The Depths of Idolatry
By Jonathan Michael Dean
More than a decade ago, I remember finding grace in the eyes of the Lord. I don’t understand fully what happened to me, or what has happened since. In hindsight, I will say this: I cannot explain how He came to live in me, yet, He is present. Before, He was absent. His gaze burns brightly with an intestese fatherly love… Though my sins are exposed in His sight, His eyes appear more tender through every passing season. There is a wonderful comfortable contentment in being so fully known, yet, so fully loved.
However, the residue of Sin’s opium remains: it is caked on my flesh. When, and how, will my Lord clean me? May the Lord grant me the endurance to continue with Him in pilgrimage to eternity, amen. There, at the end of life’s journey, I will receive the gift of an eternal glorified resurrected body. I am confident, that, when this occurs, Christ will equip me to worship Him; that is (as I desire) to worship Him perfectly; in way that He is worthy of.
The Confessions of St. Augustine, are, in short, a personal testimony of his life, conversion and more. In book one, chapter six, he focuses on his experiences as a sixteen years old. While on leave from school, young Augustine found himself engulfed in drunken parties and sex. In chapters four, five, and six, he tells us the story of a theft that he and his friends committed. After a late night of drinking, they stumbled by a pear tree, full of fruit. And not because they were hungry, but to throw them to the pigs, they stole bundles of pears. In chapter six, he reasons out the evil of this sin and discovers the true motive behind it.
Not for the sake of glorifying Augustine, but for the sake of making practical the application of Romans 1 –thus glorifying God –I will explain chapter six. Most of it will be line by line, with only a couple omissions from the chapter. Some of it I will not interpret, but by means of quick application, I will seek to make clear what is the interpretation of his words. So, let’s begin. (All quotations are from “The Confessions of Saint Augustine,” chapter six.)
The Title Reads, “When He Delighted In That Theft; When All Things Which Under The Appearance Of Good Invite To Vice Are True And Perfect In God Alone.”
The title, though tricky, gives way to the tide of his discourse. First, that he enjoyed stealing. Then, almost as if it an unexpected tidal wave hits the boat, he says that all things, even the things which appear to be good, are in fact enticements to evil (vices). That the good and temporal enjoyments –though not sinful in and of themselves –are only truly good when sought in God alone.
He is going to show how the life of a man or women, when lived apart from God, is a life of idolatry –even in the ordinary things we do. This is not hard for me to understand. Why? Because I see it in my past. Before I knew Jesus, this is how I lived. Even after coming to know Christ, I still find myself doing these things. Anytime I leave God out of what I am doing, feeling, saying, thinking, to one degree or another, I am committing idolatry.
Before we stop reading, let’s give him a chance to explain himself all the way through. He begins: “What then did wretched I so love in thee, thou theft of mine, though deed of darkness, in that sixteenth year of my age?” He asks himself a question: why did he love stealing those pears? What was really so enjoyable about taking another man’s property? He begins by personifying his theft, as if it was a person, saying, “thee, thou theft of mine.” He acknowledges the evil of it, calling it a “deed of darkness.”
Continuing, he says, “Lovely thou wert not, because thou wert theft.” He recognizes God’s perspective of his sin. Though to him, there was a dark loveliness in it; to God, it was abhorrent. There was nothing truly lovely about it.
“But art thou anything,” he says (thou still being his sin), “that thus I should speak to thee.” In other words, he saying, why am I speaking like this? I sound stupid. I’m talking about stealing a pair as if it’s a person or a sin like murder. But from his words will flow insights from God concerning the sin of Idolatry. How everything that he has ever done, apart from God, has been to magnify something else, or himself.
Come on now, you say. It was just a pear! Don’t be so hard on yourself. In part, Augustine would agree. He writes: “Fair were the pears we stole, because they were Thy (God’s) creation, Thou fairest of all, Creator of all, Thou good God; God, the sovereign good and true good.” Yes, the pears were good because they were created by an all-good God. And the desire for the pears, even obtaining them through sinful means, would still be to desire something good, a pear. But what he is unfolding, is that there was something particularly bad about this sin. That it was the sin of sins.
Shut up about the pears already, you’re thinking. Confess something really evil, like adultery or murder. But Augustine is stuck in that tree. “Fair were those pears,” he says, “but not them did my wretched soul desire; for I had a store of better; and those I gathered, only that I might steal. For, when gathered, I flung them away, my only feast therein being my own sin, which I was pleased to enjoy. For if aught of those pears came within my mouth, what sweetened it was the sin.”
He digs into his heart. First, he sees the reason that he enjoyed stealing the pears. It was not due to hunger or need, but because he enjoyed sin. The sin was sweet. He sinned because he liked to sin. It’s like the example of a child touching wet paint: They don’t touch the paint because getting paint on our hands is fun, but because the sign that says, “don’t touch, wet paint,” entices them do so. With the Apostle Paul we can agree, “But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment (the law of God), produced in me all kinds of covetousness” (Rom.7:8).
Augustine doesn’t throw away the shovel yet, saying, “And now, O Lord my God, I enquire what in that theft delighted me?” He knows there is a deeper reason. That he must keep digging to the roots of that pear tree. He enjoyed stealing the pears because he enjoyed sin. But why did he enjoy sin? What was the motive behind the sinful enjoyment of lawbreaking?
He begins by eliminating the wrong answers. He reflects on many earthly enjoyments, most of which, in and of themselves, are not sinful at all. The pear, in and of itself, was lovely. But not the act of stealing the pear. As he says, “and behold, it hath no loveliness.” However, he sees that there are many things, which are lovely, that can be sought in unlovely ways. He eliminates these possibilities by making a checklist of the good things that men can seek out with sinful purposes –just to persuade himself that this sin is different that others.
He says, “I mean not such loveliness as in justice and wisdom; nor such as in the mind and memory, and senses, and animal life of man; nor yet as the stars are glorious and beautiful in their orbs; or the earth, or sea full of embryo-life, replacing by its birth that which decayeth; nay, nor even that false and shadowy beauty which belongeth to deceiving vices.”
So, not only was his sin different from other sinful pursuits, in that there was nothing good that he was seeking to obtain, such as wisdom, or science, or justice. It was different than what he calls, “false and shadowy beauty which belongeth to deceiving vices.” Translation, even sins which can have an appearance of beauty; evils in disguised, like passionate premarital sex between a love-struck man and women, are still not as bad as what he did. Those pears were rotten. He was sick to his stomach.
This is where things are about to get deep. He going to use comparison. He’s going to show that everything he ever did was idolatry. That it was an attempt to mimic God, apart from God. Get ready to fall out of the tree.
Beginning with the sin of pride, he says, “For so doth pride imitate exaltedness; whereas Thou alone art God exalted over all.” That the reason why we love our pride; why we enjoy this sin so much, is because it mimics God. God is exalted above all. He trumps all. He has the royal flush. But in our pride, we think that our two pair has Him beat. It may be a good two pair, and we sure will go all-in, to win, against our brother. However, in doing so, we are seeking to be God. Either we or the pride itself becomes the idol.
A man gets a raise. He thinks highly of himself for it. He brags to his friends. Buys a few new shining toys. Shows them off. In effect, he is trying to become God, in that God alone has ultimate bragging rights.
Not only the pride, but the ambition itself is darkened by idolatry, he says, “Ambition, what seeks it, but honours and glory? Whereas Thou (God) alone art to be honoured above all, and glorious for evermore.” That the true motive behind what humans seek is themselves: to be praised, recognized, acknowledged and revered. When in truth, only God is true glory. He doesn’t need to achieve glory. He is full of glory. So why are we running for third place when God has already finished first. Oh, how even good pursuits can be darkened by self-ambition.
What about the tough guy? There’s a certain quality to the fear that meanness brings. Of that he says, “The cruelty of the great would fain to be feared; but who is to be feared but God alone, out of whose power what can be wrested or withdrawn? When, or where, or whither, or by whom?” How stupid it is to seek power over others through the tactics of fear. To be cruel and unusual. For even men like Nero and Hitler are now gripped in the torments of hell, of which God created and oversees. As Jesus warned us: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear Him who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matt.10:28).
Those who seek to gain power over others are trying to play God. A husband is aggressive towards his wife. He threatens her and yells at her. This fear is a tactic to bring the women under his control. When we use such tactics, we are pretending to be God because only God is the one to be feared. Instead, we are to teach our wives to fear God.
But what about something sweeter? Let’s say, love. Cannot love be pure? Augustine writes: “The tenderness of the wanton would fain be counted love: yet is nothing more tender than thy charity; nor is aught loved more healthfully than that thy truth, bright and beautiful above all.” The intimate touch of a spouse and the friendship of a friend, even these show their ugly face. Apart from Christ, they are pursuits to find love outside the source of the one true love, God. We act as if the other has more love to offer than God. It is god-less-ness. Idolatry: giving the foremost affection that is due the Creator, to a creature. Love becomes our idol, or, the one in whom we seek it.
In addition, the truth of God’s Word –as he conveys –is to be loved before the closest of kin. We can only love as He has loved us first (1Jn.4:19). And, the only way we can truly love another, is first and foremost, by keeping the commands of God (1Jn.5:2). Love offered from a life outside of God’s commands soon becomes destructive, injurious, and fleeting.
Paul was right when he stated that we have exchanged God for things which are created: “exchanging the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Rom.1:23). Even something like the love of a spouse can become our idol. And it is not a little sin because it is an attempt to give unto another, that which is first due to God.
As a side note: please do not assume that Augustine, nor I, am saying that loving your spouse, healthy ambition, and grief (as we will see later) are sinful, in and of themselves. He has already tried to persuade us of that. What he is doing is showing us that the way in which we seek these good things, and to whom we chiefly seek them from, turn the act into idolatry. That it is pretending to be God, or that another is, by mimicking, or attributing his qualities to another. Sinners playing dress-up like God.
Curiosity killed the cat. Augustine would agree: “Curiosity makes semblance of a desire of knowledge; whereas Thou supremely knowest all.” As Romans 1:22 says, “Seeking to be wise, they became fools.” Much of what is called knowledge, even science, is quite laughable. I mean, even a monkey wouldn’t believe that the world came into being from a big bang. As R.C. Sproul states, “what do you mean it came ‘into being’? What was it before that, ‘non-being’? Non-being is nothing. And nothing doesn’t explode! Our curiosity shows itself to be a foolish pursuit of omniscience. Knowledge becomes the idol. Whereas God alone is omniscient.
Okay, what about the flip side of that coin: ignorance. Augustine says, “Yea, ignorance and foolishness itself is cloaked under simplicity and uninjuriousness; because nothing is found more single than Thee: and what less injurious, since they are his own works which injure the sinner.” Our culture says, “Let’s just say we don’t know. Better yet, everyone is right.” But when everyone is right, everything goes wrong. As if moral relativity and plurality will somehow stop disputes. In seeking to removal truth, as if it were an obstacle, we forget that God’s truth is our protection. We think we can save ourselves trouble by removing “unnecessary” laws, forgetting that the law of God doesn’t hurt us. It’s our own works that bring injury.
We turn simplicity into our God: traveling the country in a small R.V. Taking doctrine out of Churches. Blending bathrooms for boys and girls alike. What? Yes, all of these are an attempt to simplify life. When God himself possesses the true attribute of simplicity. We cannot become a spiritual chemist: infusing life with life, down into a simple form. Only God can show us how to do this properly. Example: God condenses the whole law into two commands, Love me, and love others. To attempt this without God is to run away from Him. It’s to run into chaos and confusion rather than peace.
To the couch potatoes, he says, “sloth would fain be at rest; but what stable rest besides the Lord.” While we reject the true source of rest, Netflix and pajamas become our god. By Monday, we haven’t achieved that rest. Next weekend, we have to try it all over again.
As for wealth, he states, “Luxury affects to be called plenty and abundance; but Thou art the fullness and never-failing plenteousness of incorruptible pleasures.” The deceitfulness of riches. They promise fulfillment, but we always want more. God is fullness. In Christ dwells His fullness bodily. He is all in all. He fills heaven and earth. Do you actual think that the plastic pool you filled with hose water is better than God’s ocean? Stop trying to be God. Your wealth does not fill all in all. God’s richer than you!
Speaking of the freedom of worldly living, he says, “Prodigality presents a shadow of liberality: but Thou art the most overflowing Giver of all good.” What happened to the prodigal son? In seeking freedom from his father, it only brought him bondage. What happened to Adam and Eve when they ate the fruit? Was God withholding something good? Was he confining them? No. But when they ate the fruit they were accusing God of that very thing: that He wasn’t good for restricting our freedom. And so, a false sense of free-will becomes our God.
I want more, says the child. Yep, your right, says Augustine: “Covetousness would possess many things; and Thou (God) possesses all things.” As if we can mimic God. He holds the whole world in His hands. Much of the time, we can’t even hold onto our job, our marriage, our savings, our kids. God is the possessor of all things, not us. Why would we, through covetousness, try to obtain more of something, that really belongs to God? Why would we, through covetousness, try to mimic God, the possessor of all things.
Envy: “Envy disputes for excellency: what more excellent than Thou.” We get discontent when someone does better than us. But when we compare our accomplishments to God, we have nothing to show for it. He spoke the world into existence from nothing with a Word; keeps the universe in place; designed your complex mind and body. What did you do? Oh, you got a plaque for best employee of the month. Woohoo! Sorry. All I hear is crickets. Through envy, and what it desires, we turn praise and achievement into our god. Through envy, we can even seek to usurp God. Wohhhh! Talk about dangerous. I wouldn’t want to go to war with God.
I don’t mean to be overly sarcastic. When I speak, I’m really just revealing to you how I speak to myself about these matters. God laughs at our silly idols. But I also do not forget, God hates idolatry.
I feel the pear tree being uprooted. And I think Augustine is happy. Better to fall out of the tree and break my neck than enjoy rotten apples. He continues: “Anger seeks revenge: who revenges more justly than Thou?” Who are we to be angry at our brother? It is we who deserve God’s anger for dressing up as if we are God. Only God has the right to seek revenge. “I will repay says the Lord” (Rom.12:19b). We are not God.
Fear: “Fear startles at things unwonted and sudden, which endanger things beloved, and takes forethought for their safety; but to Thee what unwonted or sudden, or who separateth from Thee what Thou lovest? Or where with but Thee is unshaken safety?” He reveals the motivation behind fear: that fear is an emotion rooted in the want to protect and keep what we have. Even something good, like our children. Our children are good. And wanting to keep and protect them is good. But the fear, which motivates us to keep and protect things by our own devices is, in and of itself, Idolatry. Only God can perfectly protect, sustain and maintain. When we try to do this apart from God, we are seeking to play God.
Last but not least, he addresses grief. Yes, grief. Even grief is idolatry apart from God. Augustine writes, “Grief pines away for things lost, the delight of its desires; because it would have nothing taken from it, as nothing can from Thee.” As in the last phrase, he says, “As nothing can from Thee”; that is, that nothing can be taken away from God. And when we grieve, even over the loss of a loved one, we are grieving because we perceive that we lost something that belonged to us. As if, we had the right to keep it. This is why people blame God for the death of lost loved ones. They are spitting in the face of God, and saying, “not Your’s. Mine! Not unto You God. Unto me.” We accuse God of robbery. When actually, all things belong to Him. When He takes something or someone, He is only taking that which is His. We attempt to steal God’s glory by accusing Him of theft. How unashamedly we can claim the rights that only God has when we grieve in a godless way.
Augustine begins to summarize his thoughts: “Thus doth the soul commit fornication, when she (his soul) turns from Thee, seeking it without Thee, what she finds not pure and untainted, till she returns to Thee.” He compares everything in his life: anger, curiosity, luxury, even grief, to fornication. He identifies everyone one of these things as an act of his soul turning away from Thee (God). As in Romans 1:21, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.”
A choice was made by humanity. We know there is a God. But we willfully rejected Him. And not just generally. As we can see by Augustine’s reasoning: every thought, every word, every deed, every emotion, every motive, for everything, you have ever done, was Idolatry? A rejection of God: giving the worship due to God, to someone or something else, as if it were God. We’ve made a choice to live life, as he says, “seeking it without Thee”. Without God.
What do we seek? “What she (his soul) findeth not pure and untainted,” he says. We do not want pure and untainted things. We may want things that resemble some kind of good. But not true good. True good; God’s good, is detestable to one dead in sin. For in order to seek true good, we would have to seek God. From the day we are born until the day we die, this is what we do: “till she (his soul) returns to Thee.”
We live in rejection of God. Our god-less actions prove it. We want less of the true God. The essence of our sin is that we, as he continues to say, “All pervertedly imitate Thee, who remove far from Thee, and lift themselves up against Thee.” With crooked desires, and god-less hearts, we seek, not to be like God; we seek to be God. As Satan desired to ascend to the throne of the Most High, we do so moment by moment. But we’re only building creaky stools below. How dare I act as if my one legged, wobbly stool, is likened unto the glorious throne of God!
How foolish we are. When we reject the “true” God, by mimicking Him in our sin, we affirm that have come from Him. As Augustine says, “But even by thus imitating Thee, they imply Thee to be the Creator of all nature; whence there is no place whither altogether to retire from Thee.” We cannot run or hide from God. And we definitely cannot try to banish Him.
Augustine has fallen out of the pear tree. These rotten apples don’t taste so good anymore. He’s had the breath knocked out of him by the perceiving reality of the depths of his idolatry. But what out these pears? What was so sweet about stealing these pears? He asks himself again, “What then did I love in that theft? And wherein did I even corruptly and pervertedly imitate my Lord?”
Remember, he stole for the simple pleasure of stealing. It could have been cow poop. He simply delighted in taking that which was not his. All these other sins, were, in part, seeking to take something of what God is for oneself. How did this sin do the same? How was it worse?
Here is his answer: “Did I wish even by stealth to do contrary to thy law, because by power I could not, so that being a prisoner, I might mimic a maimed liberty by doing with impunity things unpermitted to me, a darkened likeness of Thy OMNIPOTENCE?” I know. It may be hard to catch what he is saying the first time you read it. Read it again. What is he saying?
He knows that he is actually a slave. That he does not have absolute freedom to do as he will, as God does. He is bound to obey God’s law, though he does not will to. To make a show of force against God, he does something evil simply because it’s evil. Like Adam who took the fruit, he takes something that does not belong to him. He sins simply to spit in God’s face. He acts as if he, not God, is all-powerful. Omnipotent.
When we seek to live apart from God, this is what we do. By seeking autonomy (self-rule), we seek to be omnipotent. To become an all-power god. This is really just a pathetic show of force. It will not prevail. We will die. We will stand before God. And we will face the true Omnipotent One.
However, Christ saved this man Augustine. For unless God had opened up his eyes to see his sin, it would not have stood out so clearly to him. Unless God had opened up his heart, he would not be able to come to this conclusion about his sinful self: “O rottenness, O monstrousness of life, and depth of death! Could I like what I might not, only because I might not?”
With him, let us see too, that our sins are rotten. Monstrous. Let us fear the wrath to come. Let us wonder at the amazing grace of God found in Christ. How could one man take God’s wrath against my sin? How heavy that wrath must have been. How could one man take the wrath of God against the sins of many? But he did. Jesus is your only hope. Turn to Him.