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Confessions: If Material Things Please You

If material things please you, praise God for them, and turn back toward their maker the course of your love for them, so that the sources of your pleasure don’t make you yourself an object of displeasure. —Saint Augustine, Confessions 4.18

Why do we go after the senses? Why do we desire to satisfy all our cravings in temporal things? What is the real soul-destroying danger of indulging ourselves with the objects of our desires?

The real problem with these things is not that it is idolatry (although that is a real problem), but rather, the real problem is that that it does not work to satisfy. And in fact, nothing earthly ever made that promise.[1]

This is the restless soul, the one who is never satisfied because he/she thinks his/her peace is behind the next project, adventure, success, acolyte, or material thing. When will we finally be happy? As much as we like to think we know ourselves, we are terrible at predicting the future; even when we have the past as precedent.

We tend to think that the opposite of ambition is humility, but that is not the case. The opposite of ambition is laziness. Augustine is not saying that ambition and desire are wrong, but he is saying that loving the wrong thing is bad. “What do I love when I long for achievement?” That is the Augustinian question.

What do we love? This is not a question to produce shame. It is a question to produce deep introspection and examination of our hearts. How else can we achieve joy unless we truly allow ourselves to examine what may be preventing it? The restless heart is an unexamined heart. If we can praise God for things that please us, love God and not the gift, then “rest in him, and restfulness will be yours” (4.18.2)

Augustine then tells his reader to witness to those who may be trapped in this predicament. He says, tell them that “there’s no rest where you’re looking for it. Look for what you’re looking for—but it’s not there where you’re looking. You’re seeking a happy life in a land of death. It’s not there. How can there be a happy life where there isn’t even life?” (4:18.4) Joy is another name for the rest we find when we find satisfaction for the hunger of our hearts in God. Augustine speaks as one who has learned this from experience. I am one who is learning this slowly. That there is joy in resting in God rather than in sensual satisfaction.

Honestly ask yourself, not for shame, but for the sake of examination, What do you love? If material things please you, praise God for them, and turn back that love toward God. Anything else will make you yourself an object of displeasure.

The hope of the righteous brings joy,

but the expectation of the wicked will perish— Proverbs 10:28

Lord, may my love for material things be reoriented to you.

[1] Humans make these promises through marketing, branding, and advertising.

Note: These are my daily reflections as I go through Saint Agustine's Confessions. Unless otherwise noted, I am using Sarah Ruden's translation of the original text, and the NIV.


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