You don’t have to spend too much time with me before you’ll find out that one of my heroes in the faith is Aurelius Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo. He is a brilliant thinker, a captivating writer, and a theologian who stirs souls as well as minds.

A couple of weeks ago he would have celebrated his 1658th birthday (he lived 354-430AD). In other words, he lived a long time ago. A lot has changed in the world, but his writings continue to remain both relevant and helpful. Recently I’ve been reading his City of God.

Here are some of his thoughts on the good & evil that befalls both righteous and unrighteous people.

The Most Important Question When You Suffer

First, he writes regarding the issue  of receiving good or evil things in general. He says that we don’t need to concern ourselves so much with asking ‘Why?’ when it comes to our suffering or blessings. Rather,

The most important question is this: What use is made of the things thought to be blessings, and of the things reputed evil? The good man is not exalted by this world’s goods: nor is he overwhelmed by this world’s ills. The bad man is punished by misfortune of this kind just because he is corrupted by good fortune. 1

Are You A Cesspit or A Perfume?

After speculating a few reasons why God, in his providence, may allow some evil in the lives of the righteous and some blessing in the lives of the wicked, he turns his attention back to comparing the good and evils that each experience. Or, rather, the nature of the sufferers who experience the suffering:

When the good and wicked suffer alike, the identity of their sufferings does not mean that there is no difference between them. Though the sufferings are the same, the sufferers remain different. Virtue and vice are not the same , even if they undergo the same torment. The fire which makes gold shine makes chaff smoke; the same flail breaks up the straw, and clears the grain; and oil is not mistaken for lees because both are forced out by the same press. In the same way, the violence which assails good men to test them, effects in the wicked their condemnation, ruin, and annihilation. Thus the wicked, under pressure of affliction, execrate God and blaspheme; the good, in the same affliction, offer up prayers and praises. This shows that what matters is the nature of the sufferer, not the nature of the sufferings. Stir a cesspit, and a foul stench arises; stir a perfume, and a delightful fragrance ascends. But the movement is identical. 2

May God make me perfume, rather than a cesspit, so that all his ‘movements’ in my life would produce a fragrance pleasing to him!

Notes:

  1. Saint Augustine, City of God, trans. by Henry Bettenson, in the ‘Penguin Classics’ series, 13-14.
  2. Ibid., 14. Emphasis my own.