I recently reread St Augustine’s Confessions. And once again I am impressed by his uncompromising insistence that love is central to Christian faith and to human flourishing. “God is love,” the Apostle John wrote, “and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:16). The Confessions is literally infused with Scripture—he doesn’t just quote the Bible, it shapes his words. And as always when reading Augustine, I am undone.
In The Confessions, Augustine raises an interesting question: What do I mean when I say I love my God? What do I love when I love God?
The question brought me up short. In church I sing songs and hymns that proclaim my love for God, and that celebrate God’s love for us. I regularly profess my love for God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—in prayer. But what, exactly, do I mean when I say those words?
Consider this answer from St Augustine:
You have smitten my heart with your word, and I have loved you. And see also the heaven, and earth, and all that is in them—on every side they tell me to love you… But what is it that I love in loving you? Not physical beauty, nor the splendor of time, nor the radiance of the light—so pleasant to our eyes—nor the sweet melodies of the various kinds of songs, nor the fragrant smell of flowers and ointments and spices; not manna and honey, not the limbs embraced in physical love—it is not these I love when I love my god. Yet it is true that I love a certain kind of light and sound and fragrance and food and embrace in loving my god, who is the light and sound and fragrance and food and embracement of my inner being—where that light shines into my soul which no place can contain, where time does not snatch away the lovely sound, where no breeze disperses the sweet fragrance, where no eating diminishes the food there provided, and where there is an embrace that no satiety comes to sunder. This is what I love when I love my god.
I would not have thought of answering the question this way but find Augustine’s words both deeply challenging and richly evocative. I want this love.
What do I mean when I say I love my God? There is no one single correct answer. If there is, I suspect it will take all of eternity to begin to even approach it. But Augustine’s rich reflections cause me to think it might be a wise exercise in worship and faithfulness to answer it for our selves.
What do you mean when you say you love God? What do you love when you love God?
There is great mystery here, a mystical knowing that which is beyond all knowing. It is embracing a love that is beyond all comprehension and yet is truth and hope to us, world without end. And yet it is not simply a sentimental feeling, a warm feeling we have after quietly reading a pleasant devotional. This love is rooted in an actual death and resurrection in history and is demonstrated in a life of love for neighbor and enemy, even at cost.
One more thing: Augustine’s Confessions is deeply religious (as appropriate for his day and culture) but was not intended for only a Christian audience. Readers could see the bishop of Hippo was contending for the faith against the narrative provided in classic Latin literature at the root of ancient paganism. He spoke in a way to be understood.
So, as we answer the question, we should do so in words that might intrigue and interest our non-Christian neighbors and colleagues. Terms that will extend the conversation not end it.
So, what do you mean when you say you love God? What do you love when you love God?
Source: Confessions by Saint Augustine, translated by Albert Outler (New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Classics; 1955, 2007) [10.6.8] p. 151-152. Outler’s translation follows the Latin text in having no initial capitalized letter for the word “god.”