Redeeming Luxury and Trial
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
For certainly your desire for peace, and prosperity, and plenty is not prompted by any purpose of using these blessings honestly, that is to say, with moderation, sobriety, temperance, and piety; for your purpose rather is to run riot in an endless variety of sottish pleasures, and thus to generate from your prosperity a moral pestilence which will prove a thousandfold more disastrous than the fiercest enemies.
This was the foul plague-spot, this the wreck of virtue and honour that Scipio sought to preserve you from when he prohibited the construction of theatres; this was his reason for desiring that you might still have an enemy to fear, seeing as he did how easily prosperity would corrupt and destroy you.
City of God, Book 1.30 and 33 Augustine
We don’t like suffering or difficult things. Modern life is an oddity in that we live in such luxury and leisure and are so easily allergic to difficult things. Some of even the poorest of our day have more luxury than in most other times in history. I’ve just been reading a book about the history of night before electricity. We don’t realize the luxury of electric light bulbs and the lengthening of our leisure into the hours of darkness whereas in times past humans would have been forced to limit themselves and perhaps labor by the light of smoldering reeds, spinning and weaving or shoveling out the outhouses (which was a job done at night). Without modern plumbing and because of the fear of fire burning down cities, fires were expected to be out by curfew. So you slept in the cold (since fireplaces don’t heat much anyways they were used especially for cooking).
I’ve recently picked up City of God again. I first somehow picked it up and read it my freshman year of college. I was quite taken by the book when I was 18. I thought it both difficult and inspiring, and imagined we could use another book on the same topic today. Augustine wrote on why the sack of the city of Rome by the Goths shouldn’t be blamed on the rise of Christianity. He explains how much suffering was brought on Rome because of their own foolishness. A famous Roman general fought against Carthage and when Rome won, he suggested it was better to leave the city standing: it is better for Rome to have the threat of Carthage to preserve their courage and moral fortitude. With Carthage standing (mind you, there were three terrible wars with Carthage), the Romans had to spend attention and energy in protecting their interests. Eventually Rome decided Carthago delenda est. Carthage must be destroyed. And this led to a period of luxury and then bitter infighting and then more civil wars and then more luxury during the empire. And then Rome was sacked in 410 by Alaric and his band.
This is not the only track of living in luxury. Everyone has imagined different scenarios even today (such as Huxley or Orwell). But there is something to the fact that prosperity often corrupts and destroys us. Scipio foresaw that prosperity would easily corrupt and destroy Rome. He understood that prosperity could produce a moral pestilence which would be a thousand times worse than Carthage.
Scipio understood what many in our world don’t. Freedom from suffering and war doesn’t necessarily produce pure goodness. Actually, there is a pervasive depravity that if we were left to our own desires, we would in essence self-destruct. We shouldn’t be surprised at the world around us if it goes completely banal: without the gospel how can it be preserved? And so this happened to Rome. We could just list the trials of Rome: The Gracchi brothers, Catiline, Julius Caesar, Caligula, Nero, Domitian. It is only by God’s grace that humanity is preserved. And it is by God’s grace that Augustine was redeemed from his pagan beliefs and pastored a church in North Africa near the ruins of old Carthage (and he did happen to preach in the Roman town of Carthage regularly). For us who are Christians, our desire is not simply a life of simple ease, comfort, happiness, and entertainment. We have been trained to think this way, but filling up our cup of desires misses our deepest need. More than all that, we need to be redeemed from our pervasive sinfulness. In our human, old man, nature, an easy, luxurious life with electric lights extending our days, will make us rot. But in our new man, luxury must be redeemed. Luxuria redempda est. And, interestingly enough, so should our suffering. Suffering by itself does not produce anything good, but I think Scipio isn’t so far off from James: suffering redeemed, suffering in faith, produces something good in a Christian. Augustine earlier in book 1 says that the suffering of Christians in the sack of Rome was a refining suffering. It produces in us steadfastness, and it brings us to completeness.
And so may we redeem the times, both the great luxury of our age but also in the trials that we encounter, because we will encounter them. And may we not complain but be thankful that what we endure now is provoking in us the endurance that will lead us to glory.