Making good things more precious still

I’ve heard that Saint Augustine told a story of a new bride on the morning after her wedding. With the groom lying beside her, she awakes in love, enthralled. But not with the groom. Instead, the morning after her wedding, she falls helplessly in love not with the man but with his most expensive gift. She is enthralled with the wedding ring. Eyes only for the ring, she begins a life in love with the beautiful stone. The spouse who lies beside her has already lost her interest. She leaves him to live for the ring he gave her.

Augustine told the story to illustrate the human tendency to love the gifts more than the Giver of those gifts – a condition of the heart as foolish and as tragic as the condition of the bride in his brief story. Surrounded by a world full of wonderful gifts, given one and all from the Father of heavenly lights, man becomes enthralled with the gifts themselves and ignores or rejects the Father who gave them.

This is the danger of valuing good things too highly; we must not just rejoice in the ring, but in our Beloved who gave it. This is idolatry, a deep and deadly sin and one of the primal sins of all of humanity according to the apostle Paul (among others). It is remedied in part by gratitude. But gratitude alone is not enough. To give thanks rightly requires gratitude not only for the good things we have, but also gratitude directed to the Giver of the things themselves.

Yet understanding good things as gifts from a Giver changes the way we see the gifts in another way as well. It makes them even more precious than they are on their own. For in light of the reality of a Giver, good things are not only good in themselves, but take on an even greater value because of the reason why they are given.

Consider a diamond: a precious stone, costly and beautiful, with it’s own spectacular, unique properties. A diamond ring is good. But a diamond wedding ring is more precious still, for a diamond wedding ring has a value that lies beyond the costliness of the stone, in the reason and the relationship out of which it was given. The wedding ring is priceless to the bride because it is a token of love, given by a lover, to signify his commitment and passion and love.

When we consider any gifts we have been given – from family and friends, to sunshine, and coffee and emerald green grass alongside the vast and brilliant sea – we see things that are good and precious in and of themselves. How priceless is laughter with friends! How rich and warm the taste of coffee, the sight of a sunrise! How good is life, all around us! Good, precious gifts, good and precious in and of themselves.

And yet, more valuable still. Because each comes to us as a token of love. Because behind each stands a great Giver, committed, passionate, extravagant, and good.

There is a danger, like the bride in Augustine’s story, of valuing the good things of this world too highly. We must not. Their ultimate value lies in the One who gave them.

But we also must not value good things too little. Their goodness is real, and they have come to us as a token of love. The reality of a Giver, makes good things more precious still.

seeing at their feet the Deity made weak

Augustine, Confessions:

“For Thy Word, the eternal Truth,

far exalted above even the higher parts of Thy creation,

lifts his subjects up toward himself.

But in this lower world,

he built for himself a humble habitation of our own clay,

so that he might pull down from themselves

and win over to himself those

whom he is to bring subject to him;

lowering their pride

and heightening their love,

to the end that they might go on

no farther in self-confidence – 

but rather should become weak,

seeing at their feet the Deity made weak

by sharing our coats of skin – 

so that they might cast themselves,

exhausted,

upon him

and be uplifted by his rising.”

when God says “no”

In reading recently, struck with two prayers to which God said “no”.

I Kings 19:4:

“He (Elijah) came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, LORD,’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.'”

God’s answer to Elijah’s prayer? A resounding no. Elijah lives.

But: Over the next few days, God answered the deep heart of Elijah’s prayer. God ministered to his body (with rest, food and water), ministered to his soul (by speaking to him directly), encouraged him with new perspective (actually Elijah, you aren’t alone), and then did the exact opposite of Elijah’s original request. Instead of removing him from this world and from ministry, God commissioned him with more work to be done.

God’s answer to Elijah’s prayer was no. But God penetrated to the heart of the matter – in this case Elijah’s profound discouragement and weariness – and He dealt with that for Elijah’s greater good.

Augustine, in the Confessions:

“That night I slipped away secretly, and she remained to pray and weep. And what was it, O Lord, that she was asking of Thee in such a flood of tears but that Thou wouldst not allow me to sail? But Thou, taking Thy own secret counsel and noting the real point of her desire, didst not grant what she was then asking in order to grant to her the thing that she had always been asking.”

Augustine was a dissolute and lusty young man, who wanted to move to Rome to pursue his fortunes there. His mother, Monica, was a devout Christian, who prayed for him constantly for years, and who thought that the great city of Rome (center of all kinds of wild iniquity) was the last place her son should be. She wanted to have her son near her where she might influence him, and not in Rome where he could pursue every lust and be influenced in every wrong direction.

She prayed, weeping, for God to keep her son from Rome. The immediate answer she received was no. Augustine snuck off in the night, boarded a ship headed to the city and sailed away. Monica was crushed.

But: God knew and intended to answer the deep heart of Monica’s prayer, in a way that she could not yet understand. In Rome, Augustine would encounter the preaching of Ambrose and would be moved toward his conversion to Christ.

God’s answer to Monica’s prayer in this case was no. But God penetrated to the heart of the matter, and dealt with that for Monica’s greater good. In Augustine’s fine words, “Thou, taking Thy own secret counsel and noting the real point of her desire, didst not grant what she was then asking in order to grant to her the thing that she had always been asking.”

Filling the world, He lies in a manger

 

 

Christmas

by Augustine of Hippo

 

Maker of the sun,

He is made under the sun.

In the Father he remains,

From his mother he goes forth.

Creator of heaven and earth,

he was born on earth under heaven.

Unspeakably wise,

He is wisely speechless.

Filling the world,

He lies in a manger.

Ruler of the stars,

He nurses at his mother’s bosom.

He is both great in the nature of God,

and small in the form of a servant.