Quotable Church History: “Our heart is restless…”
This is the third in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.
Africa’s greatest theologian of all time must surely be Augustine of Hippo (354-430). His influence has spanned the centuries. Reformation theology, too, owed a huge debt to Augustine. For example, no other author is referred to more often by John Calvin in his Institutes than Augustine — in the McNeill/Battles edition there are over six pages of indexed references. Augustine is remembered for several memorable expressions. One of them is the Latin “tolle legge” (take up, read) — life-changing words he overheard chanted by some children in a Milan garden. But the most well-known quote from Augustine is undoubtedly this: “For you made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” For the Latinists: “Quia fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te.”
The quote comes from Augustine’s Confessions. In fact, it occurs almost at the very beginning of the book — depending on the translation, it comes at the third or fourth sentence. The Confessions is a remarkable book. When God caused me to become serious about being a Christian, this was one of the first books I read. Despite its antiquity, this is one of the most readable works by any early church father. Augustine wrote it in the middle of his life as a reflection on his spiritual journey up to that point. It is a sort of spiritual autobiography, filled with insights not only into Augustine’s conversion, but also his subsequent struggles with sin. As Peter Brown describes it, this book is “not the affirmation of a cured man: it is the self-portrait of a convalescent” (Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, 171). The book deftly speaks of God’s redemptive grace to a sinner and how that sinner’s affections and will were slowly being transformed. Struggling sinners in any era can and should read this volume and take heart from Augustine’s experiences and encouragements.
Looking at the quote in more detail, Augustine draws attention to the purpose of our creation. Human beings were created not as ends unto themselves, but for the purpose of glorifying God by living in fellowship with him. This was the Creator’s design. When the design is forsaken, there are consequences. Among those consequences is a restlessness within. We are out of sorts when we reject the purposes for which God created us. Later in his Confessions (6.16.26), Augustine aptly compares this restlessness to insomnia: “O crooked ways! Woe to the audacious soul which hoped that by forsaking you it would find some better thing! It tossed and turned, upon back and side and belly — but the bed is hard, and you alone give it rest.”
The most important question of all is: are these biblical sentiments? Most certainly! The Bible teaches that we were created by God and for God (Rom. 11:36). We were designed to exist for his glory — “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory…” (Ps. 115:1). When we reject God’s plan for us, there are consequences and they extend to our inner life. This finds powerful expression in Isaiah 57:20-21, “‘But the wicked are like the tossing sea; for it cannot be quiet, and its waters toss up mire and dirt. There is no peace,’ says my God, ‘for the wicked.'” Those alienated from God through their rebellion can’t expect to have rest or peace within. Instead, there is a tumultuous restlessness akin to a raging ocean. But when the gospel is heard and believed, we do find rest in God. The gospel is about rest. Jesus promised that we will find rest for our souls in coming to him (Matt. 11:28-30). Ultimately, the good news promises that we will experience the full scope of spiritual rest in the hereafter — then there will no more struggles with sin or coping with the consequences of sin, whether ours, others’, or of sin in general: “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Heb. 4:9).
My hope is that this brief reflection on Augustine’s famous words will stir up your curiosity to see what other spiritual treasures might be found in his Confessions. To use his other well-known quote, tolle lege (take up, read!). You won’t be disappointed.
Previous posts in this series: