Augustine’s Grid: Act as You Desire, So Long as You Act with Love

More than once, Augustine wrote, Ama et quod vis fac: “Act as you desire, so long as you act with love.”

Garry Wills writes: “Some take this to mean that a profession of love frees one from constraint. But for Augustine love is the constraint.”

Here is Augustine in his Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (57):

We should never undertake the task of chiding another’s sin unless, cross-examining our own conscience, we can assure ourselves, before God, that we are acting from love.

If reproaches or threats or injuries, voiced by the one you are calling to account, have wounded your spirit, then, for that person to be healed by you, you must not speak till you are healed yourself, lest you act from worldly motives, to hurt, and make your tongue a sinful weapon against evil, returning wrong for wrong, curse for curse.

Whatever you speak out of a wounded spirit is the wrath of an avenger, not the love of an instructor.

Act as you desire, so long as you are acting with love.

Then there will be no meanness in what may sound mean, while you are acutely aware that you are striving with the sword of God’s word to free another from the grip of sin.

And if, as often happens, you begin some course of action from love, and are proceeding with it in love, but a different feeling insinuates itself because you are resisted, deflecting you from reproach of a man’s sin and making you attack the man himself—it were best, while watering the dust with your tears, to remember that we have no right to crow over another’s sin, since we sin in the very reproach of sin if anger at sin is better at making us sinners than mercy is at making us kind.

And here he is in a sermon on the first letter of John (JL 7.8):

Because of varying circumstances, we see one man looking harsh because he loves and another looking pleasant because of vice.

The father gives a son blows, the whoremonger gives blandishments.

Consider them in themselves, blows or blandishments—who wouldn’t take the blandishments and duck the blows?

But look at the motives—they are the blows of love, the blandishments of vice.

You see my point, that human acts should be judged by their basis in love.

Many things have a surface appearance of good, but are not based in love—like blossoms on a thorn plant.

Other things look hard, look forbidding, but they instill a discipline informed by love.

Once again, to put it simply: act as you desire, so long as you act with love.

If you are silent, be silent from love.

If you accuse, accuse from love.

If you correct, correct from love.

If you spare, spare from love.

Let love be rooted deep in you, and only good can grow from it.