The Quest for Rest in Augustine's Confessions
January 6, 2014
Augustine's Confessions is one of the great classics of Christian historical theological literature.(1) It is admired for its beauty of composition, its sophisticated literary construction, and its vivid and honest recollections of the life of its author. Some scholars would even say it began a new genre of literature. However, Augustine's purpose in Confessions was not to masterfully write a new type of literature. Instead, he wanted to expose himself spiritually to his readers so they would learn from his example and find rest in worshipping God through the grace of faith in Christ. As Augustine reflected upon his promiscuity, thievery, love of sin, patronizing of the theater, and worship of himself, his great desire is to turn restless sinners to the rest that can only be found in Christ.
Augustine opens his Confessions with an affirmation of the central problem that had been plaguing him for the years before his conversion.
You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for
yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you. (I.i.1)
This may be the most recognized quote not only from the Confessions but also from all of Augustine's massive literary output. Augustine uses his own quest for rest in Confessions as a call to those who are running hither and yon seeking pleasure - looking for love in all the wrong places, seeking peace apart from the Creator, and exhausting themselves with the busy-ness of life as they seek to gain the whole world while losing their souls - to turn to the gracious rest of redemption and worshipping God. Augustine's beautifully composed sentence regarding his own purpose in life would be affirmed in the seventeenth century by the first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which teaches that, "The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever." Life is restless until one rests in the worship of God now, in the already, and eschatologically in the not yet.
A little further into Book One of Confessions, Augustine asked God to sanctify and equip him to use the gifts and knowledge he possessed for God's glory even though they had been used for his own purposes.
Enable me to love you with all my strength that I may clasp your hand with all my heart. Turn to your service whatever may be of use in what I learnt in boyhood. May I dedicate to your service my power to speak and write and read and count; for when I learnt vanities; you imposed discipline on me and have forgiven me the sin of desiring pleasure from those vanities. For in them I learnt many useful words, but these words can also be learnt through things that are not vain, and that is the safe way along which children should walk. (I.xv.24)Augustine realized the Lord's faithfulness to him even though he had not loved God. He loved himself as he desired pleasure through the pursuit of vanity and knowledge. It was not the learning itself that was evil, but the fact that the learning was for selfish reasons and sought for an end in itself and to glorify Augustine. As Augustine looked back on his attitudes with the lenses of redeemed vision, he realized that his learning and all aspects of his life needed to be used to serve God's purposes.
Moving into Book Two, Augustine reflected upon his life before faith in Christ as he remembered that during his sixteenth year he committed a sin he considered particularly offensive--he stole some pears from an orchard. Today, some might look at such an act as a juvenile prank or an adolescent challenge to authority, but in Augustine's thinking the piracy of the pears was reprehensible because of his motive.
[I]...wanted to carry out an act of theft and did so, driven by no kind of need other than my inner lack of any sense of, or feeling for, justice. Wickedness filled me. I stole something which I had in plenty and of much better quality. My desire was to enjoy not what I sought by stealing but merely the excitement of thieving and the doing of what was wrong. There was a pear tree near our vineyard laden with fruit, though attractive in neither color nor taste. To shake the fruit off the tree and carry off the pears, I and a gang of naughty adolescents set off late at night after (in our usual pestilential way) we had continued our game in the streets. We carried off a huge load of pears. But they were not for our feasts but merely to throw to the pigs. Even if we ate a few, nevertheless our pleasure lay in doing what was not allowed. (II.iv.9)
Augustine's recollection of this theft through the illumined vision of his maturing Christian faith exposed his heart as dead in trespasses and sin because it drove him to steal for the sake of stealing. It would have been one thing to have stolen the pears because they were beautiful, another to have stolen out of hunger like Hugo's Jean Valjean, but it was particularly offensive to Augustine that he stole the pears just to be mean and disobedient. He was awash in sin and he wallowed in its power. John Owen commented on the pernicious power of sin when he wrote that the "Custom of sinning takes away the sense of it; the course of the world takes away the shame of it; and love to it makes men greedy in the pursuit of it."(2) There was no sense or shame of sin in Augustine's life as he stole the fruit, because his love of sin led him to sin for the sake of sinning.
Turning for a moment to Augustine's On The Trinity for some additional insight into his life before conversion, it is clear that he knew chastity was right and promiscuity was wrong, but, despite that knowledge, he fulfilled his lust because he loved being disobedient. In On the Trinity, Augustine discussed the knowledge of right and wrong possessed by those who are not Christians.
Where indeed are these rules written, wherein even the unrighteous recognizes what is righteous, wherein he discerns that he ought to have what he himself has not? Where, then, are they written, unless in the book of that Light which is called Truth? Whence every righteous law is copied and transferred (not by migrating to it, but by being as it were impressed upon it) to the heart of the man that worketh righteousness; as the impression from a ring passes into the wax, yet does not leave the ring. But he who worketh not, and yet sees how he ought to work, he is the man that is turned away from that light, which yet touches him.(3)
This quote describes the theological basis for the awareness of righteousness he had as an ungodly youth. What Augustine described demonstrates Paul's teaching in Romans 1:18-19 and 2:14-15 that humanity fallen in sin suppresses the truth of God that is clearly visible in God's work of creation and their consciences. Human beings are not morally neutral creatures before conversion but are instead captives of sin. Their awareness of right and wrong to a degree is due to the light God has given in creation and conscience. Owen discussed this issue when he wrote that under
...the ashes of our collapsed nature there are yet remaining certain sparks of celestial fire, consisting in inbred notices of good and evil, of rewards and punishments, of the presence and all-seeing eye of God, of help and assistance to be had from him, with a dread of his excellencies where any thing is apprehended unworthy of him or provoking unto him; and where there are any means of instruction from supernatural revelation, by the word preached, or the care of parents in private, there they are insensibly improved and increased.(4)
Augustine knew that his promiscuous life was wrong, but he chose to cover the light he had and continue in his ways. What is more, he had the influence of his mother Monica, who, as Owen said, "improved and increased" her son's understanding of God and encouraged him to turn from his sinful practices. Before redemption, Augustine sinned because he wanted to sin, but he was intellectually aware that his sinful acts were wrong.
As Augustine reflected upon his miss-spent youth, he mentioned his increasing interest in the theater in Book Three. From his perspective as a lover of God and righteousness, he looked back and wondered why he had taken so much delight in the miseries portrayed by the actors in their roles. Was there some kind of satisfaction to be obtained via vicarious participation in the problems of the characters? He described his fascination with the problems, misery, and sin portrayed on the dramatic stage as he said
I was captivated by theatrical shows. They were full of representations of my own miseries and fueled my fire. Why is it that a person should wish to experience suffering by watching grievous and tragic events which he himself would not wish to endure? Nevertheless, he wants to suffer the pain given by being a spectator of these sufferings, and the pain itself is pleasure. What is this but amazing folly? If the human calamities, whether in ancient histories or fictitious myths, are so presented that the theatre goer is not caused pain, he walks out of the theatre disgusted and highly critical. But if he feels pain, he stays riveted in his seat enjoying himself. (III.ii.2)
The depth of Augustine's spiritual condition actually caused him to delight in suffering as he said, "But at that time, poor thing that I was, I loved to suffer and sought out occasions for such suffering" (III.ii.4). As has been shown, Augustine loved to steal the pears for the sake of stealing, and now we find him loving to suffer for the sake of suffering. When one truly loves an activity, one not only delights to participate in the deed itself but also relishes vicarious participation in similar actions of others. According to Augustine, the person who does not know God is burdened with the antithetical perplexity of, on the one hand, enduring sin, and on the other, enjoying sin.
In Book Eight, the continuing duel between his own will and God's is illumined further. A vivid picture is painted of the agonizing ordeal of struggling between heaven and hell, "I was twisting and turning in my chain until it would break completely" (VIII.xi.25). Augustine was coming to the understanding that the chains of the bondage of sin could only be cut by the grace of the divine anvil, hammer, and chisel. He was still bound to his love of sin and his lust reminded him of its enticement because his old loves held him back.
They tugged at the garment of my flesh and whispered: "Are you getting rid of us?" And "from this moment we shall never be with you again, not for ever and ever." What filth, what disgraceful things they were suggesting! I was listening to them with much less than half my attention. Nevertheless they held me back. (VIII.xi.26).
Augustine continued in his anguish as he struggled within himself while the grace of God exposed the severity of his condition. The will to continue sinning and the will to stop sinning were at loggerheads, but the grace of God shone through the Scriptures when Augustine "heard a voice from the nearby house chanting as if it might be a boy or a girl...saying and repeating over and over again 'Pick up and read, pick up and read'" (VIII.xii.29). It was at that time that he picked up the epistle to the Romans, opened it, and read: "Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts" (Rom. 13:13-14)." (VIII.xii.29)
The perfect mirror of the Word of God reflected to Augustine his spiritual condition as he suppressed the knowledge of God in unrighteousness. These verses of Paul's epistle confronted him with his sin and the necessity of relief solely through the grace of Christ. Augustine needed to find rest through grace in the worship of God. Owen commented that this work of God in the garden fulfilled the requirement that conversion calls for a sense of the severity of sin by "fixing the vain mind of a sinner upon a due consideration of sin, its nature, tendency, and end, with his own concernment therein, and a fixing of a due sense of sin upon the secure mind of the sinner, with suitable affections unto its apprehensions."(5)
Augustine's "vain mind" was fixed upon his own participation in the practices condemned by Paul in Romans 13:13-14. He was involved in the practices condemned by God, but via the illumination of the Holy Spirit speaking through the inspired writing of the Apostle Paul, Augustine had "a due sense of sin." Sin had to be seen for what it was before Augustine could be freed from its servitude and loosed from its chains to become the bondservant of Christ.
A prayer of gratitude to God for His saving grace opens Book Nine of Confessions. The turmoil of the past is over because Augustine no longer desires to sin but instead wants to and prays to suppress its enticements and run from its lure as if he were Joseph running from Potiphar's wife. The opening statement of Book Nine clearly presents a new perspective on life as he realized his liberation and the greatness of God's redeeming work as he grew in sanctification.
"O Lord, I am your servant, I am your servant and the son of your handmaid. You have snapped my chains. I will sacrifice to you the offering of praise" (Ps. 115:16-17). Let my heart praise you and my tongue, and "let all my bones say, Lord who is like you?" (Ps. 34:10). Let them speak, answer me, and say to my soul "I am your salvation" (Ps. 34:3)." (IX.i.1)
Augustine's "snapped my chains" expresses the bondage he felt as he sought pleasure and life apart from God, but now those chains have been broken by God's grace. Book One through Book Eight mostly described the years of struggle Augustine faced as he was weighed down by the chains of sin. But along with those chains of bondage was a sense of sin. And the only key to the lock of bondage was found in God's regenerating and justifying grace. With the beginning of Book Nine there is a transition to the liberated Augustine, free to love and worship God.
Book Ten of the Confessions is concerned with the subject of memory. It analyzes what is remembered, why it is remembered, how it is remembered, why bad memories cannot be forgotten, etc. The subject of memory may seem to have no relevance to the issue of Augustine's spiritual life or to his discussion of Genesis in Book Ten, but instead of deeming it irrelevant it should be asked, "Why did Augustine spend so much time discussing memory?"
Could it be that his fascination with memory exemplifies his frustration with the indelible images of his past? It is as if he believed the dissection and analysis of the machinations of memory would expose its components so he could erase or block what he had done before grace changed his life. For Augustine, memory was a blessing and a curse. Memory is a blessing in that God is remembered and the goodness of his grace, but it is also a curse because the remembrance of past transgressions and their short-lived enjoyment become videos and audios used by the tempter in later life. Augustine's memory plagued him with recollections of the pleasure he sought before conversion, but as he remembered his sins he was also reminded of God's benevolence expressed in deliverance from the power of sin and death.
As Augustine draws Confessions to a close, he returns to the subject of rest. Book One, began proclaiming that one is restless until rest is found in God; Book Thirteen comes to its culmination affirming the eschatological rest for the righteous as Augustine muses about the eternal Sabbath.
The seventh day has no evening and has no ending. You sanctified it to abide everlastingly. After your "very good" works, which you made while remaining yourself in repose, you rested the seventh day' (Gen. 2:2-3). This utterance in your book foretells for us that after our works, which, because they are your gift to us, are very good, we also may rest in you for the Sabbath of eternal life. (XIII.xxxvi.51)
The quote parallels the believer's ultimate eternal rest to God's rest from the work of creation. God's work of creating, sustaining, and maintaining the created order ends in the glorious and perfect new heaven and new earth. Rest begins by doing the works God has given his people to do in this life and will ultimately be completed in the heavenly rest of the eternal Sabbath. As the pre-conversion years of Augustine showed him trying to fill his vacant soul by indulging his lusts, his post-conversion years present a soul overflowing with the blessings of the grace of God and an enjoyment of worshipping him in spirit and in truth.
In conclusion, Confessions is an autobiographical spiritual narrative concerned with documenting Augustine's transformation from a restless lover of himself to a restful lover of God. His thefts, promiscuity, theater attendance, and other pleasures were substitutes for the rest which is found only in the everlasting arms of God. The spiritual journey he described in Confessions illustrates and affirms the truth expressed by the Apostle Paul in Romans 2:4 where it is written, "Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and long-suffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?" It was the Creator of the universe who condescended to extricate Augustine from the miry bog of sin and death and show His manifold grace and faithfulness by bringing him into the Kingdom of life.
However, Augustine's presentation of his past was not catharsis but instead evangelistic. Just as memory, promiscuity, enjoyment of sin, and the other aspects of his life were presented as aspects of his transition from sin and self-love into obedience and worship, so today the restless servant of sin may find true and eternal rest in the grace of redemption through faith in Jesus Christ.
Dr. Barry Waugh is a church historian and scholar.
1. There are several editions of Augustine's Confessions. The edition quoted in this article was translated and introduced by Henry Chadwick and published by Oxford University Press, 1992, and is a particularly readable version when compared with some of the older editions such as that of E. B. Pusey. In Britannica's Great Books, the Augustine volume is no. 18 and its Confessions is Pusey's translation. The first series of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers has Augustine's Confessions in vol. 1.
2. John Owen, "The Manner of Conversion Explained in the Instance of Augustine," The Works of John Owen, vol. III (London: Banner of Truth, 1966): 343.
3. On the Trinity, trans. by Arthur West Haddan, rev. and annotated with intro. by W.G.T. Shedd, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, first series, vol. III, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), XIV.15.21, pp. 194-95.
4. Owen, 345.
5. Owen, 350.