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 Smith

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His most recent book, Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, is now available at Amazon and from Emmaus Academic Press.

  • Becky Cloetta


  • grump

    How is possible to love people when they are so unlovable? Nor are most people even likeable.

    • Jill Dembroff

      Look at ugly people with the eyes of their moms, if you can. Moms always find the good and cover over imperfections with excuses and understanding. Grumpiness deserves a hug, and sometimes mom gets a smile back. Help him become more lovable, just like Jesus did. Only those who resisted His love, those religious ones, remained unlikeable. Forget the mass of (in)humanity and focus on that unloveable one who’s right under your nose. That one is your responsibility.

    • Marie

      You might try thinking of that obnoxious person is a former baby. Think of him as a cute, helpless, shrieking infant. He has probably almost forgotten that he was a baby once, especially if he is stuck up. That might help you to not take people’s faults too seriously.

      Also remember that you don’t have to like people, and you don’t have to love them until they deserve your love. God didn’t wait for us to deserve His.

  • Grn724

    In the Greek language, the words of (love) are, Agape, the love of God, Philia, brotherly love and Eros, the love of beauty as in music, paintings, nature, including humans, and so on. Love is an act of the will. When we love another as Jesus commanded us to do, what He is saying that you will the best for the other according to God’s plan for the other. Like and lust are ever so often confused with love, yet both occur with no love present. When I surrender my will and life to God’s care, the door is fully flung open to God’s Agape and everything that comes with it. It is then we begin to see and hear differently and are transformed by God to be what and who He created us to be. Without Agape, we are just human doings, running on ego and that is when like and lust appear to be love. In the truest essence, Agape and Philia are in short supply in todays world, which explains why there is so much constant and ever present strife, this is the work of Satan, and he is the prince of darkness. Where God, through His Agape for all of creation, is the Light of the world and the darkness shall not overcome it.

  • Randall B. Smith

    Dear Mr.Grump (if I may),

    There is a person you have been called upon to love your whole life whom you probably have not always “liked,” indeed whom you’ve probably found unlikeable often enough. That person would be yourself. I don’t say this as a criticism of you personally. It’s a general point. We don’t always “like” ourselves, but we must still will the good for ourselves. And so too, we are called upon to “Love our neighbor as ourselves.” We might not always “like” that person (emotionally), but we must exercise the virtue of charity, willing their good the way God wills the good for us.

  • Richard A

    Hmmm… I think you have a calling from God to assist the Sisters of Charity.

  • RainingAgain

    You’re certainly living up to your name. Don’t forget you are not the centre of the universe. Rather, you are, like myself, just another one of the masses. And as that, infinitely more valuable than any symphony or piece of lasagne, although that might not seem immediately obvious.

  • Loved As If

    “I see no virtue in loving the stupid and cruel masses”

    May God heal your sight.

  • Loved As If

    Absolutely spot on!