Love as a Virtue

“We love because God has loved us first.” So we read in 1 John 4:19. In an article a few weeks back, I suggested that we should learn from Thomas Aquinas that love can be both a passion and a virtue. In the modern world, we tend to think of love only as an emotion – something we “fall into,” something that “happens to us.” There is certainly love of this sort: love that we “feel” and sometimes feel very strongly. But it’s important to realize that this is not the only kind of love. There is also love as a virtue – when love becomes not merely a feeling we have, but a settled disposition to do good for others: a disposition to be self-sacrificing, compassionate, and just.

There is perhaps no more misused phrase from the writings of St. Augustine than the saying: “Love and do what you will.” Many people imagine this means: “Love and do whatever you want.” Or: “If you do something with love, then whatever it is, it’s okay.”

The truth, however, is that the sentence “Love and do what you will” comes from St. Augustine’s Homily 7 on the First Epistle of John, a homily that covers all of 1 John 4:4-12, including the verse “We love because God has loved us first.”

According to Augustine, because God is love, when we love truly and selflessly, we love with God’s own love. He allows us to participate in the same spirit of love that exists eternally between the Father, Son, and Spirit. He gives us what Thomas Aquinas calls “the New Law,” the “law of grace,” by which “charity is spread abroad in our hearts.” (Rom 5:5) With the “New Law” is the fulfillment of God’s promise in Ezekiel 36:25-27: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.”

But notice the last part of that verse: love does not revoke the law. Love helps us to fulfill the law – freely. Love enables us to do God’s will, not merely what our own lusts and passions press us to do. Love as a passion might tempt me to commit adultery. And yet, when love is a virtue – when my love is formed by God’s grace, and not my own willfulness; when I am moved by a love that is selfless as was Christ’s love for us – then I do not mistake my passion to possess a woman as justification for doing something I ought not to do.

“St. Augustine in His Study” by Vittore Carpaccio, 1502
“St. Augustine in His Study” by Vittore Carpaccio, 1502

When love is a virtue, it requires discipline. It requires us to cooperate with God’s grace. And so, shortly after Augustine makes that famous comment, “Love and do as you will,” he warns his congregation that they should “not imagine love to be an abject or sluggish thing,” or that it can be preserved by a sort of “tameness and listlessness.”

Do not imagine that you love your servant when you beat him, or that you love your son when you do not discipline him, or that you love neighbor when you do not rebuke him: this is not charity, but mere feebleness. Let charity be fervent to correct, to amend. . . .Love not in the man his error, but the man: for God made the man, the error the man himself made. Love that which God made; love not that which the man himself made. When you love the man God made, take away the sin the man made. When you esteem God, amend the man.

The dove that descended upon the Lord at His baptism signified charity, says Augustine, “because although the dove has no bitterness, yet with beak and wings she fights for her young. Hers is a fierceness without bitterness.” Anyone who has seen a mother protect her child from strangers will understand that phrase.

We do not see the “fierceness of love” in the modern understanding of “love and do what you will.” That is “love and go with the flow.” That is love as self-justification for what I want. And that sort of “love” is the result of what the great Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” I’m feeling all warm and fuzzy inside, so what I’m doing can’t possibly be wrong. It’s the “If loving you is wrong, I don’t want to be right” kind of love.

Augustine contrasts the father who may have to chastise his son because of his love for him to a kidnapper who plots to lure the child to his destruction, “inveigling him with bitter endearments.” We too should ask ourselves, when we say “I love you,” is this really love, or (were we more honest with ourselves), are we, like Augustine’s kidnapper (seductor in Latin), simply luring someone with “bitter endearments” to the place we want them to be? Is the love we profess really directed at their good, or rather at satisfying our own desires and designs? Is it the sort of love that creates new life, or is it the kind that destroys it, especially if unborn life is the fruit of this professed “love”?

Passions can be good things. But they can also fool us, causing us to mistake what is “satisfying” or “pleasurable” for what is truly good. When your “love” tells you it’s okay to fornicate, commit adultery, lie, cheat, or steal, although you’re undoubtedly having a very powerful feeling, don’t mistake a powerful feeling for God’s will or for what it really means to love others as God has loved us.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.