Random Thoughts: St. Augustine, Leadership, & Discrimination

Sometimes I have random thoughts that I want to write down and develop a little bit, but they aren’t substantial enough to expand them into their own respective posts. So instead I’ve decided to put them together into one post. These do not necessarily relate to each other (unless somehow you, the reader, see some fantastical connection that I don’t). It’s possible that cognitively processing these little issues will help me sort them out so that I can develop them into more substantial articles in the future. Your thoughts or comments are welcome. Enjoy!

Love God, and Do What You Please

If you search Google for “love God and do what you want” (or some variant thereof) you will instantly get a plethora of pages telling you that this is a quote from St. Augustine of Hippo, an early church theologian and pillar of the Christian faith. Supposedly the whole quote goes like this:

Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.

I’m not sure Augustine actually said that last part. I’m always wary about internet quotations as these often are either found to be in error or are falsely attributed to an individual. So I did a little digging to make sure Augustine really did say this. It turns out that he did more or less say the first bit about loving and doing what we please. It’s found in his Seventh Homily on 1 John 4:4-12 (#8) where he says,

Once for all, then, a short precept is given thee: Love, and do what thou wilt: whether thou hold thy peace, through love hold thy peace; whether thou cry out, through love cry out; whether thou correct, through love correct; whether thou spare, through love do thou spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.

There is some debate about what exactly Augustine meant by this. Notice he doesn’t say “Love God,” but just “Love”; and he doesn’t say “and do whatever you please,” but “and do what you will.” But in any case, since he is commenting on 1 John 4:8, it’s clear that the love we are commanded to have is love that comes from God and would love God and others.

Now, I believe this little epigram has much truth to it. As Jesus said when summing up the Law, the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind (Mt. 22:37). Love is a priority for Christians as it should characterize all we do. It is much too easy to get caught up in doing (obedience) before loving. But Jesus made it explicitly clear that love comes before obedience, even as obedience must necessarily follow from love (John 14:15, 21, 24):

If you love me, you will keep my commandments…whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me…whoever does not love me does not keep my words.

In one sense, Augustine is correct: if we truly love God and have been transformed by his unconditional and abundant love for us, then we will be obedient to him through the filling of the Holy Spirit and live a life pleasing to God. Of course, this is a general description of the transformation of believers that manifests itself in both belief and behavior. It is not an absolute promise since we continue to live with and struggle with our sin nature.

But notice that Augustine did not say, “Because God loves you, you can do whatever you please: for love covers a multitude of sins,” or something like that. It’s not true that God’s love is a license to sin or confers a blessing upon whatever we do (see Rom. 5-6). Unfortunately, many people of my generation (millennials) have adopted this latter approach and attributed it as somehow being biblical. This is tragic. Yes, God loves us unconditionally, but that doesn’t mean he is indifferent toward what we believe and how we act (beliefs and behavior are inextricably linked since the former dictates the latter). Let us not be hoodwinked into thinking that just because God loves us or because we have a gospel of grace and mercy, therefore our behavior doesn’t have to conform to a biblical ethic.

Spiritual Leadership

The other day my wife and I were talking about spiritual leadership over dinner – specifically, how as the husband of our family and home I was suppose to be the spiritual leader. I told her that I didn’t really know what it meant to be a “spiritual leader.” Perhaps this is just Christianese talk or something. I heard similar sentiments growing up and such phrases always conjure up in my mind a dad/father doing daily devotionals with the family or drilling them on memory verse recitation. I don’t do that. In fact, in day-to-day living I don’t really think about spiritual leadership.

But I know that I think about and do these things: I love my wife unconditionally, whether she’s happy or depressed; I forgive her and my friends and others who wrong me; I seek to love my enemies even though this is a struggle; I work hard in school and my job, being faithful to provide for my family and strive for excellence in all I do; when my wife comes home from a long day at work I make sure the kitchen is cleaned up, the bed is made, and the house is neat; I put down my homework and spend time with my her on a regular basis; and I clear time in my schedule to talk to my friends and listen to their thoughts, fears, and dreams. Perhaps this is what spiritual leadership is. Perhaps, per Augustine’s thinking above, if I worry about being transformed into a person of love, then spiritual leadership will naturally follow. Then again, it could be a spiritual discipline that I need to cultivate. I’m open to that possibility, but I honestly don’t know.

Discrimination Buzzword

Discrimination has become anathema in our society. Whatever you do, don’t you ever discriminate against anyone else! Charges of discrimination at either the individual, business, or government level can range from being a social embarrassment to involving a costly legal battle to shaping public policy that effects millions of people. Let’s face it: discrimination, and the fear and stigma that comes with it, is a powerful force in our society. However, it is my contention that discrimination is not intrinsically wrong. Before you skin me alive, hear me out. Let’s start by defining discrimination:

1. To recognize a distinction; differentiate. 2. Make an unjust or prejudicial distinction in the treatment of different categories of people or things, esp. on the grounds of race, sex, or age.

Thus we can see that the semantic range of “to discriminate” certainly includes the idea of unjustified prejudice or bigotry, but this is not its exclusive definition. More generally, all “discriminate” means is to make a distinction. In fact, if you stop and think about it, we discriminate all the time in our lives, whether we are shopping for a good or service, using various forms of transportation, deciding what to eat for dinner, or what school to go to. We also legitimately discriminate against individuals and entire groups of people. Don’t believe me? Well, when you get married you are discriminating against every other man or woman in the world; and throughout your married life you give preferential treatment to your spouse and your spouse only. Or do you think we should allow blind people to drive? Of course not as that would endanger both them and other drivers. Prohibiting the blind from receiving their license is a systematic and consistent discrimination against a certain group of people that has existed historically in this country (and probably every other country) and is enforced from the top down, both at the national and local levels. Yet no one complains and we are all in agreement that this is appropriate and necessary (and blind people would agree).

Here’s my point: discrimination, even against an individual or entire groups of people, is not inherently wrong. It can be wrong. But the key in the above definition is the little word “unjust.” Discrimination can be just or unjust. Those who believe that discrimination against another is wrong in a particular instance must provide a justification as to why such discrimination is in fact wrong. However, this is rarely done in our society. Instead, the zinger “you are discriminating against me,” or “that’s discrimination” becomes a conversation stopper and a form of linguistic tyranny that paralyzes everyone within earshot. Charges of discrimination continually abound from every gender, minority, and sexual group, and the blogosphere, social media, and mainstream media are full of it. But unless evidence in the form of convincing demonstration or argument is given as to why such-and-such an action is in fact discriminatory and is also wrong, then we should be wary of prima facie accepting their analysis. The next time someone claims that they or others are being discriminated against, start asking questions: Why do you think this is discrimination? Explain yourself. Tell me why such discrimination is wrong or immoral and should either be stopped or punished? Chances are such questions will catch the accuser flat-footed. Too many people in our society mindlessly croak about discrimination without ever being challenged to provide justification for their accusations.

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