In A.D. 410, the eternal and (so it was thought) invincible city of Rome was invaded by a foreign army. How could this have happened? Many pagans thought they knew who was to blame: the Christians. Less than a century had elapsed since the emperor Constantine had converted from paganism to Christianity. Only a single generation had elapsed since the emperor Theodosius had outlawed the worship of Rome’s traditional gods. Now these Roman gods, who for centuries had empowered Roman military triumphs and secured her world dominion—these gods had finally abandoned the empire that was in the process of abandoning them for Christ.
It’s an old sentiment. The exiles in Egypt once said to Jeremiah (44:18), “Ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine.”
In his great work, The City of God, Augustine launches a devastating counter-attack upon these criticisms of Christianity. One particular battle centers on the pagan claim that, if the Christian God really were more powerful than the Roman gods, he would at least have made sure that his own worshipers wouldn’t suffer in the sack of Rome. But suffer the Christians had.
Augustine gives several reasons why God might have allowed his people to suffer. And he also addresses the Christians who had lost loved ones or who had suffered themselves. Amidst words of deep comfort, Augustine offers one particular piece of advice that is either gratingly insensitive or profoundly healing. He says of these Christians (City of God 1.9):
“Let them reflect humbly upon those very sins by reason of which God in his anger has filled the world with such great calamities. For though they are very far from being shameful and ungodly criminals, they still do not find themselves so entirely unacquainted with fault as to judge themselves undeserving even of temporal penalties for their misdeeds.”
Now Augustine is not saying that God was punishing them for their sins. What he is saying is that, even had this been the case, it would not have been undeserved. Augustine believes that, in whatever suffering God brings upon us in this life, God still does not treat us as our sins deserve (Psalm 103:10). If Augustine is right, then his advice is perhaps the only kind that might enable a Christian to see in suffering a cause of gratitude. Why? Because it could justly have been worse, and because it was by God's mercy that it was not. “Do not our innumerable and daily offenses deserve to be chastised more severely and with heavier rods than the afflictions God lays upon us out of his kindness?” (Calvin, Institutes 3.8.11) To see in suffering a reminder of that sinfulness by which we deserved far worse, but were spared by God's gentleness--this should quicken gratitude in our hearts. And when gratitude attends suffering, surely the door is wide open to healing.
I was reading Augustine over the 9/11 weekend, and the parallels between the sack of Rome and the attacks on New York really jumped out at me: the sense of shock and disbelief, the realization that history was moving into a different era, the role that churches played in caring for victims, the suicides. But perhaps this is just the sad, familiar face of war? I wondered, though, whether 9/11 might, among many other things, be also the occasion of reflection and repentance and gratitude for God's kindness.
Please note, I’m not blaming America for the attacks. I’m passing along what seems to me seasoned counsel from Augustine and Calvin that we learn to see the attacks, like all suffering, as an occasion to pray with the psalmist (130), “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?” And may the Lord also hear from us and grant the Prayer Book’s collect for peace: “O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom; Defend us thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defence, may not fear the power of any adversaries, through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”