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Toward True Joy: Forsaking the Fear of Man and False Happiness

July 2, 2007

Hungering for someone to stir my soul and deepen my thoughts about life, God, and the things that matter most, my hand drifted to the paperback copy of Augustine’s Confessions located on the second shelf from the bottom. I flipped through the worn, underlined pages until I reached the pristine ones. Picking up in Book VI, I read the section header: “False Happiness and Empty Joys”–not exactly what I had in mind.

My eyes continued, “I looked with longing at honors, wealth and marriage, and you laughed at me.” Okay. I paused, knowing that this triumvirate, though not unholy itself, had something to do with my soul’s longing. “Laughed at me?” I thought to myself. “God is laughing at Augustine’s pursuit of honor, wealth, and marriage? Doesn’t God make women, precious metals, and character?” I decided to return to the line later and read on:

Now let my soul cleave to you, for you have freed it from so fast a snare of death. How wretched was my soul! Yet you pierced the very nerve within its wound, so that it might leave all things and be converted to you, who are above all things…so that it might be converted and healed.

The opposing imagery of “cleaving” and being “freed” struck me with force. Augustine recalls his days before his conversion as being ensnared by death, something from which only God could free him. Though he was an immensely successful teacher and rhetorician, about to deliver an address in praise of the emperor, the honors Augustine received bound not liberated him.

But honor is not inherently bad or oppressive is it? In fact, honors frequently recognize goodness in some person–a purple heart for a soldier wounded in battle recognizes courage and self-sacrifice, noble qualities indeed. What then was it about Augustine’s honors that imprisoned him?

He continues by describing his encounter with a beggar, whose fleeting happiness over a few coins outweighed the joy of his own ambitious plans: “It was not true joy that he possessed, but by my ambitious plans I sought one much more false.” Augustine sees in his own efforts a joy that was “much more false” than the beggar’s financial delight. How was his joy more false? He reflects that it was so because the beggar was “free from care, while I was full of fear.”

Every day I drive by homeless beggars on our highways, often reflecting upon how stress-free their jobs are, as they hold up signs that say “Why lie? I want a beer.” I then reflect on the stress–dare I say fear–many of us carry due to the demands of our jobs/employers. We are consumed with pleasing people at work and in life, while at the same time, fearing that we might displease them. What’s worse is that very often the “them” are anonymous.

What was so wretched in Augustine’s soul that required a spiritual freedom? Was it his honors for fine learning, teaching and instructing? If not, what then was it about his honors that bound him, leading him down the path of falsehood and soul-wrenching deception?

It was his fear, fear that led him to take pleasure in winning approval of men “not to instruct them, but only to please them.” Augustine’s heart was imprisoned by his lesser affections, by his inordinate desire to please men over God. To return to the opening line, it was his “looking with longing at honor, wealth, and marriage.” It was his insatiable desire for happiness in the bent happiness and acceptance of other spiritually bound men.

Do we take hollow comfort and empty joy in anonymous approval of those around us? Do we fear that we will not be honored or rewarded for our performance and/or appearance? All too often my joy rises and falls with the numbers and kinds of comments on my blog, the amount of mail I receive, the perception or recognition of an employer, spouse, student or friend.

Our longings and desires rest too firmly upon the approval or rejection of finite men and not in the unfathomable pleasure of an infinite, loving, accepting God. With Augustine we see only to please men, not instruct them. Forgive us for delighting in approval of wretched, finite men, O Lord. Renew us and reawaken our true joy.

Let our souls cleave to you, for your have freed them from so fast a snare of death. Pierce the very nerve within the festering wound of the fear of man, so that we might be free to delight in all that you are for us in Jesus. Heal our souls with your happiness and strengthen our longings for Thee! Give us true happiness and overflowing joys in communion with the Holy Trinity.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 3, 2007 8:54 am

    Thank you for this post. The Spirit and I have been throwing down this idol of “Fear of Man” vigorously the past few months. I don’t think it has toppled yet, but I have confidence that with God’s help I’ll trample it for a season.

    You asked, “Do we take hollow comfort and empty joy in anonymous approval of those around us?”

    Hollow comfort. That’s all that doing things for others rather than unto the Lord will give in the end. And yes, I seem to do so much of ‘ministry’ out of the fear of man. Making sure I meet others’ expectations. Planning music so that people are comfortable. Training our musicians so that others can see I’m doing my job and things are getting better. Doing sufficient contacting/visitation so that the perception is that I don’t just honker down in my office.

    When these become the chief end of my endeavors, they become hollow comforts. They become idols. They become suicidal exchanges for that which can never satisfy, but only frustrate.

    You said, “Our longings and desires rest too firmly upon the approval or rejection of finite men and not in the unfathomable pleasure of an infinite, loving, accepting God.”

    Exactly. Thanks for reminding me that success, happiness, peace, and joy cannot be obtained only or chiefly in the approval of finite men.

  2. Sara permalink
    July 3, 2007 10:00 pm

    sweet post, Jonathan, thank you!

  3. July 5, 2007 8:41 am

    Thanks for your reflections, Josh. Augustine is a great guide to finding our true joy, our chief Delight.

    May God grant us, in our repentance and faith, superior affections and longings for the one who can offer everlasting joy and perfect acceptance.

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