When Should We Say, Enough is Enough?

Thinking with Augustine

Have you ever (1) “won” an argument but lost a friend in the process? Or have you ever (2) worked hard to save money in order to buy a specific item that did not live up to your expectations? 

In both of these situations, you got what you wanted. You won the argument. You got the item your heart desired. However, at the same time, in both situations there was also a great cost! You lost a friend. You wasted your savings account. In each situation the victory was spoiled by the cost. 

In The City of God, Augustine goes to great lengths explaining different atrocities experienced in the Roman Empire throughout its existence. The atrocities were numerous and horrific! Augustine spends roughly two-hundred pages examining the different tragedies (the majority of Books II & III).

Although the Roman Empire suffered great calamities, they did grow and accumulate wealth and land. They got what they wanted—land, power, money, people! History says they were the winners. As Augustine transitions into Book IV, he acknowledges that truth. However, he also challenges their victory with one major question. Was the cost worth the gain? Here is how he asks it: “Is it reasonable and wise to glory in the extent and greatness of the Empire when you can in no way prove that there is any real happiness in men perpetually living amid the horrors of war, perpetually wading in blood?”[1] In other words, can the Empire really claim victory—or rejoice in that victory—when the cost was the happiness and well-being of their people?

Who Would You Rather Be

Augustine is implying that the victory of the Roman Empire was not worth the cost. He helps us see that even more clearly through an illustration.

Imagine that there are two men. One of the men has enough money to survive but not much more. The other man is extremely wealthy. This well-todo man is weighed down by the cares of sustaining his wealth and brought even lower by the thought of losing his money. He is restless, insecure, and he has created enemies in the process of accumulating wealth. His worries pile as high as his stack of money. On the other hand, the man of modest means is content and has little to worry about. “He is loved by his own, enjoys the sweetness of peace in his relations with kindred, neighbors, and friends, is religious and pious, of kindly disposition, healthy in body, self-restrained, chaste in morals, and at peace with his conscience.”[2]

Who would you rather be? In that situation the choice is simple. Our natural instinct is to want more wealth, but not when the cost is our well-being. The wealthy man’s pursuit of riches control him. His greed takes over, and he is spoiled by his wealth. While the man of modest means is not controlled by his money. His limited funds force simplicity upon him. His simple life brings him joy, peace, and happiness. Augustine expects everyone to say give me joy, peace, and happiness over that kind of wealth. He is also implying that the Roman Empire should have been content with less land and wealth in order to offer better conditions for their citizens.

When is Enough Enough?

After reading this section, I could not help but ask the question, “When is enough enough?” When do we say, I have enough possessions—whether they be books, electronics, or clothes.

It is important to note that the Proverbs never condemn wealth. Having wealth is not a bad thing. However, Proverbs offers warnings that we should heed. Here are two passages that can be found in Proverbs, but there are many more on the topic of wealth: 

“Better is a little [treasure] with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble with it. Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fattened ox and hatred with it” (Prov 15:16–17). 

“Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God” (Prov 30:7–9). 

What is the tipping point between not enough and too much? When is enough enough? Proverbs 30:7–9 offers the clearest answer. Enough is the point where I do not have to steal in order to survive. While too much is the state when I am so well off that I feel no dependence on God to provide for me. Those are the extreme ends, but the middle—the sweet spot—is not as easy to pinpoint. Some people could have great wealth and still feel a great dependence on God as their provider, but others may be more susceptible to deny God when they have little more than enough. This is not an easy or clear cut situation. Nor is there a uniform answer for everybody. The question requires discretion and personal reflection.

Augustine invites us to think and to ponder. Was it worth it for the Roman Empire to be the biggest and best when it cost them so much? His illustration then draws us to think in personal terms. Would you rather be wealthy and controlled by greed or would you rather have modest means and enjoy life. Augustine does not ask the specific question, “When is Enough Enough?”.[3] However, his illustration somewhat forces the question on us. When is apparent “victory” actually loss and when does wealth spoil more than it blesses? When do things get in the way of our enjoyment of God? I invite you to personally reflect on that tension today.

[1] Augustine of Hippo. The City of God, Books I–VII, ed. Hermigild Dressler, trans. Demetrius B. Zema and Gerald G. Walsh, Vol. 8, FC (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1950), 193.

[2] Ibid., 193–194

[3] He does not ask the question here because it is not his primary concern.