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The Restless Heart, Augustine, and Us

You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.

So wrote Aurelius Augustine (354-430), later known as Saint Augustine. This simple sentence is more than a psychological description, a philosophical speculation, or a dogmatic dictum. On the contrary, it reflects a philosophy of life that came from a remarkable life and a remarkable life of the mind. Contemporary Christians, so often content with theological baby food, should listen to this profound thinker. By doing this, we will learn how to argue from the human condition to the existence of God.

Biography and Philosophy

Augustine was born in northern Egypt in 354. Young Augustine excelled academically. Though raised by a pious mother, Monica, he did not follow in her Christian footsteps by leaving the church in young adulthood to make the most of his intelligence. Augustine was a master teacher of rhetoric. He became, as he later wrote, very proud of his endowments and achievements. Unconstrained by Christianity, he took a mistress and had a child by her.

Augustine was studious and philosophical, studying the leading philosophies of his day. This first lead him into a general skepticism. After this, for a time he associated with the Manicheans. This religion has historically expired, but its central tenets still appeal to many, especially those drawn to Gnosticism. Manichaeism was a form of dualism, which argued that the material world was evil and irredeemable. Salvation is found by renouncing and transcending the world in hopes of reaching a purely immaterial (or spiritual) state of well-being. While Augustine was intellectually drawn to this viewpoint, his bodily urgencies spoke against it.

Augustine eventually heard the Christian teachings of Albert Magus, who deeply impressed him intellectually. Magus understood the spirit and philosophy of the times, and argued against Manichaeism. Yet there was still a war within Augustine, then in his early thirties. He chaffed at relinquishing his life of pleasure, even though it never satisfied him.

The Conversion

But the voice of a child eventually made all the difference and helped a tormented man step into Christianity with his whole being. While outside puzzling and suffering over this own condition, he heard the voice of a boy or girl chanting, “pick up, read; pick up, read.”[1] Augustine was prompted by this to take up a Bible, open it randomly, and read what his eyes first fixed upon. As he says in Book VIII of The Confessions, what he read was from the Book of Romans:

“Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.” [Romans 13:12]. I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.[2]

This situation and text spoke to his condition so profoundly that he took it to be the call of God on his rebellious and exasperating life. The conjunction of circumstances communicated truth to Augustine, a truth he could not deny.

The Confessions

Augustine’s classic work, The Confessions, tells this story. It is not an autobiography in the modern account, since he leaves out much of importance in his life. He describes events that reveal the presence and power of God in his life. The detailed confession of sin is the enduring theme of the book, which is a philosophically-drenched prayer. But the confession to God, Augustine thinks, is also good for others to know. It is indeed. This book is packed with apologetic significance, especially concerning the reality of sin, the guilty conscience, and the way of redemption through Christ.

Augustine wrote “You have made us for ourselves and our hearts are restless until the rest in Thee,” near the beginning of his work He spoke of as a Christian; but his reference is universal—our hearts. The entire human race is in mind, which means Augustine is offering a philosophical anthropology. In brief, there is something wrong with human beings that only God can cure.

Augustine’s self-analysis was permeated by his conscience. He discerned his own flaws, chiefly pride, which he latter considered the wellspring of all sin. Since contemporary culture rarely uses the word sin in a way that would be recognizable to Augustine, we should explore it. Without an understanding of sin, apologetics has no purchase on the modern conscience.

Augustine and Sin

First, Augustine did not take sin to be a collection of incidental mistakes, but rather a condition that affects the entire person. The person with whom he had deepest acquaintance was himself. But his heart was “restless.” By “heart,” Augustine mean the deepest reach of the person, the center of intellect, affection, and will.

Second, sin is only sin before a holy God. There are social stigmas that cause guilt and shame. But Augustine’s sense of sin went much deeper and broader and higher. Sin was a wrong orientation (pride) that issued in wrong behavior against God and man. But God was the ultimate observer and evaluator, whatever people or cultures may say.

Third, the essence of sinful thoughts and behavior was idolatry. Augustine claimed that idols take a part of creation and expect it to do the work of the Creator. But no idol can provide a sufficient object for worship and moral direction. In other words, idolatry confuses God with creation. It is fine to use food to nourish the body and please the pallet; but it is wrong to make it an idol, to value it above its real worth. The Apostle Paul, who much influenced Augustine, spoke of those “whose god is their belly.” (Philippians 3:11, KJV).

Given Augustine’s notion of sin, how he explain the motivation for stealing the pears? The pears were neither beautiful nor needed for food. The hogs which enjoyed them were not starving. This act seemed to have no purpose. But actions (as opposed to reflexes) have some reason behind them. This was an enigma to Augustine.

It dawned on Augustine that he sinned for the sake of sin itself. Although the act itself was not heinous, the motivation behind it was. He says, “For I pilfered something which I already had in sufficient measure, and of much better quality. I did not desire to enjoy what I stole, but only the theft and the sin itself.”

Augustine endeavors to explain the problem of weakness of will. This occurs when we know we should perform some action, but we do not. But if we know we should do something, what could convince us otherwise? He knew he should not steal the pears. He knew there was no justification for it. Yet he stole them nonetheless. His way out of this dilemma was to explain his evil act by virtue of vice—a vice that can only be explained in relation to a standard outside of himself.

Augustine next articulates the deepest reason for the sins he lists above. All our vices stem from virtues found in God. But these divine goods are corrupted by creatures who want the goodness of God, but without God. He brings all this back to his theft of the pears.

Thus the soul commits fornication when she is turned from thee and seeks apart from you, what she cannot find pure and untainted until she returns to you. All things thus imitate you—but pervertedly—when they separate themselves far from you and raise themselves up against you. But, even in this act of perverse imitation, they acknowledge you to be the Creator of all nature, and recognize that there is no place whither they can altogether separate themselves from you. What was it, then, that I loved in that theft? And wherein was I imitating my lord, even in a corrupted and perverted way? Did I wish, if only by gesture, to rebel against your law, even though I had no power to do so actually—so that, even as a captive, I might produce a sort of counterfeit liberty, by doing with impunity deeds that were forbidden, in a deluded sense of omnipotence?[3]

The modern mind may find this melodramatic or neurotic or both. The jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that it’s a “Rum thing to see man making a mountain our robbing a pear tree in his teens.”[4]

Augustine’s sense of the self and morality went deep, both psychologically and philosophically. As to the question of where moral standards are to found, he offers God as their grounding. Humans are accountable to God because they twist the goodness of creation for their own selfish ends. His approach is subjective and autobiographical, but this method leads him outside of himself to a perfect and personal being. He thus argues from man to God.

As an adult convert, Augustine wanted to recount his multifaceted life from a mature perspective, and more momentously to him, to commend the One in whom his heart could now rest. How, exactly, does the restless heart find rest? So far, we have said more about the sticky wicket of sin than of any way of salvation.

When Augustine was flirting with Manicheanism, he thought that the world of space, time, and matter was beyond redemption. Salvation was found by escaping this world. When Augustine considered Christianity, he found that the cosmos was created as originally good by a good God. So while there is a dualism between Creator and creation, there is no dualism of matter (evil) and spirit (good). Therefore, there is hope for the body and the material universe, since they are not intrinsically evil.

This hope was found the person was Christ. Some have taken Augustine to be a Platonist or Neo-Platonist in Christian dress. But this is not true. His mission was to relate Christianity to the other worldviews of the day and to work out all the implication of his own. He looked for common ground with other philosophies, and especially with Platonism. This makes sense since Platonism affirms the reality of an eternal, immaterial, and primordial reality in the realm of the Forms or Ideas. Augustine took this as partly right. Reality is not exhausted by the material world. There is a spiritual world. However, the longings of Augustine’s soul could not be answered by any impersonal spiritual idea. His famous sentence, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee,” speaks of a reality irreducibly personal, interpersonal, and reverential.

Augustine thought his guilt to be real, not just existentially real (guilt feelings), but objectively real. It dragged him down, racking and wrecking his conscience. Where could he turn?

Manichaeism taught that Jesus was a spirit, but did not have a body. He was a messenger of Light, but not a mediator. For Augustine, this Jesus provided no release from his guilt or from his anguish over his inner urges, which he knew were wrong. However, he found that Christian teaching confessed Jesus as truly human, as well as divine. The God-man offered what no philosophy of his day could: a mediator who understood our lot as humans and could reconcile us to God as divine.

Augustine’s Argument in Brief

Augustine’s argument, as sketched out here, is not his only major philosophical argument to be sure. His prolific writings cover much ground, philosophically, historically, and pastorally. While his argument begins with self, it does not end up there. We can summarize it:

  1. Humans possess the knowledge of both a moral law within them and their inability to obey it sufficiently to placate their conscience.

  2. This produces guilt over sin and longing in the sensitive soul.

  3. The chief form of sin is idolatry, which relies on the concept of God’s perfection for its energy. It is fueled by pride, instead of love.

  4. God is the best explanation for the awareness of the moral law, since he provides a perfect source for it.

  5. God has made provision for our restless and idolatrous human lot though sending a mediator, who himself is human as well as divine.

  1. Therefore: our hearts can find rest in the grace offered by God alone.

Augustine offers a kind of existential best explanation argument for the human situation. He opens a window into the world of philosophy with the malaise of mortals in clear view. His exploration of the depths of inner space leads him to the truth of a God outside of himself. This is surely an apt apologetic today.[5]


[1] Augustine, The Confessions, trans., Albert C. Outler (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2007) 8.12.29, p. 125.

[2] Ibid., 8.12.29, p. 126.

[3] Ibid., 2.6.14, p. 25-26.

[4] Quoted in Augustine, The Confessions, 301.

[5] This essay is adapted from “Augustine: Our Hearts are Restless until they Rest in You,” Philosophy in Seven Sentences (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016).

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