Confessions Book 4: Chapters 1-3 – A Guide to His Own Destruction
Augustine opens Confessions Book 4 up by painting a quick picture of the confusion he lived in. Looking back on his life at this time, he describes himself as a man who had no direction. Like a plastic bag blowing in the breeze, he was carried along on whatever wind happened to be moving his way. He taught rhetoric to “students who loved worthless things and sought falsehood, in which pursuits I bore them company.” Though at the time he was sure of his steps, in hindsight he realized how precarious his position truly had been.
For without Thee, what am I but a guide to my own destruction?
In chapter 2, Augustine remembers a girl he lived with. “I was sexually faithful to her”, he says but then goes on to note how “this experience taught me at first hand what a difference there is between a marriage contracted for the purpose of founding a family, and a relationship of love charged with carnal desire in which children may be born even against the parents’ wishes.” For Augustine – and for nearly all of humanity until the sexual revolution – marriage served one purpose: to establish a family.
Marriage: What’s It All About?
When sex and children were disconnected from one another during the sexual revolution, marriage became something different than it historically had been.
Today, marriage is less about family or children or the next generation. Instead, it’s purely about the love I feel for another person. This is the reason homosexual marriage went from being an absurdity – a self-contradiction even – to being universally accepted in the course of 50 years. It didn’t begin with homosexual marriage or even divorce. It began with the disconnection of children from sex.
With this in mind, Augustine calls us to reflect on this difference he learned so many years ago. How does historical marriage – a procreative relationship – differ from marriage as it’s understood today – a purely sexual relationship? Procreative relationships are, by their nature, outward focused. If I know that every marital act can result in the formation of new life – an independent human being made in the image of God – then I’m going to treat that act with reverence. On the other hand, if sex is all about pleasure then it can easily turn inward. It can become more about what I ‘get out of it.’ When that happens, it is distorted from something sacred into something profane.
This is the reason Augustine distinguishes between procreative relationships and pleasure-oriented relationships – even monogamous ones. One reflects self-giving, self-sacrificial love. The other pictures love of self.
If there’s ever been a time when Christians need to reflect on marriage, sex, and God, now is the time. Confusion reigns over these issues in our culture. In the popular imagination, sex is purely about what ‘two people do in the bedroom.’ But that simply isn’t the case. Sex is about so much more than ‘carnal desire’ (as Augustine would put it). But until Christians are able to discuss these issues intelligently and with the robustness they deserve, confusion will continue to reign – even in the minds of church-goers.
Confessions Book 4: Chapters 4-9 – The Loss of a Friend
In chapter 4, Augustine reflects on a friend who “was exceedingly dear to” him. They had been close for only about a year before he passed away. And though a year might not seem like long, it’s long enough. As someone who spent his childhood moving from place to place every couple of years, I can attest to the ease with two people can become close friends.
But You are ever close upon the heels of those who flee from You, for You are at once God of Vengeance and Fount of Mercy, and You turn us to Yourself by ways most wonderful.
I’m not going to recount what Augustine says about his friend’s death (it’s an interesting account that includes the conversion of his friend from Manichaeism; give it a read). Instead, I’d like to focus on what happens immediately after: Augustine is overcome with grief. And through this dark time, nothing comforts him.
All Good Things Must Come to an End
For anyone who has gone through a period of mourning, Augustine’s words ring true. “I simply mourned and wept, for I was beset with misery and bereft of my joy.” He goes on to talk about how this death completely drained all of his vitality and hope. He was overcome with his own fear of dying. It seemed as though everything was lost. Life was without meaning.
But why? He sums it up nicely when he writes, “I was wretched, and every soul is wretched that is bound in affection of mortal things: it is tormented to lose them, and in their loss becomes aware of the wretchedness which in reality it had even before it lost them.”
Time takes no holiday.
Friends are wonderful. But as with all temporal things, friendship has an end. As I was reading through these chapters, I was reminded of something John Wesley wrote. “One design ye are to pursue to the end of time – the enjoyment of God in time and in eternity. Desire other things, so far as they tend to this; love the creature, as it leads to the Creator, but in every step you take, be this the glorious point that terminates your view. Let every affection, and thought, and word, and action be subordinate to this. Whatever ye desire or fear, whatever ye seek or shun, whatever ye think, speak, or do, be it in order to your happiness in God, the sole end, as well as source, of your being.”
Wherever the soul of man turns, unless toward God, it cleaves to sorrow.
God is both our source and end. We can search forever for fulfillment and happiness but we’ll never find it outside of him.
Throughout Confessions Book 4, Augustine reminds us that we can look everywhere – in philosophy, in our career, in marriage, in friendship – and never find what we need the most. It reminds me of U2’s song, ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.’ At this point in his life, Augustine could probably have sung right along with Bono…
I have climbed the highest mountains
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you
Only to be with you.
I have run, I have crawled
I have scaled these city walls
These city walls
Only to be with you.
But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for.
But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for.
And what Augustine learned was that apart from God, he’d never find it. Fortunately, God was pursuing Augustine (just as he pursues each of us). And soon, Augustine would realize both the futility of his current way of life and the hope that is only available in King Jesus.
But look! Truth is straight ahead of us.
Don’t Forget to Comment with Your Own Thoughts!
Once you’ve read, I’d encourage you to comment with any of your favorite passages or quotes. Did Augustine say anything that rubbed you the wrong way? Did he provide any insights you hadn’t thought about before?
I can’t wait to hear what all of you are thinking about the Confessions!
Oh, and by the way, there’s currently a digital, modern language edition of Augustine’s Confessions available from Amazon for only $3.99!
Continue reading our summary of Book 5…
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