The World, the Flesh, the Devil and St. Augustine

Posted by James Hahn on

The World, the Flesh, and the Devil.
A meditation on the Confessions of Saint Augustine and how it applies today.


The most famous quote from Saint Augustine would have to be, “…our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”  But what is it that causes this restlessness?  Why is man constantly restless and seeking that rest which is found in God alone?  This restlessness is caused by the tension that comes from the irresistible magnetic draw towards our Creator and the base desires of the flesh.  Since the first sin of Adam, the struggle has been present in man.  Since man is a spiritual being he is attracted to the source of his existence.  He delights in the things that are above.  However, since a man is also a physical being he is attracted to the physical world from which he came.  He delights in the things that are of this world.  Augustine recognized this struggle and says to God, “I abandoned you to pursue the lowest things of your creation.  I was dust going to dust.”  

In reading Augustine we can see that this struggle, this tension, does not end until death.  We can also see that the desires that pull man from God are forever the same though they may manifest themselves in different ways and in different periods.  The three basic problems that man faces are the world, the flesh, and the devil, although the devil is always present in some form with the other two.  In temptations to the world man is tempted to place his hope for rest in the things of this world.  These things include everything from physical possessions to the high honors given by his fellow man.  In temptations to the flesh man is tempted to give in to every desire that will satisfy his bodily urges.  These desires include everything from sexual pleasures of every kind to excess food, drink, and drugs.  In temptations from the devil man is either tempted to doubt the goodness of God or to put God to the test.  Everyone throughout history has been forced to deal with these three temptations including Jesus.  



When Christ goes off into the wilderness he is tempted by Satan to give into the desires of His flesh by turning the stones to bread.  He is tempted to win the world the easy way and become king by bowing down to another.  Finally, Satan tempts Him to test God by throwing himself from the pinnacle.

These temptations are always designed to draw us away from God and give us a false sense of “rest”.  These three temptations are the same temptations that Augustine faced in the course of his life before his baptism and I am sure after it as well. From the beginning of the Confessions to his “agony in the garden”  we see his struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil.

Temptations to embrace the world come in many forms.  In the days of Augustine, one worldly temptation was to indulge in mindless entertainment in the form of horse racing, gladiator battles and beast fights.  In fact the Roman idea was that if you gave the people panem et circensus “bread and circuses”  they would be content and not give the government any trouble. The problem with such entertainment was three-fold.  First, these shows kept the mind occupied never allowing it to think of higher things or more beneficial things.  Second, many of the events were brutal and beneath the dignity of the human person.  Third, it was a catalyst to an unhealthy desire for worldly admiration and laurels.  Augustine writes, “Public shows are the games of adults.  Those who give them are persons held in such high dignity that almost everyone wished this honor to come to their children  But they happily allow them to be flogged if such shows hinder the study which will bring them, they hope to the position, of giving such shows.”  

Man’s taste for such events has not changed much in the time since Augustine.  Today’s sporting events are close relatives to those events in the fourth century although they are less brutal for the most part.  However, the circuses of long ago and the mindless distraction they provide have been moved from the coliseum to the living room by way of television.  Now man can be distracted from God and enjoy his panem et circensus in the comfort of the home.  The countless hours of life wasted by staring at tiny pixels of light emerging from a box is heartbreaking at the least but more importantly it is deadly to the life of the soul and in turn the life of society.  In addition, similar to the longing of the parents in Augustine’s day, many parents today work hard to train and groom their children to be professional athletes or entertainers usually at the cost of one’s soul.  “Woe to you, torrent of human custom!  ‘Who can stand against you?’ When will you run dry?  How long will your flowing current carry the sons of Eve into the great and fearful ocean which can be crossed, with difficulty, only by those who have embarked on the Wood of the cross?

Another temptation to embrace the world that Augustine succumbs to is the seeking of knowledge not so that he might draw closer to the Truth but because, “I wanted to distinguish myself as an orator for a damnable and conceited purpose, namely delight in human vanity.”  “I pursued a sacrilegious quest for knowledge, which led me, a deserter from you, down to faithless depths and the fraudulent service of devils.”   His desire for worldly honor is as old as the story of man.  In essence he wishes to be looked upon as a god.  It is the same lie that the serpent spoke in the garden.   However, God was able to use this quest in His own miraculous way to lead Augustine toward Himself.  “Suddenly every vain hope became empty to me, and I longed for the immortality of wisdom with an incredible ardor in my heart.  I began to rise up to return to you.”   

Augustine also falls into the political correctness of the day where a man is praised not for what he says but for saying it eloquently.  “See the exact care with which the sons of men observe the
conventions of letters and syllables received from those who so talked before them.  Yet they neglect the eternal contracts of lasting salvation received from you.”   “But if they described their lusts in a rich vocabulary of well constructed prose with a copious and ornate style, they received praise and congratulated themselves.

Today learning is not desired for its own pleasure and reward.  It is not pursued in the pursuit of Truth.  Great thinkers are no longer needed because we assume that science has answered or will answer every question posed by man.  Rather, most learning and education is geared toward making man productive.  A basic education is given not in an attempt to teach man to walk on his own in the world and think for himself and discover Whose he is but to produce and consume worldly goods.  Of those men and women who do learn the art of oration it is more often used for promoting an agenda than discussing noble ideas.  These people too are praised not for words of truth spoken in love but for lovely words spoken.  

During the time in which Augustine was reflecting on his life I am sure he saw himself standing at a high point overlooking the world at his feet.  The struggle against the temptations to a worldly life is a difficult one and one that in the end will never give us “rest”.  And we, like he, must answer these questions, “What doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul?  Or what exchange shall a man give for his own soul?”


The predominate temptation that Augustine faces in his life is the temptation to the flesh.  He is driven by an insatiable lust that begins when he is young and it is inadvertently bolstered by his mother in allowing him, in pursuit of his career, to read explicit works of literature.   During adolescence this lust builds within and the struggle becomes more intense and in his struggle he cries out, “grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”   This prayer in itself shows the natural struggle of a young man against the desires of the flesh.  Today the struggle is the same.  Men are assaulted with enticements to sins of the flesh around every corner.  What in Augustine’s day was limited to obscene literature and public shows is now found in the checkout lane at the grocery store and on the Internet with ease.  

This temptation to sins of sexual urgings caused Augustine a great deal of anguish yet God was able to use it for His purposes.  If Augustine would not have been so wrapped up in lust he may have fallen deeper into the Manichean religion becoming one of the Elect, who were celibate, instead of simply being a Hearer.  In this case God used Augustine’s selfishness to continue to draw that “Restless Flame”  to Himself.

Augustine also tells us that even if he had married he is quite certain that he would not have respected God’s plan for marriage.  Like Augustine, today man is tempted to misuse his sexual faculty for his own pleasure.  In fact, this lust for lust brings about thousands of deaths per year either directly through aborting “unwanted” children or chemically aborting through the use of “birth control” chemicals.  Again, we see that the temptations to the sins of the flesh do not change for man but merely manifest themselves in different ways.  In the end man must realize that true “rest” cannot come from the flesh but only from the Word made flesh.  “[T]here is a certain relationship between love and the Divine: love promises infinity, eternity – a reality far greater and totally other than our everyday experience.  An intoxicated and undisciplined eros, then, is not and ascent in “ecstasy” towards the Divine, but a fall a degradation of man.


Finally, in the garden at Milan we find Augustine facing the final temptation, the devil.  He has renounced the world for the sake of the Gospel.  He says, “Of your eternal life I was certain, though I saw it ‘in an enigma and as if in a mirror’.  My desire was not to be more certain of you but to be more stable in you.”   He has also overcome, with the help of grace, his sexual appetite and has made the “leap of faith” into the arms of Lady Continence.   In all the previous temptations the devil is behind the scenes taking what is good and twisting it.  Here, however, he works within Augustine’s own struggle.  It is a struggle that Satan knows all too well and he is not about to go down without a fight.  His first attack on Augustine is a subtle suggestion that he cannot do what he is trying to do and even if he does he will be miserable.  The temptation was whispered into his ear.  “They tugged at the garment of my flesh and whispered: ‘Are you trying to get rid of us?’ And ‘ from this moment we shall never be with you again, not for ever and ever’.  And ‘from this moment this and that are forbidden to you for ever and ever.’  What they were suggesting in what I have called ‘this and that’ – what they were suggesting, my God, may your mercy avert from the soul of your servant!  What filth, what disgraceful things they were suggesting.”  These whisperings have the ring of guilt sounding from their depths reminiscent of the one who said, “Surely it is not I, Rabbi?”   Augustine is able to shake off these whisperings.  He recognizes that they no longer have the force they once had yet as he says, “force of habit was saying to me: ‘Do you really think you can live without them?’”

After shaking off these “voices” of temptation the devil tries one last trick to distract the saint from the
course he is taking.  Augustine hears the voice of a child telling him to “pick up and read, pick up and read.”   This could be seen as a voice from above directing him to his answer but I would argue that it is the last vain attempt from the tempter to lead Augustine back to the world, the flesh and himself.  The devil disguises his temptation with the voice of a child.  Augustine has already “shook off” the “tugging voices” of the temptation to habit and he has recognized and embraced the beautiful voice of Lady Continence.  The devil uses the voice of a child because we think of children as trustworthy and innocent.  However, we must remember that the devil is a liar and often disguises himself as an angel of light.  At the very least the devil wants to distract Augustine, and us, from choosing what will lead to God.  Often this is done by playing on our force of habit, pride, or by simply using the art of distraction.  In C. S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters we are given a clear picture of how this is done.  The senior devil says to his nephew, who is a devil in training, “I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the British Museum.  One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way.  The Enemy [God], of course, was at his elbow in a moment.  Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years’ work beginning to totter.  If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defense by argument I should have been undone.  But I was not such a fool.  I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control and suggested that is was just about time he had some lunch.

The distraction appears to have worked because Augustine begins to think back through his life trying to remember if he has ever heard a game with those words being chanted, “pick up and read, pick up and read.”  The beginning of this thought process could have been enough to lead him away from his “agony in the garden.”  He could have easily thought of another game he played when he was young which could have turned his thoughts to how much he enjoyed the games and on to how much he enjoys all of his “habits.”  This distraction could have worked this way but Augustine stays focused and believes he is to read something.  This too is another chance for Satan to lead Augustine away from God.  Since Augustine and his friends were learned men they surely had many different books lying around to “pick up and read” and he could have easily been lead to do so if it weren’t for grace constantly working against this work of the devil.  In the end Augustine picks up the Letter to the Romans and in this letter Augustine finds his answer.  The interesting thing is that if his eyes would have rested upon any other quote from that sacred book the result would have surely been the same for the entire book from the beginning to the end calls us to set aside the workings of the flesh.


Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”  Our hearts are restless for God and this restlessness can work for us and against us depending on our disposition to grace.  Augustine wanted to win the world and to win the honors of man.  God allowed him to do so though not in the way Augustine had originally planned.  Augustine wanted to give himself the world but God wanted to give the world Augustine.  His restlessness in his desires of the flesh and his desire for freedom from that restlessness has brought many throughout history into their own rest and freedom from those desires.  And in conquering the words of the evil one with the Word of God Augustine has encouraged many to “pick up and read.”

This great man faced the same temptations that we face today and in reading his life and work we are given hope that we too may overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil.  With grace hopefully we may one day echo the observation of Augustine in ourselves that “The enemy suffers a severer defeat when he is overcome in a man upon whom he has a greater hold and by whose influence he dominates many.

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