Damned Delightful Descriptions: Describing Evil Like Augustine
Workplace Confessions #6
This article is part of a larger series of reflections on faith, work, and Augustine’s Confessions.
But my wound… was not healed. After inflammation and sharp pain, it festered. The pain made me, as it were, frigid but desperate.
Augustine, The Confessions, 6.25
I kept my heart from giving any assent, and in that state of suspended judgment I suffered a worse death.
Augustine, The Confessions, 6.6
No one describes evil like Augustine—no one. No one today can capture the deep pain, the stupid irrationality, and the frustrating helplessness of the sin-sick soul quite like The Confessions of St. Augustine.
We, today, are not accustomed to dwelling on, let alone poetically describing, our own wicked ways in such painful detail. We like to quickly move on from our so-called “mistakes.” We shift, we cover up, and we pirouette around our problems with an alarming degree of speed and agility. We are the champions of “getting over it.”
Taking the time to identify and poetically describe one’s own evil and brokenness is an exceedingly rare practice. In fact, if Augustine were alive today, we might sincerely consider committing the man to an intense round of psychological help. Fearful that our poor friend Augustine was stuck in a dysfunctional whirlpool of self-immolation, our culture would likely try to cheer him up with a spa-package, some retail therapy, or perhaps a weekend in Vegas.
So, the question stands before us, what could we possibly learn from Augustine’s odd practice of describing his own wicked ways in such vivid and vicious detail?
Could such a counter-cultural practice be something we too desperately need?
In book six of his Confessions Augustine describes evil as his own darkness, sickness, weakness, blindness, enslavement, noose, torture, slipperiness, addiction, death, hanging, a frigid feeling, and an inflamed and festering wound. With this truckload of adjectives and descriptive imagery, a modern reader would be forgiven for surmising that Augustine had written these words as a describing exercise for a cruel creative writing teacher.
Consider the rich imagery of the following passages:
Fettered by the flesh’s morbid impulse and lethal sweetness, I dragged my chain, but was afraid to be free of it.
Augustine, The Confessions, 6.21
I was walking through darkness and ‘a slippery place’… I had come into the depth of the sea. I had no confidence, and had lost hope that truth could be found.
Augustine, The Confessions, 6.1
What benefit could possibly come from this practice? Why would one engage in this intense and, no doubt, painful process of recounting the “torturous paths” of one’s own heart?
I can think of at least five reasons why modern Christian professionals should strongly consider Augustine’s odd counter-cultural habit.
Augustine is telling the truth and so should we. Ignoring the reality of evil in our lives, quite simply, does not do us any good. It is certainly easier to cover up our experiences of evil by working harder, making ourselves busier, or filling our leisure time with the distractions of sports, entertainment, and retail therapy. It is easier, that is, in the short run. Sooner or later, as they say, our sins return to haunt us.
Self-deception is a danger for every sin-sick heart. We convince ourselves that our sinfulness in the workplace is someone else’s fault. We blame a coworker, a boss, or simply “the system.” The root of the problem is never us—always someone else.
The practice of reflecting on and describing our own sin helps us fight our own proclivity towards self-deception. Through this, admittedly painful, practice we can identify destructive patterns and bad habits that have long been painted over.
Augustine’s practice of poetic confession can engender within us an abiding humility and powerful empathy for coworkers and clients who, just like us, are fighting difficult battles with the disease that afflicts us all.
With a deep recognition of how evil breaks, distorts, and twists our own work, Christian professionals can enter their workplaces with a realistic set of expectations for the sorts of transformation they can catalyze.
Those who do not take sin seriously are prone to romantically imagine that they can redeem and perfect their coworkers and their company if they only work hard enough. Such failures to take personal and systemic sin seriously inevitably end up in defeat, bitterness, or self-righteousness.
A good and painful process of confession can bring us to the only true haven of rest and restoration—the place we have longed for all along.
What tortuous paths! How fearful a fate for ‘the rash soul’… Turned this way and that, on its back, on its side, on its stomach, all positions are uncomfortable. You alone are repose. Augustine, The Confessions, 6.26