Saint Augustine on Sin, Fear and Love
Continuing on with our Lenten series in which Saint Augustine is our guide, go here , here and here to read the first three posts in the series, we come to Augustine’s discussion of why we should avoid sin. Augustine thought that refraining from sin due to fear of Hell did not involve the rejection of sin but rather fear of burning. The true reason for avoiding sin is love of God and therefore rejection of sin as a result of that love. Our Act of Contrition mentions both motivations but is clear what should be the most important:
O my God,
I am heartily sorry for
having offended Thee,
and I detest all my sins,
because I dread the loss of heaven,
and the pains of hell;
but most of all because
they offend Thee, my God,
Who are all good and
deserving of all my love.
As the saying goes, fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, and no doubt the fear of Hell for many a sinner is the beginning of repentance, but that is only the beginning, and not the end, of our struggle against sin. Christ taught us to call God Father and that He is a loving Father. Anything that turns us from the God who loves us with such an eternal love, we reject, not out of fear but out of love:
In vain, however, does any one think himself to have gained the victory over sin, if, through nothing but fear of punishment, he refrains from sin; because, although the outward action to which an evil desire prompts him is not performed, the evil desire itself within the man is an enemy unsubdued. And who is found innocent in God’s sight who is willing to do the sin which is forbidden if you only remove the punishment which is feared? And consequently, even in the volition itself, he is guilty of sin who wishes to do what is unlawful, but refrains from doing it because it cannot be done with impunity; for, so far as he is concerned, he would prefer that there were no righteousness forbidding and punishing sins. And assuredly, if he would prefer that there should be no righteousness, who can doubt that he would if he could abolish it altogether? How, then, can that man be called righteous who is such an enemy to righteousness that, if he had the power, he would abolish its authority, that he might not be subject to its threatenings or its penalties? He, then, is an enemy to righteousness who refrains from sin only through fear of punishment; but he will become the friend of righteousness if through love of it he sin not, for then he will be really afraid to sin. For the man who only fears the flames of hell is afraid not of sinning, but of being burned; but the man who hates sin as much as he hates hell is afraid to sin. This is the “fear of the Lord,” which “is pure, enduring for ever.” For the fear of punishment has torment, and is not in love; and love, when it is perfect, casts it out.