Augustine wrote his Confessions about a decade after his conversion to Christianity, just as he was approaching middle age. After exploring his infancy and teenage years, Augustine spends most of its pages unpacking his young adult years, from his late teens through his early thirties. Some call Confessions a spiritual autobiography, but anyone who has read it knows that it defies any category. It reads like a memoir, a thriller, an exploratory essay, a philosophical treatise, a hymnal, a sermon, a love story, a devotional—all framed as a conversation with God. He meanders in and out of philosophical asides, quotes the Bible like it’s going out of style, and often explodes into worship and praise.
In the opening section, Augustine writes a line that haunts the whole of his Confessions and the whole of this book, praying, “In yourself you rouse us, giving us delight in glorifying you, because you made us with yourself as our goal, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (1.1). Although he introduces the book with this line, it’s really more of a hard-won conclusion he discovered only after spending his twenties searching for rest in all the wrong places. On nearly every page, you can sense his spiritual anxiety as he tries one possibility after another, hoping to find what he’s looking for. Only at the end of young adulthood did Augustine realize that what he was looking for was right in front of him all along.
In You Are What You Love, philosopher James K.A. Smith engages with Augustine’s opening idea. At our core, in what Augustine calls our hearts, each of us wants something we are often unable to name. It’s an open-ended desire, a gravitational pull, a homing beacon, a motor that never turns off. “The longing that Augustine describes is less like curiosity and more like hunger,” _Smith writes, “less like an intellectual puzzle to be solved and more like a craving for sustenance.” _We’re all searching for something to meet that desire, to satisfy our longing, to appease our craving, to give us rest. It’s the search under the search for answers, habits, belonging, love, and work.
Within each of our hearts is an instinct similar to what allows a homing pigeon to find its way home. In a short documentary called The Homing Instinct, cameras follow the lives of two elderly pigeon-racers named Jackie and Maurice. They have been racing pigeons since the end of World War II, and every year they prepare for the big one: a lengthy race from Bourges, France, across the English Channel to their home in northeast England. Two days after thousands of pigeons are released from semi-trucks in Bourges, Jackie and Maurice stand looking to the sky waiting for their pigeons to come home. Jackie wins third place, which thrills him, but the documentary ends with Maurice still waiting for his pigeons to return home.
No one seems to agree on exactly how homing pigeons can find their way home. The sun, low-frequency sound waves, an intense sense of smell, and landmarks have all been suggested and debated by scientists. Jackie, who also has an opinion, thinks it’s nothing more than a “highly developed instinct.” This instinct is developed by using food and love to give the pigeons a strong sense of home, a process shown in the documentary, slowly letting them navigate back home from increasing distances.
Smith compares the search for rest to the buoyancy of a beach ball. If a beach ball is held under water, it cannot be at rest because the ball is trying to get to the surface of the water. When you let go, it rises to the surface where it belongs. Augustine compares the search for rest to fire, rocks, oil, and water in one paragraph, saying,
A material object works its way toward its own place by means of its own weight. A weight doesn’t simply direct its course to the lowest level, but to its own proper place. Fire moves up, stone down. These things are in motion through their own weights, and they seek their own places. Oil poured underneath water rises to the top, and water poured on top of oil sinks underneath. They are set in motion by their own various weights, to seek their own places. Things that are not set in the order they should be are restless; once set there, they rest. (13.10)
To be at rest, according to Augustine, is to be where we were made to be. It’s to find what we’ve been searching for everywhere. It’s to be rightly ordered. It’s to come home.
Rest is Augustine’s shorthand for a sense of joy, peace, happiness, or fulfillment that cannot be lost. It’s spiritually catching your breath. It’s what Jesus meant when he said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28–30). It’s what the ancient poet meant when he said, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God” (Ps. 42:1). It’s what God proclaims through the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jer. 6:16). In Augustine’s dictionary, rest is not just a good nap on an old couch; it’s discovering and reordering our lives around the One who made us for himself.
The problem arises when we try to find rest in other things, in things less than God, in things that are always on the run. Most of Augustine’s Confessions is the story of what happens when you search for rest in all the wrong places. Like young adults today, he searches for rest in many of the same places we seek rest: answers, habits, belonging, love, and work. Over and over throughout the book, after coming up short again, he says things like this:
My sin was that I sought not in God himself, but in things he had created—in myself and the rest of his creation—delights, heights, and perceptions of what was true and right, and in this way I collapsed into sufferings, embarrassments, and erring ways. (1.31)
There’s no rest where you’re looking for it. Look for what you’re looking for—but it’s not there where you’re looking. You’re seeking a happy life in the land of death. It’s not there. How can there be a happy life where there isn’t even life? (4.18)
Oh, the twisted roads I walked! Woe to my outrageous soul, that hoped for something better if it withdrew from you! The soul rolls back and forth, onto its back, onto one side and then another, onto its stomach, but every surface is hard, and you’re the only rest. (6.26)
By looking for rest in all the wrong places, he ended up with everything except rest: pain, hurt, confusion, frustration, anxiety, fear. Whatever momentary rest he achieved in love, work, or anything else turned out to be nothing more than illusion.
Many of us are living in the tension that encompasses most of Augustine’s Confessions. Some of us are tired and frustrated, worn out from spending our twenties searching for rest. We know Bono’s lyric, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” from experience. Others of us are still optimistic, thinking that the rest we’re searching for is just around the next corner—one swipe, one click away. And still others of us have given up the search completely, opting to just live in the restlessness. Is there another option?
C.S. Lewis, in a sermon from 1941, considers the same feeling Augustine inhabited throughout the years he writes of in his Confessions. To those who feel like there’s nothing in this world that can give them rest, Lewis writes, “Apparently, then, our life-long nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.” You’re not crazy for feeling restless, he says. You’re not crazy for thinking that every moment of love, joy, fulfillment, beauty and meaning is just a shadow of something else. It’s possible, he says, that our restless hearts are a clue that we were made for something—or someone!—beyond this world, yet as close as our breath.
You were made for God, Augustine says. You were made to know him as he’s been revealed in Jesus Christ. Only as you begin to structure your whole life around who he is, what he’s done, and what he’s said will you begin to experience the rest many of us spend our whole lives searching for. That’s what this book is all about. Many of us spend our twenties looking for rest, but Jesus is inviting you to spend your twenties living from rest. That’s the good news, the gospel. Instead of searching for rest in answers, habits, belonging, love, and work, you can enjoy those things for what they are, having already found what you’re looking for.
A Restless Age is organized around the five basic young adult searches: answers, habits, belonging, love, and work. In each chapter, we will unpack what that search looked liked in Augustine’s life, what that search looks like in our cultural moment, and how the “gospel of the restless heart” meets us right where we are.
Austin Gohn is a pastor at Bellevue Christian Church, where he has worked primarily with young adults over the past seven years. He is the co-founder of a one-day conference for young adults called Merge. He is the author of A Restless Age: How Saint Augustine Helps You Make Sense of Your Twenties. He and his wife Julie, along with their son Levi, reside in Pittsburgh, PA. Find out more at www.austingohn.com.