Confessions: Itchy Ears
Master, my God, I sinned in acting against the instructions of my parents and those teachers... And it wasn’t from superior judgment that I was disobedient, but from a passion for playing, as I was hot for swaggering victories in our contests, and I lusted to have my ears tickled, until they burned and itched incrementally, with tales that weren’t true… Look on this sort of thing with pity in your heart, Master, and set free those who already call on you, and have pity also on those who still don’t, so that they call on you and you can set them free.—Saint Augustine, Confessions 1.16
Why do we so often disobey wisdom? Although we would like to blame it on immaturity, we know deep down that is not true. We know that we do not have ‘superior judgment’ to age-tested and divine wisdom. We disobey because we are impassioned by things other than what is true or lasting. In his contests, Augustine would turn from what he knew was right out of his desire to win. Augustine would turn from the truth from his desire to hear what he wanted. And don’t we all do that? And we do this not because we think we have ‘superior judgment’ but because we are pitiful.
Paul warned his young Pupil Timothy that one day, “the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Tim 4:3-4) Augustine alludes to this verse because this temptation is at the heart of every apostasy. We go to our own destruction not because of ‘superior judgment’, but because of pride.
This kind of non-sense is not the kind we simply reason ourselves out of. But rather, it is the kind that requires God. The chains of pride are thicker than iron and stronger than steel. So, we pray together with Augustine, “Look on this sort of thing with pity in your heart, Master, and set free those who already call on you, and have pity also on those who still don’t, so that they call on you and you can set them free.”
LORD, I know that people's lives are not their own;
it is not for them to direct their steps.
—Jeremiah 10:23 Lord, break my pride, that I may be free of my own deceptions.
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.