God, our Real and All-Surpassing Sweetness!


Sam Storms:

Augustine’s own portrayal of his conversion is one that every Christian should ponder. It cuts through the maze of altar calls, decision cards, raised hands, and insipid prayers to “ask Jesus into one’s heart.” My journey through his Confessions has once again brought me to Book IX where he describes how his resistance to the gospel was overcome by sovereign joy, the name he gave to divine grace.

The precise phrasing depends on which of the many translations of the Confessions one is reading. An abbreviated paraphrase of his words is the one we most often encounter:

“How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose . . . ! You drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than all pleasure. . . . O Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation.”

But a more accurate and much fuller rendering is found in the translation provided by Maria Boulding:

“How sweet did it suddenly seem to me to shrug off those sweet frivolities, and how glad I now was to get rid of them – I who had been loath to let them go! For it was you who cast them out from me, you, our real and all-surpassing sweetness. You cast them out and entered yourself to take their place, you who are lovelier than any pleasure, though not to flesh and blood, more lustrous than any light, yet more inward than is any secret intimacy, loftier than all honor, yet not to those who look for loftiness in themselves. My mind was free at last from the gnawing need to seek advancement and riches, to welter in filth and scratch my itching lust. Childlike, I chatter away to you, my glory, my wealth, my salvation, and my Lord and God.”

Whatever failure or frustration you’ve experienced in life is directly related to the degree to which you have given your heart to “sweet frivolities” or “fruitless joys”. Why did Augustine describe his life in these terms?

Fruitless joys are what we turn to when life is boring and gray and lonely and we know that tomorrow nothing will have changed. Fruitless joys aren’t necessarily scandalous sins. They may be little more than harmless hobbies in which we invest countless hours to make life a little less dull. They may be the newest gadgets we work so hard to own and worry about losing. They may be the fantasies and daydreams that swirl around in our heads that we know will never come true but somehow strangely bring a measure of excitement to an otherwise dreary life.

Fruitless joys vary from person to person. For one, it may be lingering bitterness of heart against someone who betrayed them. For another, disillusionment with how life has turned out. For another, anger and unforgiveness that energize the soul in a perverse sort of way. Fruitless joys can be anything from the mental escape that comes from identifying with the life of a Hollywood actress to the sheer excitement of new gossip. Or it may be something more serious such as internet pornography or cheating on your taxes or pride or infidelity or alcohol or drugs or whatever it is, as Augustine said, that you’re convinced you can’t live without, something without which life can’t be faced. For Augustine, it was something he once “feared to lose,” things he had been “loath to let go.”

For some it’s not just the fear of loss. They’re convinced they deserve them. “If you only knew how many times people let me down. God too. If you only knew how much I’ve had to put up with, you’d ease up and concede me a few fruitless joys!”

But why call them “fruitless” joys? If you think about it, it’s obvious. They are fruitless because no matter how effective they seem right now, in the long term they can’t satisfy. Often they leave us feeling guilty for our having squandered so much time and energy and money on something so trivial and petty. They lack the capacity to go beyond surface impact. They fail to reach deep into the soul and make a difference where it counts. They leave us empty and wondering aloud, “There’s got to be more to living than this.” Fruitless joys are whatever we trust to bring change but prove powerless to help us in our battle with temptation. No matter how well they work in the immediate present, we know God made us for something bigger and better and more satisfying.

So why do we hold on to them so vigorously? Why do we live in constant fear that they might be taken from us? Because they are fruitless “joys” (they are “sweet” frivolities). No matter how fleeting or transient or ultimately unsatisfying they may be, they are, nonetheless, joys. Augustine didn’t speak of fruitless “events” or fruitless “things” but of fruitless “joys”. We continually revert to them in times of boredom and distress because they work! At least, for the moment they do.

Consider what this tells us about the nature of our souls. Your heart will always be drawn to whatever brings it greatest joy. Don’t apologize for it. This isn’t the result of poor nurture or genetic error or inadequate education. Far less is it the fruit of sin. God created you with a “joy meter” in your soul, such that you invariably choose whatever options in life register most loudly and most deeply. You may be emotionally bruised, perhaps black and blue, from beating up on yourself for wanting to feel good or for wanting to experience happiness and joy. Stop it! Don’t repent.

Augustine was convinced that if not philosophy then fornication, and if not fornication then the fantasies of the theater would bring him optimum, maximum joy. That’s why he was so terrified of losing the “fruitless joys” on which he had relied his whole life, . . . until he met Jesus Christ. When by grace he tasted the goodness of God, the sweetness of salvation, those joys that had so long held his heart captive turned sour in his soul and became bitter to the taste and a stench in his nostrils.

Fruitless joys don’t just magically disappear. They don’t go away of their own accord. If their power to please begins to wane, the human soul will soon find adequate replacements. If Augustine, in describing his conversion and Christian life, had stopped upon saying “You [God] drove them from me,” other fruitless joys would quickly have been found to take the place of those he had forsaken.

Fruitless joys don’t transmute of their own accord into pain and discomfort and ugliness. They will lose their grip on your soul only when they are displaced by greater joys, more pleasing joys, joys that satisfy not for the moment but forever. That is why Augustine declared, “You [God] drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than all pleasure!” Augustine didn’t cease his sinful indulgence because he had given up on pleasure. He simply found a more pleasing pleasure, a longer-lasting joy, a fullness of joy and pleasures that never end (Psalm 16:11). By grace, his soul turned from reliance on fruitless joys to reliance on God’s promise of a superior delight in his Son, Jesus Christ.

This is the true meaning of grace. Grace does not demonize our desires nor destroy them nor lead us to deny them. Grace is the work of the Holy Spirit in transforming our desires so that knowing Jesus becomes sweeter than illicit sex, sweeter than money and what it can buy, sweeter than every fruitless joy. Grace is God satisfying our souls with his Son so that we’re ruined for anything else!

[This was adapted from my book, One Thing (Christian Focus Publishers).]

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.

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