St. Augustine’s Confessions, part 4
The problem of the pear tree.
If you have ever had the privilege of listening to a lecture about Augustine, or your pastor (steeped in church history) has illustrated the pernicious and all-encompassing nature of sin, you likely have heard about Augustine’s run-in with the pear tree.
First, we must recall that Book 2 focuses on the misspent youth of Augustine. (See prior Book 2 posts here and here.) Contrary to modern-day sensibilities which decry any overt focus on personal sinfulness, Augustine thinks there is great gain in recalling his wayward youth, in order that he might trace the faithful hand of Providence in his pre-Christian days.
Now, the pears enter the scene. Augustine did not grow up in a wealthy family, but there was no want of food in his home. And still, he and a merry band of friends stole quantities of fruit from a neighbor’s pear tree, for no reason other than the pure joy of sinning:
Wickedness filled me. I stole something which I had in plenty and of much better quality. My desire was to enjoy not what I sought by stealing but merely the excitement of thieving and the doing of what was wrong. There was a pear tree near our vineyard laden with fruit, though attractive in neither colour nor taste….We carried off a huge load of pears. But they were not for our feasts but merely to throw to the pigs Even if we ate a few, nevertheless our pleasure lay in doing what was not allowed…. (page 29)
This is the point theologians will often hone in on: Augustine was so enslaved to his sin that he was willing to commit this thievery, with absolutely no gain to himself. He didn’t care about finding the juiciest pears to satisfy his hunger. There was no benefit to him — other than the satisfaction of completing the theft.
I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself. It was foul and I loved it. I loved the self-destruction. I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen by my fall itself. My depraved soul leaped down from your firmament to ruin. I was seeking not to gain anything by shameful means, but shame for its own sake.
Augustine masterfully elucidates the power of sin over the unregenerate soul. We are held captive, and yet we grow to love the very thing that binds us. This theological truth is one of the reasons why I love to talk about the freedom that comes from living in light of the gospel. Only Christians are truly free. And yet, the modern evangelical American church is awash with folks who are unwilling to declare with Paul: should we go on sinning so that grace may abound? God forbid!
We are not saved in order that we might freely sin. Rather, when we are given a new nature, we finally have the freedom to obey, for the first time in our lives.
Even something as benign as a pear tree can prove a temptation too difficult to bear for a soul in bondage. Praise be to God for his lavish mercy to wretched sinners like us.