Augustine's Problem, and Mine

“As I ‘roared by reason of the disquietness of my heart,’ all my lack was laid before you.”
– Augustine, from The Confessions of Augustine

When I think of the great saints of early church history, I rarely imagine a person who was perplexed with the meaning of life. The tendency is to assume that the great saints throughout time were spouting brilliant answers from the time they were kids. The life of Saint Augustine clashes with that stereotype.

Augustine committed his life to Christ after a long road of searching. Through the teachings of the Bishop of Milan, Ambrose, Augustine began to appreciate and understand Christianity, which led to his dramatic conversion in 386.

Before reaching this pivotal moment in his life, Augustine spent his younger years on sensual pleasures, while also developing a thirst for wisdom and truth. He dove into philosophy and an intense study of rhetoric, which sharpened his reasoning abilities. The one problem that continually disturbed him is also one that has plagued me ever since I began to think for myself: the problem of moral evil. Why would a good God allow evil into the good world he created?

Augustine’s willingness to dive head first into this difficult question has always inspired me to never turn from the things I can’t completely explain or understand. Along with the courage that I discovered through Augustine’s journey, I have also found faith. Consider these two passages from Confessions:

For if [God made me], how is it I will to do evil and bypass the good, and so earn punishment for myself? Who gave me this will? Who planted this seed of bitterness in me when all I am is what God made me, and he is Sweetness itself?

These questions are followed by more of the same, where he questions how evil could possibly exist if God is perfectly good and can prevent it. Then, without finding a definite answer that completely satisfied his questioning, he speaks of the role of faith in this philosophical struggle:

Yet in my heart I still clung to faith in Christ our Lord and Savior, as the church trained me to do. I was not clear on many points and was unsound on others, but my mind didn’t entirely let faith go; rather, I kept drinking in more and more day by day.**

This increasing consumption of faith has become my answer to the most vexing theological questions. There are plenty of philosophers who can offer an explanation for the problem of evil that falls just shy of satisfying the difficulty. However, my greatest need is not for explanation, even though there is some benefit to that attempt. My greatest need is to yield: to God’s embrace, to God’s wisdom, and to God’s sufficiency.

**I highly recommend reading Augustine’s Confessions, especially the out-of-print translation by Sherwood E. Writ from which the above quotes came. It’s very readable, and his use of language brings out a very personal feel that was probably obvious to the original readers in Latin. Here’s a link to a used copy I found on at Amazon.

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