While we are repeatedly reminded in the Scriptures that our hope lies not in the things of this world but in eternal life, it can be tempting for us, and even for those of us who consider ourselves to be good Christians, to place our hope in transient and mortal things. Maybe we place our hope in humanitarian projects, politics, or even our own work, especially if it is good work for people or for the Church. Nevertheless, we know that these things will never completely satisfy us. St. Augustine reminds us that we cannot find happiness except in God alone, and ultimately, we should place all our hope in him. Revisiting some of Augustine’s words on this subject will be advantageous for us, lest we forget that the reason for our hope is in Jesus Christ alone (see 1 Peter 3:15, RSV).
In one of his earliest works, De Beata Vita (On the Happy Life), St. Augustine and his companions discuss the nature of the happy life. Coming to the conclusion that material things cannot satisfy—for even those who have all the material things they could want can still be unhappy—they arrive at a definition of happiness. Augustine says that the happy life is “to recognize piously and completely the One through whom you are led into the truth, the nature of the truth you enjoy, and the bond that connects you with the supreme measure” (4.35). In other words, a man is truly happy who knows that truth is ultimately found in God, not the material things of this world. By “supreme measure,” Augustine is referring to wisdom, for wisdom is the ability to order all things rightly. When we are united with God, we will be able to order all things rightly; namely, we will be able to order all things to the divine being. Our true happiness lies in ordering all things to God so that we might enjoy him, even while we are still here on earth.
While it may be clear, from a Christian perspective, what the happy life is, knowing how to pursue the happy life is another story. How do we turn away from material goods and place all our confidence in God, especially when we are surrounded by the material world? Is not the material world a good thing? In De Doctrina Christiana (On Teaching Christian Doctrine), Augustine writes that God alone is to be enjoyed, while everything else is to be used to pursue our final end, which is in God. As he explains, “Things that are to be enjoyed make us happy; things which are to be used help us on our way to happiness” (1.3). And, as we have shown, God alone makes us happy, which means that he alone is to be enjoyed: “The things therefore that are to be enjoyed are the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, in fact the Trinity, one supreme thing, and one which is shared in common by all who enjoy it; if, that is to say, it is a thing, and not the cause of all things; if indeed it is a cause” (1.5). It may be tempting to say that Augustine is too strict when he says that God alone is to be enjoyed. Are we not to enjoy our favorite activities, our friendships, and even our spouses, for these things that have been given to us by God? In one sense, we can enjoy those things, but we must always order our enjoyment toward our final end of enjoying God in Heaven. In that way, we are really only using the things of the world: they are only given to us so that, one day, we can be with God in Heaven.
In a homily on the first epistle of John, Augustine asks this very question regarding the things of the world: can I not love the things that God made and called good? He then asks, “Whether wilt thou love the things of time, and pass away with time; or not love the world, and live to eternity with God?” (Homily 2, art. 10). Augustine offers us the image of Christ as a tree to help us see why our happiness lies in him above all else. “The river of temporal things hurries one along: but like a tree sprung up beside the river is our Lord Jesus Christ…It was his will to plant himself, in a manner beside the river of the things of time” (Ibid). What a beautiful image: while time and temporal things flow quickly past us like a river, Christ plants himself in our midst like a tree. The image of a tree is powerful, for trees have deep, sturdy roots, allowing them to remain standing even in the midst of strong winds. Augustine is certainly drawing on images from Scripture when he refers to Christ as a tree. In Psalm 1, we read that the man who delights in the law of the Lord “is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither” (Psalm 1:3). Christ, as the author of the law, is the tree that will never wither; he will never abandon us, for his love is eternal. Again, in Isaiah, we read, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1). From the line of Jesse, the Savior will come—he will be like a shoot, which is new and green, coming from something that is (seemingly) dead (see also the parable of Christ as the true vine in John 15:1-11).
Augustine continues in his homily: “Art thou rushing down the stream to the headlong deep? Hold fast the tree. Is love of the world whirling thee on? Hold fast Christ. For thee he became temporal, that thou mightest become eternal” (art. 10). When the world is weighing us down, when we have become swept up in temporal goods, Christ will provide a firm foundation for us. Christ became man that we might cling to him, so that we could enjoy eternal life with him in Heaven. Christ “emptied himself” (Philippians 2:7) when he became a man, but this was ultimately for glorification, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). Christ became man so that we might worship him in eternal, cosmological, and eschatological worship—this is why our hope ultimately lies in him. Only through Christ will experience that eternal bliss in Heaven, and only through him will we experience that glory promised to us through his Passion, Death, and Resurrection.
Furthermore, “The Lord for us shed his blood, redeemed us, changed our hope. As yet we bear the mortality of the flesh, and take the future immortality upon trust: and on the sea we are tossed by the waves, but we have the anchor of hope already fixed upon the land” (art. 10, emphasis added). Before the coming of Christ, the people of Israel knew that there would be a time of renewal for them—someone would come to heal them from their iniquities, as foretold by the prophets (see Isaiah 7:14-16; 9:6-7; 53). But they never could have dreamed that God would become man, that God would take on human flesh, who “for a little while was made lower than the angels” (Hebrews 2:9). Their entire hope was changed, for now God was truly one of them and could bring them lasting happiness through his very own life. Thus, even though we are still in the midst of the temporal sea, which tosses us about with its waves of changeability, we have our hope in Christ, who is the tree standing by the flowing water, and the anchor, waiting for us in Heaven. Everything else in this world is subject to change—Christ alone remains “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
Therefore, when the world around us seems to be spiraling out of control, and we feel helpless in stopping it, we ought to remember these words from St. Augustine and the Scriptures, that our hope is not in this changeable world, but in Jesus Christ, who is eternal. While we are living in this world, we ought to be looking forward to our eternal reward in Heaven. This is God’s ultimate plan: “In him, according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will, we who first hoped in Christ have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:11-12). Our hope is ultimately in Christ, that we might live forever in his glory. With Augustine, we ought to rejoice in the fact that our hope has been changed, that we no longer have to cling to the temporal world, but rather, cling to the tree of Jesus Christ, who is Lord over the whole universe.