Dear Souls and Hearts Community Members,
In last week’s reflection, I described seven ways to understand sin. Today, we are going to understand sin as “dangerous love.”
And to do that, we are going to harmonize some concepts in modern psychology with the bedrock teaching of St. Augustine, Doctor of the Church.
St. Augustine’s view of love
Love was absolutely central to Augustine’s conceptualization of the moral life. St. Augustine characterizes love as both a desire and a motion of the soul.
True love for Augustine is desiring something for its own sake, and true love involves an act of the will choosing to love goods in an appropriate manner.
St. Augustine sees the Great Commandment as the North Star of all the Scripture – all our loves much be oriented toward God, and we must love God with all our being, with nothing in us that loves anyone else for her own sake or anything else for its own sake.
Bernard Brady, in his book On Christian Love summed up Augustine’s understanding of love in this memorable line: …we are to love God and all things in God. (p. 78)
St. Augustine sees every human person as a lover. The question is not whether we will love or not. The biggest question in our lives is who or what will we love?
Sin as “disordered love”
For St. Augustine sin is a disordered or misdirected love. It’s loving someone something that doesn’t deserve the degree of love that we are giving. It is loving excessively something that is should be beneath that degree or intensity of our love.
How does disordered love come about?
Simply put, disordered love is loving some created person or thing too much. This way of understanding sin is loving something or someone above God – in essence, making an idol. Not loving that something or someone in a way that is ordered toward God. Giving the love the God deserves from us to that lesser someone or something.
These idols are often lesser goods – and, in my experience, what often gets discussed as supplanting God in the first commandment in current homilies and modern spiritual writings – money, prestige, power, sex, etc. – are not the primary idols.
Rather, in my experience, people are seeking such things and many more in a futile attempt to meet basic attachment needs – the fundamental psychological and emotional needs that we all have which are:
- A felt sense of safety and protection, a deep sense of security, felt in our bones
- Feeling seen, heard, known, and understood
- Being comforted, soothed and reassured
- Feeling valued, cherished, treasured, delighted in
- Feeling that the other person wills our highest good, the best for us. (From Brown and Elliott, 2016)
Examples of disordered love
Christian blogger and pastor Matt Erickson gave four good examples of disordered or misdirected love in his blog post Sin’s Disruption and Disordered Love: Insights from St. Augustine:
- A father tries to feel love and acceptance in life through others’ acclamations of his child’s athletic accomplishments
- A daughter tries to receive love from her mother by always doing the right thing or pursuing goals her mother likes but the daughter does not
- A man tries to feel loved through serial sexual experiences with others but finds intimacy and love elusive
- A woman escapes an unhappy marriage through an emotional affair but still feels empty
In each of these examples, the actor is seeking a good – for one or more attachment needs to be met.
The father is seeking affirmation and acceptance vicariously, through his son’s life to ward off a sense of shame and personal inadequacy. He is loving the praise and acclamation his child is receiving, seeking to have a sense of feeling valued and cherished.
The daughter is pursuing her mother’s goals, trying to earn her mother’s love by doing what her mother wants – aligning herself with what she perceives her mother’s wishes – she is loving the idea or promise or receiving her mother’s love, through feeling seen, heard, known, and understood by her mother,
The man seeking to be affirmed through serial sexual experiences is restlessly trying to fill the void of love in the center of his being – he is loving sex and the illusion that physical intimacy will compensate for a lack of connection with God. He wants to be comforted, soothed, and reassured.
The woman in an emotional affair is looking to be treasured and valued by someone else, to be prominent in another man’s heart and mind, to have a sense of worthiness that only comes from knowing deeply that she is a beloved daughter of God, safe and secure in relationship with Him.
All four are pursuing goods – but through disordered loves. And finding only counterfeits of what the are really seeking. They are each “missing the mark” – one of our definitions of sin from last week.
Looking for the right thing in the wrong place
That is why St. Augustine is often quoted as saying “Sin is looking for the right thing in the wrong place” — a theme picked up by Johnny Lee in his 1980 song “Lookin’ for Love”:
I was lookin’ for love in all the wrong places
Lookin’ for love in too many faces,
Searchin’ their eyes,
Lookin’ for traces of what I’m dreaming of.
Hoping to find a friend and a lover,
I’ll bless the day I discover another heart,
Lookin’ for love.
You can see the restlessness in the lyrics, the yearning for ultimate meaning and fulfillment in God in a relationship with an earthly “friend and a lover.” That’s just not going to work, Johnny. I would wish you “good luck” with that search, but all the luck in the world won’t help you.
St. Augustine breaks into poetry on this theme:
These are thy gifts; they are good, for thou in thy goodness has made them.
Nothing in them is from us, save for sin when, neglectful of order,
We fix our love on the creature, instead of on thee, the Creator. (City of God, XV.22)
What makes disordered love dangerous?
Disordered love is dangerous because it leads us away from God, which is the very definition of sin. Disordered love also leads us away from the authentic hope that our deepest needs will be actually be met, swapping out real hope for illusions, for mirages, for counterfeits.
Perhaps Augustine’s most famous quote is Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Nothing less that God will suffice.
Bob Dylan taught me why disordered love is dangerous in the chorus of his 1979 song “Gotta Serve Somebody,”
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
We are going to serve who or what we love. And at some level we do know, deep inside, that serving applause or acclaim like the father in Erickson’s first example will not satisfy us. Neither will frantic attempts to please a parent, as in the second example. Or serial, casual sexual encounters – in the third example above. Or emotional affairs.
So what are we to do, brothers and sisters in Christ?
Bernard Brady summarizes Augustine’s teaching on sin as disordered love: “The lesson Augustine is trying to teach his readers, reflection on his own experience, is that we must think about what we love and how we love the things we love.” p. 83.
We are to learn to love in and ordered way. We need God’s help in this – so let us pray to God the Father and to our Lady, our Mother – asking our primary parents, our spiritual parents for the graces to love in an ordered way. For the grace to love God with our whole hearts, souls, minds, and strength and to love our neighbors and ourselves.
Let’s do our part and get actively working on this. St. Augustine said “God provides the wind, Man must raise the sail. ”
So let’s raise our sails. Let’s get starting on the journey together, a whole fleet of us sailing toward greater human formation together.
Notice that what motivates so much sinning – so much missing the mark, so much distraction from God – is an attempt to have basic human attachment needs met. This all happens in the natural realm. And the natural realm is so often neglected in our formation.
The Resilient Catholics Community is all about your human formation, all about getting your human formation need met in an ordered way, it’s all about your integration, you ordering your loves in an appropriate way. As St. Augustine said, “To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek him the greatest adventure; to find him, the greatest human achievement.” Come with us on that adventure and let us find him together, in community, in relationship with each other.
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Warm regards in Christ and His Mother
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