Some quotes get more mileage than others, but one that I have often heard quoted is one from The Confessions of St. Augustine of Hippo which says, “my heart is restless until it rests in you”.  Most of the time this is used to talk conversion and finding rest in Christ at conversion.  But for the purposes of this post, I want to dwell upon what Augustine meant by our hearts being ‘restless’.  We’ll do this in two ways: first, by looking at the general context of The Confessions and then secondly, by looking at the Latin word translated here as ‘restless’.  In the end we will hopefully have a better understanding of what Augustine did and didn’t mean by this quote.

God has an affinity for bad people.  David, Moses, the Apostle Paul, all these men are major characters in Scripture and each one was guilty of murder.  Augustine was no murderer, but he is very open about his sensual lifestyle.  He moved to Carthage and later to Rome to pursue a life that he lived on his terms.  Drunkenness and debauchery were a way of life for him, and he even fathered a son at the age of 17.  He apparently kept in close contact with his son, Adeodatus, and provided for both him and his mother, even though the two never married.  Augustine was converted to Christianity at the age of 31 or 32.  What does this man’s teen years and 20’s tell us about being restless?

First, it clearly shows us that rebellion is restlessness and vice versa.  Here was a man, raised in a Christian home and taught the Scriptures from an early age, rebelling against his upbringing and rebelling against what he’d been taught to be right.  We tend to praise this kind of thinking in our world today.  “Augustine was an out of the box thinker,” you might hear it being said.  But ultimately look at where his rebellion led him.  Unsettled in his career as a teacher, unsettled in his relationships, and longing for friendships that were also in constant flux.  The pleasures that he pursued after, sex, money, fame, were always just outside of his grasp.  And this shows us something significant about the nature of restlessness.  Sin always promises more than it produces.  To put it in banking terms, sin writes bad cheques (checks).  There is nothing in its account, but sin says that it has an over abundance of happiness, peace of mind, pleasure, and rest.  But reality paints a radically different picture as does Augustine’s early life.  Sin never delivers what it promises to deliver.

Secondly, the more we get from the world, the more we not only want, but the more we always will need.  Like bad fast food, we scarf it down, maybe get a tummy ache, but then are left feeling hungry again just a few hours later.  There is little nutritional value in what you’ve eaten, whether it be from a drive thru window or from a life of sin, it is only, ever, unsatisfying.  Take an honest look at any of your favorite Hollywood starlets.  These are people that are at the top of the food chain as far as worldly standards of “rest”.  How many of them seem genuinely happy, have happy marriages, have well adjusted kids?  All they have is a belly full of junk and a need for more.  But at the end of the day, they seem miserable and completely unsatisfied.  This is restlessness at its peak, at its most extreme.  But we all buy into it in one way or another, to some extent.  And just as Augustine found out, the promise of rest based on earthly gain, never is enough and only brings with it the opposite of rest.

Finally, we can never achieve rest, in and of ourselves.  It isn’t a man-made concept.  Try as we may, it can never be manufactured by what we do, who we are or know, and what we can obtain in this life.  John D. Rockefeller was once asked “how much money is enough?”.  His response, “just one more dollar”, speaks to this fact.  Restlessness is a symptom of life in this world, rest is not.  We must turn our gaze upward, as Augustine soon found out, that we can begin to find rest.

What then is this restlessness?  Augustine originally wrote in Latin, and the word he uses here is “inquietum”, which sometimes carries with it the idea of both ‘quiet’, and ‘the lack of motion’.  Apparently, Josef Stalin’s work ethic was legendary.  This avowed atheist worked tirelessly both during and after the war (ironic that the biggest pusher of an ideology that discourages people from work, communism, had to work so hard to make it “work”).  But at the very end of his life, Stalin went through fits of mania on his deathbed that only strong tranquilizers could appease.  Apparently, being left alone, and being forced to brave the quiet of his room was more than he could take.  It was then that he came undone.  He had to face the reality that his ways, thoughts, and systems, all lies, really couldn’t in the end save him.  Is it any wonder that today we spend an average of 5 ½ hours on smartphones as a society?  I don’t think we know how to cope anymore with silence.  And so, it must be filled; beaten away with candy crush and solitaire.

The other notion of ceasing to move is also a fascinating one, and probably closer to the meaning of what Augustine was intending.  As we briefly explored already, his early life was marked by a lot of bouncing around, physically, morally, and intellectually.  His was a life of uncertainty.  Never able to make up his mind what he truly believed from one moment to the next.  Always moving from one notion, one way of thinking, one magic answer to provide true tranquility and happiness.  But in the end, it was all for naught.

I’m biased, obviously, but when I look out at our world, I can’t help but see an awful lot of pre-conversion Augustine’s.  It’s a completely restless world we live in today.  We cannot make up our minds from one moment to the next what we believe in, what we’ll seek our happiness in, and it shows!  Therefore, we must look where Augustine points us if we are ever to find rest in this world.

In Matthew 7:24-27, Jesus concludes the Beatitudes (his teaching on what the radical new life of a Christian looks like) with a pithy lesson about two houses.  One house is built upon a solid rock foundation and the other has a foundation of sand.  Both houses get pummeled by storms and rain and flood waters, but only the house built on the rock survives.  This is the life that is built upon Jesus Christ, the one true Rock.  The storm still comes, but there is safety and security only in Jesus’ testimony about who he is and about what he calls us to live like.  Only in that house is there safety, security, and yes, true and ultimate rest.