The City of God: Book 1: Chapter Nine

Chapter 9

What, then, did the Christians suffer in the great devastation of Rome which, if taken in a spirit of faith, would not have served for their greater good? For one thing, if they humbly called to mind the sins for which God in His anger filled the world with calamities, they will not judge themselves to be so little responsible for these sins as not to have deserved some measure of temporal affliction—even though they were far from being criminals and godless men. The fact is that everyone, however exemplary, yields to some promptings of concupiscence: if not to monstrous crimes, abysmal villainy, and abominable impiety, at least to some sins, however rarely or—if frequently—however venially. Apart from this fact, I say, is it easy to find anyone who treats as he should those whose horrible pride, lust, avarice, damnable depravity, and scoffing impiety caused God to lay desolate the earth, as was threatened in prophecy? For the most part, we hesitate to instruct, to admonish, and, as occasion demands, to correct, and even to reprehend them. This we do either because the effort wearies us, or we fear offending them, or we avoid antagonizing them lest they thwart or harm us in those temporal matters where our cupidity ever seeks to acquire or our faint hearts fear to lose.

Thus, good men shun the wicked and hence will not share in their damnation beyond the grave. Nevertheless, because they wink at their worse sins and fear to frown even on their minor transgressions, the good must in justice suffer temporal afflictions in common with the rest—even though they will escape the eternal. Thus, when God’s hand falls as heavily on them as on the others, it is just that they should taste the bitter things of this earthly life, because they loved the sweet things and refused to feel compunction while others sinned. At times, one hesitates to reprove or admonish evil-doers, either because one seeks a more favorable moment or fears that his rebuke may make them worse, and further, discourage weak brethren from striving to lead a good and holy life, or turn them aside from the faith. In such circumstance, forbearance is not prompted by selfish considerations, but by well-advised charity. What is reprehensible, however, is that, while leading good lives themselves and abhorring those of wicked men, some, fearing to offend, shut their eyes to evil deeds instead of condemning them and pointing out their malice. To be sure, the motive behind their tolerance is that they may suffer no hurt in the possession of those temporal goods which virtuous and blameless men may lawfully enjoy; still, there is more self-seeking here than becomes men who are mere sojourners in this world and who profess the hope of a home in heaven.

In truth, it is not only people of less lofty virtue, who live in the married state, having (or seeking to have) children, and possessing a home and household of their own—people such as St. Paul, in the first churches, instructed and admonished how to live:1 wives with husbands and husbands with wives; children with parents and parents with children; servants with masters and masters with servants—it is not only such people who acquire transitory and earthly goods with zest and lose them with chagrin, and, because of that, dare not offend men whose immoral and vicious life revolts them. Even those who profess a more perfect life and are free from conjugal bonds and content with poorer food and dress are also over-solicitous for their good name and security and frequently forbear to reprehend the wicked, because they fear their snares and violence. Though the good do not fear the wicked to the point of stooping, under intimidation, to their villainies and knavery, they often are unwilling to denounce such things, even when they might convert some souls thereby. Here again they fear that a possible failure to effect reform might jeopardize their security and reputation. It is not that they are convinced that these latter are an indispensable means for the instruction of men. They are merely victims of that human infirmity which loves the flattering tongue and earthly life, and which dreads the censure of the crowd and the anguish and death of the body. In other words, they shirk this duty of fraternal correction because of a certain slavishness to avarice, not because of the obligations of charity.

Hence, this seems to me sufficient enough reason why the good are scourged with the wicked as often as it pleases God to punish degenerate morals with temporal sufferings. Both are scourged, not because both lead a bad life, but because both love an earthly life; not, indeed, to the same extent, but yet both together—a life which the good should think little of in order that the bad, by being admonished and reformed, may attain to eternal life. If the wicked refuse to join in the blessed endeavor, they should be suffered withal and loved as enemies are loved in Christian charity, since, as long as they live, there is always the possibility that they may come to a better mind. In this respect, the good men to whom the Prophet addresses these words, ‘He is indeed taken away in his iniquity, but I will require his blood at the hand of the watchman,’2 have not merely an equal but a far graver reason for concern or reflection. For this reason, overseers3 or rulers are set over the churches, to reprimand sin, not to spare it. Nor is a man fully free from blame who is not in authority, but who notices in those persons he meets in social life many faults he should censure and admonish. He is blameworthy if he fails to do this out of fear of hurting feelings or of losing such things as he may licitly enjoy in this life, but to which he is unduly attached. Finally, there is another reason, well known to Job, why even good men must drink the bitter cup of temporal adversity: in order that the human spirit may test its mettle and come to know whether it loves God with the virtue of religion and for His own sake.

Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII

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