Concupiscence I – Scott Hahn

September 10, 2012

Hieronymus Bosch, Allegory of Gluttony and Lust c. 1490-1500

Denied by the secularists but pretty much something we all EXPERIENCE, sin is one of the great non-sequitors of modern life. It makes no sense, yet is such an obvious part of life how could it not be utterly sensible? If you wish to consider more, try our category Understanding Sin, and peruse the articles that follow this one. But  in the meantime, regard Scott Hahn’s highly readable contemplation on St. Augustine and concupiscence.


As a university professor, I sometimes assign students to read Saint Augustine’s Confessions. The book has almost universal appeal. Even the most worldly and unconverted readers find themselves captivated by Augustine’s brilliant style — or at least by his suggestive remembrances of a misspent youth. In some cases, the saint’s book gets read primarily because his sins were scarlet. The careful self-analysis of Augustine’s Confessions can be tremendously helpful to those of us who are preparing our own sacramental confessions.

There is one passage, however, that puzzles even devout readers. It’s more than a passage, actually. Augustine spends seven chapters describing a brief moment he spent late one night when he was sixteen years old. What thrilling escapade could consume such a magnificent mind to that extent?

Augustine and his friends pilfered a few pears from his neighbor’s orchard.

Readers find this baffling. Augustine gave long years of his life to the pursuit of sins of the flesh. He had mistresses. He conceived a child out of wedlock. With no less ardor did he give himself over to sins of the spirit. He tracked exotic spiritualities far into the regions of heresy and apostasy. He skipped out of Christian instruction and gave his soul over to the care of a non-Christian guru. Many and great were his transgressions. Yet no single sin does he subject to such minute analysis as the petty theft of pears when he was sixteen.

Again and again, Augustine asks why he committed the sin. It wasn’t that he was hungry; in fact, he wasn’t. It wasn’t that he was tempted by exceptional pears; they were actually inferior to the pears he had at home. It’s not even that it was time for a snack. Augustine and his companions didn’t even eat the fruit they took; they threw it to the pigs.

Why, then, did he sin? Augustine tirelessly asks the question and relentlessly rejects one possible motivation after another. Finally, he asks if, perhaps, he found enjoyment in doing evil itself. But this, too, he dismisses as nonsense. No one, he says, commits evil for its own sake. No one chooses evil just because it’s evil. People sin not for the sake of evil, but for the sake of something good.

This is the part that scandalizes some Christians. How can he say that sinners do not choose evil when they sin? Augustine counters that human beings can only desire good things. We want what’s sweet to the taste, what’s comfortable, what makes us more free, what removes difficulties from our lives. Moreover, all the things we desire are good because God has created them that way. “And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). All the things in the world share, in some way, in God’s glory. Every artwork bears the distinctive mark of its artist, so every creature is a manifestation of a natural sacrament of the creator. And it is that sample of divine glory that makes the things of this world so attractive to us.

What is it, then, that takes the desire for something good and transforms it into a sin? Augustine puts it beautifully: “Sins are committed when, out of an immoderate liking for things — since they are the least goods — we desert the best and highest goods,” which are God, His truth, and His law. “These lower goods have their delights,” he continues, “but none such as my God, Who has made all things; for in Him the just man finds delight, and He is the joy of the upright of heart.”

Augustine concludes that he stole the pears for the sake of his friends’ companionship and for the laughter they would share. The friendship, the camaraderie, and the laughter were all good things, gifts from God, and good to desire. Yet the boy went wrong when he placed the desire for these things before the desire to please and obey the Lord God.

We, too, sin not because we want what is evil, but because we want what isn’t good enough. We give our hearts, our bodies, and our souls to trifles and passing sensations when we should go, instead, to the summit of all pleasures, the eternal creator of all joy. In fixating on God’s gifts, we turn our backs to the giver.

The problem, then, is not that we find creatures attractive, but that we find them more attractive than God. The problem (in Augustine’s words) is our “immoderate liking for things,” for pleasure, and for earthly glory. This was the problem for Adam and Eve. For the forbidden fruit in Eden — like the fruit in Augustine’s neighborhood orchard — was not evil. Indeed, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was good in every way. Eve saw immediately “that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6).

The tree had all these natural good qualities because God had made it that way. It looked good, and it could do good, giving wisdom to the person who ate from it. But God had commanded the first couple to sacrifice all those great goods for the sake of a higher good, a supernatural good. And that is what they failed to do — out of fear of the serpent, out of pride, and out of a fear of suffering loss (see Hebrews 2:14-15 ). The fruit wasn’t evil; but the disobedience certainly was. It’s not bad to want knowledge, or to have a hankering for ripe apples, but it is bad to pursue these things in directions that lead away from God.

Adam and Eve did this. They reordered their priorities so that their immediate desires — safety, self-preservation, knowledge, and sensual delights — might be fulfilled, while the higher goods — such as faith, hope, and love — would be deferred. They did not directly choose evil. They chose lesser goods. They chose goods that seemed more real at the moment. Self-preservation and hunger are deep-seated animal instincts, for which the body produces intense physical responses. Yet there is no similar physical drive for faith, hope, and love. There is no gland, no organ, no hormone that will press us on to choose God above everything else. What was required of Adam and Eve was a sheer act of will — uniting their own will with God’s will — and thus sacrificing all the lower desires of their bodies and souls, hearts and minds.

Their choice had long-term consequences. Their need created new needs: to hide themselves, to justify themselves, to cover their nakedness. Adam and Eve had given primary place to their lower desires, and now their lower desires were taking over. Whereas they had previously been “naked and unashamed,” now their nakedness provoked disordered feelings in both of them; and they felt it necessary to cover up with garments woven from fig leaves. Whereas Adam had earlier tilled and kept the garden in a seemingly effortless way, now he found himself toiling in hardship and sweat.

Our first parents had reversed the divinely intended hierarchy in the human person and in the human race. Now, instead of our souls governing our bodies, our bodies — and their longings and appetites, pleasures and fears — were driving our souls.

Saint Paul calls this the rebellion of the flesh against the spirit (see Galatians 5:16-17; Ephesians 2:3; CCC, n. 2515). Theologians call it concupiscence (pronounced kon-KYOO-pi-sens), a term that refers to our “human appetites or desires which remain disordered due to the temporal consequences of original sin.” Concupiscence is by definition unreasonable: Our chaotic drives are in rebellion against the order of reason.

Concupiscence itself is not sin, but it is the result of original sin and the cause of actual sins. It is an innate inclination to sin; but it is not a personal transgression. Concupiscence does not render me guilty, but it does render me vulnerable to temptation and positively prone to sin.

“As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). As Adam snuffed out the divine life in his soul and the souls of his descendents, so Christ came to restore that divine life and enable us to share it. Most of us receive that divine life, when we are babies, through the sacrament of baptism.

Baptism takes away the stain of original sin, but concupiscence remains with us. Our drives and our passions, though good in themselves, are out of proper order.

Concupiscence is self-perpetuating, and it pulls us downward. We find creatures attractive because God made them that way, as samples of His glory, to lead us to thank Him, praise Him, and love Him all the more. But we tend to take these created things and make them the ultimate objects of our desire — whether a spouse or a friend, chocolate or alcohol, books or cars. The more we indulge our passionate desires, the more they take hold of us, and the more they increase our need for them. The more we need these created goods, the less we sense the need for God — even though it is He Who has given us the goods of the world.

Concupiscence renders us vulnerable, temptable. We are tempted by this world through our concupiscence. But just because we entertain thoughts that are wrong doesn’t mean we’re guilty. It isn’t until we allow those thoughts to start entertaining us that we have committed an actual sin on the inside — and, unless we repent quickly, we will soon commit them on the outside.

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