Augustine’s testimony demonstrates the grace of emptiness
In the end, only God himself is true happiness, beauty, and delight.
In his young life, Augustine pursued all that the world offered but failed to find lasting joy and peace. He gave himself to all the pleasures of this life, but none brought lasting satisfaction. When he looked back, he believed that this was a display of divine grace. Augustine learned that only God brings authentic joy and genuine satisfaction.
When he considered that some people find more contentment in the pleasures of this world than he had, he argued that such satisfaction is anything but a blessing. Those who do find momentary peace apart from God should see it for what it is—an illusion. Those who find contentment without God find only a lower form of pleasure, and one that is ultimately empty.
Christians have long treasured Augustine’s Confessions as a spiritual autobiography. In it, he bares his soul to tell the story of his spiritual pilgrimage, speaking to God, the sovereign author of his salvation. Augustine’s promiscuous life is well known. Throughout his young life he pursued pleasure in those most common worldly pursuits that have changed little in the last sixteen centuries. Later as a Christian, he thought back to those days when he said:
“The thought of you stirs [one] so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you” (1.1).
Outwardly, Augustine evidenced success and satisfaction, enjoying all that the world offered. To God he confessed that he had indeed loved the world (1.13). But as he lamented his past blindness, he acknowledged that even back then he had sensed the emptiness of his life.
With the insight that faith affords, Augustine confessed to God and explained to himself saying,
“But my sin was this, that I looked for pleasure, beauty, and truth not in him but myself and his other creatures, and the search led me instead to pain, confusion, and error” (1.20).
Sin gave it flavor
Augustine never forgot the bits of pleasure that sin granted. Recalling the well-known story from his childhood when he and his friends stole pears, he “relished and enjoyed” it, and confessed that “If any part of one of those pears passed my lips, it was the sin that gave it flavour” (2.6). He knew well that sin often felt good, but it is a lower form of pleasure (2.5).
He reflected, “Sloth poses as the love of peace: yet what certain peace is there besides the Lord? Extravagance masquerades as fullness and abundance: but you are the full, unfailing store of never-dying sweetness” (2.6). Although sin offered moments of pleasure, his life, apart from God, was ultimately a “barren waste” (2.10).
Augustine learned that the pleasures of this world were ultimately vain. What he truly needed and truly desired was God himself, but in his depravity he was too blind to see. But what a display of grace: God was nearer than he knew. Augustine wrote, “My God, my God of mercy, how good you were to me, for you mixed much bitterness in that cup of pleasure!” (3.1).
By God’s grace, Augustine found no lasting joy in sin. He confessed that for nine years he pursued sin with abandon. He idolized friendships, promiscuous sex, and the pride of applause, but regardless of his outward impression, he felt “void and empty” (4.1). He thought he knew pleasure and beauty, but he recognized, “I did not know this then, I was in love with beauty of a lower order and it was dragging me down” (4.13). Lamenting those early years, he said:
“I realized that I was not thirty years old and was still floundering in the same quagmire, because I was greedy to enjoy what the world had to offer, though it only eluded me and wasted my strength” (6.11).
Pity the man who’s happy in sin
Augustine knew that some people found more pleasure in the world than he did. Even if he did not understand the remedy, he had sensed the emptiness of worldliness. Augustine grieved for those who actually found greater contentment in sin: “But now I feel more pity for a man who is happy in his sins than for the one who has to endure the ordeal of forgoing some harmful pleasure of being deprived of some enjoyment which was really an affliction” (3.2).
Augustine sought pleasure in sin and found some, but in the end it was empty, and this was a work of God’s grace (3.6).
As a young bishop, Augustine found consolation for his past as he recognized God’s grace. He praised God for the joy he received, and which he had so long sought. He could say,
“no bodily pleasure, however great it might be and whatever earthly light mind shed lustre upon it, was worthy of comparison, or even mention, beside the happiness of the life of the saints” (9.10)
What a waste to give oneself to the “temporal pleasures of the visible world” (9.4). The joy he found in Christ surpassed any that he had found in all his years before. In God himself is true happiness and eternal pleasure. To God he exclaimed, “far be it from me to think that whatever joy I feel makes me truly happy.
For there is a joy that is not given to those who do not love you, but only to those who love you for your own sake. You yourself are our joy. Happiness is to rejoice in you and for you and because of you. This is true happiness and there is no other” (10.22). Passionately he said to God, “I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am inflamed with love of your peace” (10.27).
Beware the tragic illusion
It might seem counter intuitive that withholding of pleasure could be a blessing. Such an idea is certainly counter cultural in twenty-first century America: many in our culture elevate pleasure as the highest good, and even a rule of truth.
For a time, Augustine sought a lasting joy that evaded him, but this was divine grace. As we recall our own spiritual pilgrimage, perhaps this sheds light on empty pursuits before Christ.
To the unbeliever, this is a warning, that contentment in sin or satisfaction merely in the things of this world is anything but a blessing—it is a tragic illusion. In the end, only God himself is true happiness, beauty, and delight.
Editors’ note: quotations are taken from Confessions, translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin (1961).