Take all those truths into due and thoughtful consideration and then ask whether there has befallen men of faith and piety any evil which could not work to their good, according to the pregnant saying of St. Paul: ‘We know that to them that love God all things work together unto good.’ One might say: They have lost everything they had. But, is that really true? Have they, for instance, lost their faith? or their piety? or any of those treasures of an interior life which make a man rich before God? These are the treasures of Christian men, and the Apostle Paul, who abounded in them, declared: ‘But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and certainly we can carry nothing out. But having food, and wherewith to be covered, with these we are content. For they that will become rich, fall into temptation; and into the snare of the devil, and into many unprofitable and hurtful devices which drown men into destruction and perdition. For the desire of money is the root of all evils; which some coveting have erred from the faith, and have entangled themselves in many sorrows.’
Hence, if those who lost their possessions in that devastation owned them in the spirit of the Apostle who was poor in goods but rich in spirit, that is, if they used this world as if they used it not, then they could say with the sorely tried but unconquerable Job: ‘Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away: as it hath pleased the Lord so is it done: blessed be the name of the Lord.’ Like a good servant, Job regarded his Lord’s will as his greatest wealth. Following Him, he grew rich in spirit, and was not saddened by having to abandon in life those things which he would shortly have to abandon in death. But, those feebler souls, who were attached to these goods of earth without loving them more than Christ, realized by the loss of those goods how much they had sinned through inordinate attachment. For, according to the Apostle’s words quoted above, their regret was proportionate to the trouble they made for themselves. Since they had made light of the lesson taught them by words, it was fitting that they should be taught in the harder school of experience. For, when the Apostle said: ‘For they that become rich fall into temptation,’ he rebuked not so much wealth as the hankering after it.
Further on, he bids Timothy: ‘Charge the rich of this world not to be high-minded nor trust in the uncertainty of riches but in the living God (who giveth us abundantly all things to enjoy). To do good, to be rich in good works, to give easily, to communicate to others, to lay up store for themselves in good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on the true life.’ They that used their riches in this manner were compensated for small losses by great gains. From the goods which they distributed to others and so placed in greater safety they derived more happiness than they incurred sorrow from the goods which they anxiously hoarded and so lost more easily.
Nothing could be really lost on earth save what one would be ashamed to take to heaven. There were some who took to heart their Lord’s counsel: ‘Lay not up to yourselves treasures on earth: where the rust and moth consume, and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through nor steal. For where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also.’ Those in time of trial proved how wise they were in heeding the teaching of that Master who is the very Truth and the most faithful and invincible Guardian of their treasure. For, if many rejoiced who kept their wealth where the enemy had little chance of access, how much more truly and surely could those rejoice who took God’s warning and betook themselves with their treasure whither the enemy could not possibly come at all?
That is why my friend Paulinus, Bishop of Nola, exchanged great wealth for voluntary poverty, and became very rich in holiness. When the barbarians sacked his town of Nola and he fell into their hands, in his heart he prayed thus, as he later told me: ‘O Lord, do not permit me to be troubled on account of gold and silver; Thou knowest where all my treasures are.’ For, he had stored all his goods where he had been told to lay up treasures by Him who had foretold that these miseries would come upon the world. Thus, those who obeyed the Lord, who told them where and how they should lay up their treasure, did not lose even their earthly riches to the invading barbarians. But, those who lived to regret having disobeyed the advice as to the disposal of their goods learned the lesson—if not by wise foresight, at least by subsequent experience.
Some good Christians were tortured to reveal to their enemies where their goods were hid. But, the good by which they themselves were good they could neither reveal nor lose. Yet, if they chose to be tortured rather than reveal the Mammon of iniquity, they were not good. At the same time, those who suffered for gold as much as one should suffer for Christ needed to be admonished. They needed to learn to love Him, who made martyrs rich with eternal bliss, rather than to love gold and silver; to suffer for those was pitiable, indeed, whether they concealed their possessions by lies or revealed them by telling the truth. For, when facing torture, no one lost Christ by confessing Him, and no one saved his gold except by denying Him. On the whole, sufferings which taught men to love an imperishable good were better than possessions which tortured their owners to no purpose.
There were others who had nothing to reveal, but were not believed and were put to the torture. Perhaps they had yearned for wealth and were not by choice poor in spirit. These had to be taught that it was not riches but covetousness that deserved the torments to which they were subjected. Of those who, to live a more perfect life, had laid up no gold or silver, one or other may have been put to the torture in the belief that they had hidden wealth. If this did happen, anyone who thus confessed holy poverty surely confessed Christ Himself. Though his word was not taken, such a martyr of holy poverty surely was not tortured without recompense in Heaven.
Prolonged famine, they say, caused many Christians to waste away. Here again, by holy patience good Christians turned suffering to excellent account. For, those who perished of hunger were delivered from the ills of this life, as they might have been by sickness; those who did not perish were taught the two-fold lesson of living more frugally and fasting more frequently.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII