitable for his social standing. But before he could marry, Augustine was required to demonstrate his chastity for two years. He even failed at this. “… since I was not so much a lover of marriage as a slave to lust, I found another woman for myself—not, of course, as a wife.” How does one live with oneself when intentionality is so weak?
This is a deep and persistent restlessness. Even years later, the bishop is still wrestling with his sexuality. While he is able to escape the temptation to be with a woman, he is unable to escape its influence in his mind and body. In addition, he learns that continence requires not only abstinence, but also appropriate devotion to one’s neighbor.
Augustine’s love of the theater, another in his cauldron of shameful loves, seems short-lived. At first, he loved to see the misery of others. But the inconsistency of rejoicing in others’ misfortunes, which he would detest if they were his own, eventually drove him away. The theater was a life of fantasy which threatened to usurp the enjoyment of real life.
In what he calls “the lust of the mind,” Augustine began to search for truth in reason. This led him to his third and fourth unholy loves—the fables of the Manichaeans and the skepticism of some philosophers. In all of these lusts, as Augustine recalls it, he despised the authority of the church and the teaching of Scripture.
Yet, by the grace of God, Augustine heard the gospel. He approached the truth in stages. First he learned to read the Old Testament symbolically rather than literally. Then he learned to think of evil as a privation of good rather than a substance in its own right. Finally, he learned, from Ambrose and others, the limitations of human reason. Faith and authority, he found, are necessary for true understanding.
The Mystery of God
The majestic mystery of God, the second grand theme in the Confessions, nearly gets lost in the dramatic exposition of human restlessness. But it is only against the backdrop of this mystery that the restlessness makes sense.
Augustine speaks of his restless lifestyle in terms of life and death:
“The arrogance of pride, the pleasure of lust, and the poison of curiosity are movements of a soul that is dead—not dead in the sense that it is motionless, but dead by forsaking the fountain of life and so engrossed in this transitory world and conformed to it.”
The Word of God, and God himself, is this fountain of life for Augustine. “Seek the Lord, and your soul shall live, so that the earth may bring forth the living soul. Be not conformed to the world. Restrain yourself from it. The soul’s life is in avoiding those things which are death to seek.” It is God who made us and does not forget us, even though we wander far from him. It is God who redeems us and stills the heart.
“Who is this God?” and “How do I find him?” are legitimate questions for the troubled soul. In Book 1, Augustine has already inquired, “Do I call upon God to know him or must I know him to call upon him?” “How do I call upon him?” “What is my God?”
The initial answers Augustine provides reflect a biblical understanding of God. He writes:
“O highest and best, most powerful, most all-powerful, most merciful and most just, most deeply hidden and most nearly present, most beautiful and most strong, constant yet incomprehensible, changeless yet changing all things, never new, never old, making all things new, bringing the proud to delcay and they know it not: always acting and always at rest, still gathering yet never wanting; upholding, filling and protecting, creating, nourishing, and bringing to perfection; seeking, although in need of nothing….”
Note the pairing of these attributes. Mercy and justice are linked, not in the sense that God is sometimes merciful and sometimes just, but fully both. Similarly, God is fully hidden while at the same time fully present, beautiful and strong, and so forth. God is described in paradox, mystery. And thus those beings that are made in his image might well be paradoxes to themselves as well. Against such a majesty as the divine being, it is no wonder that man is a riddle to himself. He cannot reduce his nature to any one thing, neither to the senses, nor to reason, nor even to himself. He is to some extent mystery to himself just as God is mystery to him.
Yet there is a crucial distinction: God’s being is in himself; man’s being is in God. Foolishly, man tries to be like God and find rest in himself. He cannot. But even his attempted flights from God are under God’s sovereignty. And here the mystery of God seems to compound itself.
God shows his strength in weakness; he brings salvation through the death of his Son; he resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble; he allows us the foolishness of our ways.
In his confession, Augustine prays to God as “the controller and creator of all things in nature, though of sin only the controller.” Three very important insights are drawn from this claim. First, because God is good, his creation is good. The Manichaean notion of physical reality as evil must be rejected. Second, God is omnipotent and holy, so he chastens sinful mankind. Our experiences of lust do not go unnoticed in the world created by and for God. Third, God is able to use our own sinful ways to draw us to himself. “Inside me your good was working on me to make me restless until you should become clear and certain to my inward sight.”
Augustine has discovered the majesty and mystery of God as the condition for interpreting human restlessness. We will either use the restlessness to love God or to avoid God by vainly worshiping and serving something else.
The Secret Affections
The third great theme we find here is affection. As Peter Brown has put it, “The Confessions are, quite succinctly, the story of Augustine’s ‘heart,’ or of his ‘feelings’ his affectus.”
The human soul, in all its mystery, experiences restlessness because it is alienated from the ground of its being, God. Thus God, in his affection for us, calls us to abandon our wanderings, to stop pursuing other affections, to give up our hope in ourselves, and find peace in him.
What assurance do we have that abandoning hope in ourselves will give us the peace we desire? “Experience,” some would say. “Others have tried this and found peace.” Augustine could argue this way, if he chose to. His conversion experience is marvelously recorded for us—he heard a voice in a garden urging him to read the Bible and he opened to Romans 13:14, “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying: but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in concupiscence.” Immediately, he relates, his heart was filled with confidence. In a profound sense, the restlessness stopped, at least temporarily.
But it is not on this experience that Augustine grounds his assurance of salvation. In fact, he reports that his restlessness resumed after his conversion. Salvation needs grounding in God. Grounding anywhere else, even in the life of the redeemed person, is unreliable. For this reason, Augustine’s post-conversion struggles are most significant.
Augustine keeps pointing the reader to God himself. “We have this promise; no one can alter or distort it: ‘If God be for us, who can be against us?’” In light of the love of God, the reader is prepared to appreciate Augustine’s emphasis on human love: “Things are moved by their own weights and go into their proper places…. My weight is my love; wherever I am carried, it is my love that carries me there.”
To find rest, one must ground one’s affections in God. Augustine writes, “Blessed is the man who loves you, who loves his friend in you, and his enemy because of you. He alone loses no one dear to him, for they are all dear to him in one who is not lost.” In his early life, Augustine mourned deeply over the death of a friend. In the years immediately following his conversion, as though love itself were being tested, Augustine would grieve at the deaths of several friends, his son, and his mother. Now, however, alongside the sorrow was beatitude. Commenting on his mother’s death, he says, “I found solace in weeping for her and for myself, on her behalf and on my own. So I allowed the tears… to fall, … making them a pillow for my heart, and my heart rested on them, for only your ears could hear my lament….” Peace had come.
In his Confessions, Augustine wants to stimulate the reader’s affections toward God. Thus the book is less of an autobiography and more of a theological anthropology. Like the Apostle Paul, he can testify, “Our flesh had no rest, without us were fightings, within us were fears.” His restlessness acts somewhat as a schoolmaster, or compass, to steer him away from the love of himself and other people and objects of creation. It directs him toward faith in God, the Creator. This redirection is not a matter of intellectual sophistication for Augustine, or for anyone, but of trust and humility before God, who gives grace even to those who try to flee from him.
Herbert Jacobsen is a professor in the Bible/theology/archaeology department at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Ill
Copyright © 1987 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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