That’s quite a claim in the title. I’m certain that others who have read far more of Augustine than I would beg to differ. Needless to say, we all have our favorite texts, those theologically rich and experientially captivating statements for which Augustine is justly famous. But I want to mention mine, which, as you probably have guessed, is found in his Confessions.
I initially wrote of this comment by Augustine in my book, One Thing: Developing a Passion for the Beauty of God (Christian Focus). Recently I picked up the new translation of the Confessions by Sarah Ruden (New York: The Modern Library, 2017), 484 pages. It is described as a “dynamic translation,” and her rendering of this glorious paragraph bears witness to the approach she has taken. But let me begin with two earlier portrayals of the text.
The first comes from the translation by John K. Ryan in The Confessions of St. Augustine (New York: Image Books, 1960), 423 pages. In case you are unfamiliar with what Augustine is saying, he is describing what happened in his conversion experience. Here is how Ryan renders the passage:
“How sweet did it suddenly become to me to be free of the sweets of folly: things that I once feared to lose it was now joy to put away. You cast them forth from me, you the true and highest sweetness, you cast them forth, and in their stead you entered in, sweeter than every pleasure, but not to flesh and blood, brighter than every light, but deeper within me than any secret retreat, higher than every honor, but not to those who exalt themselves” (p. 205).
Maria Boulding’s translation (The Confessions, Saint Augustine [New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 358 pages) is similar to that of Ryan:
“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” (p. 170).
Now, compare those first two with the “dynamic translation” provided by Sarah Ruden:
“How delectably it happened, all of a sudden: all of those inane delectations weren’t there any longer; I’d been terrified of losing them, but now I was delighted to turn them loose. You, my true, my highest sweetness, threw that nonsense out of me – threw it out and entered in its place; sweeter than any pleasure, though not felt in the body and the blood; brighter than any light, but more inward than any intimate retreat; loftier than any achievement that wins recognition – but those with a lofty self-regard can’t know this” (p. 239).
“Inane delectations” is her rendering of what in yet another edition of the Confessions reads as “fruitless joys.” In either case, the point is the same. Here is how I described it in my book, One Thing.
Whatever failure or frustration you’ve experienced in life is directly related to the degree to which you have given your heart to fruitless joys or “inane delectations.” What an interesting choice of words. Why did Augustine describe his life in these terms?
“Fruitless joys” (or the “sweets of folly” or “sweet frivolities” or “inane delectations”) are what we turn to when life is boring and gray and lonely and we know that tomorrow nothing will have changed. They 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” and “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? Why “inane” delectations? If you think about it, it’s obvious. They are fruitless and inane 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.” Sweet frivolities 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” (“delectations”). 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” (“you, the true and highest sweetness;” “you, our real and all surpassing sweetness”). 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!