In a recent high school youth group meeting I was teaching on Psalm 51. To illustrate a point about the nature of sin, I shared a passage from St. Augustine’s Confessions, in which he remembers stealing pears one night with a group of friends. This thievery, as he recounts, was not because of hunger, or even a particular delight in pears. Rather, it was because of a desire to do what was not permitted: “I stole something which I had in plenty and of much better quality. My desire was to enjoy not what I sought by stealing but merely the excitement of thieving and the doing of what was wrong.” I found this to be very insightful as I reflected on the nature of sin with our high school students.
And yet, perhaps the most helpful part of this anecdote comes a few pages later. St. Augustine continues to reflect on this incident and discerns another, perhaps deeper, root for his thievery: “Had I been alone I would not have done it – I remember my state of mind to be thus at the time – alone I would never have done it. Therefore my love in that act was to be associated with the gang in whose company I did it.” Here we are reminded that at the very root of so many of our choices to pursue evil is a desire for acceptance among our peers (as well as an ignorance of our acceptance in Christ). St. Augustine concludes, “Friendship can be a dangerous enemy.”
This is true. But we must avoid the simplistic conclusion that “friendship is dangerous.” The lesson here is deeper, teaching us that friendship is powerful, able to produce great goods as well as great evils. Certainly many of us have done evil things that we never would have done if we were alone. But the converse is also true. Many Christians have been inspired to pursue goodness, mercy, and justice precisely because of their company of friends. If this story teaches us anything it is that because of our associations we may do things we never would have done alone – whether for good or ill.
As I reflected on these things with my students, I also thought more broadly of fellow youth workers and their ministries. Let us continue to remind our students (and remember ourselves!) that Christian community is essential for so many reasons, including this one that St. Augustine teaches us: because of friends we may be inspired to do things – for good – that we would never have done alone.
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Bijan Mirtolooi is part of the Youth Ministry staff at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.