Posted by: Kenn Hermann | March 22, 2006

Augustine, Pears, the Mystery of Sin, and Parenting Skills

“What in the world were you thinking? I had no sooner told you not to do that, and you went right out and did it anyway. Why? . . . What do you mean ‘you don’t know’? Young man, I want you to march straight up to your room and not come down until you have a good reason for doing what you did.” Sound familiar? How many parents have given those orders? How many children have sat in their rooms staring blankly at the walls trying to come up with answers that would satisfy Dad or Mom? People my age, no doubt, have memories of such conversations as both child and parent. Insight into why these badgering questions are so unproductive and reveal a shallow view of sin comes from a surprising source, the 5th century Church Father, St. Augustine.

In Book II of his Confessions
Augustine recounts the now famous story of how he and a group of friends stole pears from a neighbor’s orchard. After playing games late into the night, they decided that it would be great fun to steal pears from a neighbor and then fling them at the hogs. You can just see it: a roaming gaggle of teenage boys looking for trouble at night. The ringleader suggests a prank, and everyone else follows. “Aah, come on. It’ll be fun. He won’t even know they’re gone.” We’ve all been part of such groups. For Augustine, this was no innocent prank. He refuses to write it off as harmless and typical teenage foolishness. Rather, he probes it for the insights it may yield into the mystery of sin. It was the very ‘innocence’ of this prank that revealed the depth of its evil. (A persuasive case can be made for Augustine telling this story as an experiential confirmation of the ‘original sin’ of Adam and Eve.)

The question throughout the book is Why? Why would he, a bright, rational, well-cared-for teenager steal those pears? What possessed him to commit such an act? He looks at it from every angle, looking for some ‘rational’ explanation. He finds none. He knew stealing was wrong. He wasn’t even hungry; in fact, the boys only took a few bites out of them before they threw them to the hogs. Even more bizarre, the pears they stole were inferior to the pears in his own orchard; they had no intrinsic value. Why go to all of the trouble to steal something with no value? It makes no sense whatsoever. Revenge wasn’t a factor either; they weren’t trying to get even with the neighbor. Perhaps, if he had not known stealing was wrong, been hungry, or even been trying to avenge some wrong committed by the neighbor, there might be at least a glimmer of an excuse. But none of these ‘reasons’ were true.

As he plays it over and over again in his mind, Augustine concludes that he stole the pears for the shear love of committing a deed that he knew was wrong. His delight came precisely because he knew it was wrong. The taste of his sin was sweeter than the taste of the pears. How much sense does that make? Absolutely, none. Plato and Aristotle had both taught that ethical conduct was governed by rational reflection; knowing the right would lead to doing the right. Augustine knew that was wrong from his own experience and from the biblical testimony. He and his friends did the evil deed because they knew it was wrong. He looked the Creator of all Goodness straight in the eye and defied him — with glee. What perversity! What pridefulness!

To add to the mystery of his motives, Augustine says that he knew he would not have committed this thievery by himself; it was only when his friends said “Ah, come on!” that he agreed. His sense of propriety was so warped that he was ashamed not to participate. To make matters even worse, Augustine and his friends bragged about their prank to others, exaggerating the details with each retelling to impress their friends. Talk about peer pressure to commit evil! They laughed together at their wickedness. What darkness their laughter hid.

So, what’s Augustine’s answer to the why question? He has no ‘good’ excuse or reason. He doesn’t know. He’s silent. He finally implores: “Who can unravel that twisted and tangled knottiness?” The answer to this rhetorical question (echoing Romans 7) is no one: no one can plumb the depths of their own perversity. For it is out of the heart that sin flows — and who can understand his own heart? The answer, such as it is, is buried deep in the mystery of sin. All Augustine can do is confess this mystery and turn again to His True Love and bask in the promise of the Lord’s forgiveness.

The lesson for parents? The next time your child ‘confesses’ that he doesn’t know why he committed some wickedness, believe him. He really doesn’t know. None of us do. Rather than demand ‘answers’ and ‘reasons’ for his sinfulness, use the occasion — perhaps at a later time — to teach him about the mystery of human sinfulness that defies rational calculation and about our constant need to humble ourselves and confess this before a loving and forgiving Lord. The irony is that our children’s silence in the face of our pummeling for ‘rational’ explanations for their sinfulness becomes the Lord’s megaphone reminding us of deep biblical truths.



  1. As usual, I am in agreement with much of what you write. But I want to try to rescue the incident and perhaps the topic from what seems to me an unhelpful moralism. (It may also need rescuing from Augustine’s life-long abhorrence at his very sinful youth.)

    Let’s ask the more basic question: why do we as humans do what we do? I would grant that there are acts committed by humans that are “sin”–totally unregenerate acts of pure evil. But not many. In the same way there are very few purely “good” acts. We know that even when we do loving acts for family, friends, neighbours or church, elements of pride or selfishness of some kind are hanging on to what we may consider our main motive. In short, nearly all that we do is a mixture of sin and goodness.

    To come to your–and Augustine’s question–question: “do we know why we sin?” I agree that we may not know and that “no one can plumb the depths of their own perversity.” But in regards to specific actions such as Augustine’s, our motives are usually mixed. The good cohabits with the evil. The wheat and tares our Lord spoke about are not only a reference to believers and unbelievers, but to the twisted, knotted mixture of good and evil that runs through our own hearts. If there still remains any insight for us in the twentieth first century in the old Calvinist doctrine of total depravity, it lies not that we are completely depraved (if indeed that was the intent and not the later distortion), but that our hearts and lives are completely dependent on the loving and regenerating power of God to be whole and to be good. So I agree that we are unable to say whether our motivations and our actions are categorically good or evil–because they are usually both.

    To be honest, I can see the appeal of the actions of Augustine and friends, but not because I desire the evil of stealing pears or hurting pigs. In fact, I would agree that the act of stealing and throwing were sinful. I suppose it depends on whether we are focussing on the sin itself or the underlying motivations. For the most part, I prefer the latter. The former often leads us into discussions about morality that often end in legalistic line drawing, ie “when is stealing right?” or “when is killing justified?”

    I would guess that if we examined the motivations of Augustine and his friends, we would find a variety of motivations including a sense of adventure, of comradery, and some youthful attempts at defining personal boundaries–typical qualities of young males. Like tipping the outhouse and soaping windows of more recent youthfulness, these acts require a cuff by the old man, a lecture from the neighbour, and yes, some personal repentance. And, hopefully, a next step in maturity. I am not convinced by Augustine’s characterization of the act as motivated by “the shear love of committing a deed that he knew was wrong.”

    The next time your child ‘confesses’ that he doesn’t know why he committed some wickedness, believe him. He really doesn’t know. None of really knows why we commit evil, not only because we can’t explain our sinfulness and that we don’t know our own hearts, but also that our motives are always a mix of good and evil. That too, should lead us to humble ourselves before God. We don’t even know ourselves well enough to say what motivates us. As we mature in our faith and life, we gain insight and capacity in reflecting the goodness that God offers us.

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