Augustine: Sin Points to God

January 27, 2013

For class I’ve begun reading through St Augustine’s Confessions, and there is a beautiful theme that I’ve started to see in the first few books. The theme is this: that everything – and I mean, everything, finds its end and final completion in God. All things, properly understood find their τέλος (telos – “end/goal”) in God. In other words, everything properly understood points to God alone. 

This affirms the biblical idea that creation is good, but fallen – and thus it needs to be redeemed by God. But the way sin works is that it takes good creation and turns it to evil ends (or τέλος), rather than its original purpose: to point to God. To use Augustine’s language: sin and evil are a “privation of good”- a leech that must attach to and feed on the life of what is good to have any existence (Confessions, 3.7.12). Sin and evil are not original – they must take what God has created as good and pervert, twist, and misuse it. 

Where this becomes helpful and beautiful in Augustine’s writing is how he demonstrates that everything, even sin, actually contains within it hints towards the true end (τέλος): God. Augustine goes through his pre-conversion life and shows how God was using everything in his life to draw Augustine to himself. His conversion doesn’t really happen until book 9, but every book before shows how beautifully God is using even Augustine’s sinful ways to direct him towards salvation and Christ. The only way he can write 8 books on his pre-conversion sins is because he has a perspective that sees Christ redeeming everything in his life back to its original purpose: to point to God alone.

One of my favorite passages where Augustine reflects and demonstrates this idea eloquently is in book 2. I’ve tried to format the passage appropriately so that you can see how he shows that even sin points to God (thus bold/italics/coloring are not original, but rather mine): 

“For thus we see pride wearing the mask of high-spiritedness,
     although only thou, O God, art high above all. 

Ambition seeks honor and glory,
     whereas only thou shouldst be honored above all, and glorified forever. 

The powerful man seeks to be feared, because of his cruelty;
     but who ought really to be feared but God only? 
     What can be forced away or withdrawn out of his power — when or where or whither or by whom?

The enticements of the wanton claim the name of love;
     and yet nothing is more enticing than thy love
     nor is anything loved more healthfully than thy truth, bright and beautiful above all. 

Curiosity prompts a desire for knowledge,
     whereas it is only thou who knowest all things supremely. 

Indeed, ignorance and foolishness themselves go masked under the names of simplicity and innocence;
     yet there is no being that has true simplicity like thine, and none is innocent as thou art… 

Human sloth pretends to long for rest,
     but what sure rest is there save in the Lord

Luxury would fain be called plenty and abundance;
     but thou art the fullness and unfailing abundance of unfading joy. 

Prodigality presents a show of liberality;
     but thou art the most lavish giver of all good things. 

Covetousness desires to possess much;
     but thou art already the possessor of all things. 

Envy contends that its aim is for excellence;
     but what is so excellent as thou

Anger seeks revenge;
     but who avenges more justly than thou

Fear recoils at the unfamiliar and the sudden changes which threaten things beloved, and is wary for its own security;
     but what can happen that is unfamiliar or sudden to thee
     Or who can deprive thee of what thou lovest? 
     Where, really, is there unshaken security save with thee?

Grief languishes for things lost in which desire had taken delight, because it wills to have nothing taken from it,
     just as nothing can be taken from thee.

               – St. Augustine, Confessions (2.6.13)

May I learn to see my life (both past, present, and future) through this same perspective – and begin to attribute to God the wonderful notion that he is not only about the process of sanctifying my present and future by making me a new creation, but he is also redeeming my past and making it new as well. He truly is a God who “leads captivity captive” and using all things (even sin!) for his glory and my good.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Jeremy Larson February 9, 2014 at 6:05 am

    Thanks for this post. Do you know of any (other) specific passages in Confessions where Augustine mentions the indexical nature of all things?

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