Confidence and kindness don’t often go hand-in-hand. Social media privileges the most outrageous takes. To get ahead in life, we need to make a name for ourselves. We feign confidence and jostle for status. And yet the Bible requires kindness of us. “Be kind to one another,” Paul commands (Eph 4:32). “Love is kind,” he elsewhere says (1 Cor 13:4). And that love, as Paul explains, is not irritable but bears all things.
This kindness of love finds its source in God who is love (1 John 4:16). His kindness leads us to repentance (Rom 2:4). It makes him patient towards us as he forebore our former sins (Rom 3:25).
Yet we stumble into snares when we think confidence in the truth means one lacks kindness or when we allow confidence in the truth to make our speech reckless and acerbic. But the Bible tells us to speak “the truth lovingly” (Eph 4:15).
We can and must be confident in the truth without being jerks.
In other words, we can and must be confident in the truth without being jerks. To make this case, I want to look at the biblical wisdom of Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD). As a pastor, he regularly had to turn to Scripture to see how to understand what God would have of him and his flock. Augustine believed that all of life centred on the love of God.
In the following, I illustrate four ways that Augustine showed how all of life centres on love in order to give practical shape to my assertion that we can be confident in the truth without being jerks.
Theologically: God is love. So we love.
In his work The Trinity, Augustine marshalls a host of Bible verses on love. Let me quote a few of them to set the context for his comments:
- Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good.”
- 1 Corinthians 8:3: “But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.”
- Romans 5:5: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
- 1 John 4:16: “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God.”
Bible passages like these as well as theological reflection led Augustine to say:
“Embrace love which is God, and embrace God with love. This is the love which unites all the good angels and all the servants of God in a bond of holiness, conjoins them together, and subjoins us to itself. And the more we are cured of the tumor of pride, the fuller we are of love. And if a man is full of love, what is he full of but God?” (Trinity 8, 5.8.12).
Augustine wonders too whether Love fits the triune God by His very nature. We love love when love loves something (8, 5.8.12). And when love loves, there must be a lover. So there three: “the lover, what is being loved, and love” (8, 5.10.14). Augustine sees this trinity of love by its nature to analogously fit God who is a trinity. Whether one finds that convincing or not, the clear biblical truth is that God is love.
And so, Augustine reasons from 1 John, when we love each other, that love is from God (1 John 4:7). “When therefore we love our brother out of love, we love our brother out of God; and it is impossible that we should not love especially the love that we love our brother with” (8, 5.8.12). After all, God is love. So loving our brother out of love is akin to saying that we love our brother out of God.
In other words, if we do not love someone, we are not in God (8, 8.12). And then we are not in Christ. Love thus is more than a cute idea. God is love (1 John 4:8). We love because God loved us. We love for God’s sake. And when we love, we love in God who is true love. And as Augustine explains, no love is true unless it is true love (8, 5.7.10).
Knowing God—Love—is at the core of what it means to be both confident in truth without being unkind. This knowledge provides the framework to understand life in general. God is love. Abide in that love. And love truly.
As Augustine elsewhere writes:
“If nothing else were said in praise of love, in all the pages of this Epistle, nothing else whatever in any other page of Scripture, and this were the one and only thing we heard from the voice of God’s Spirit—‘For God is love’—we should ask for nothing more” (Trac. 1 John 4:4–12, §4).
Exegetically: Jesus Tells us Scripture Tends Either to love of God or to Neighbour
Confidence in the truth requires knowing what the truth is. In the case of Scripture, Jesus provides Christianity with a hermeneutical rule for reading the Bible well. And he does so by emphasizing Scripture’s dual purpose: love of God and neighbour.
In Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus explains:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus explained similarly: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12).
The second statement helps make sense of the first. Love does. So what you want someone to do to you, do also to them. In other words, how you want to be loved, love others in that way.
Here is the main point. Any interpretation of the Bible that does not tend to the love of God or neighbour or both amounts to a misreading of Scripture. This hermeneutical rule of Jesus must be observed.
Augustine agreed. In his book On Christian Teaching, Augustine laid out rules for biblical interpretation. Following Jesus’s words, which are quoted above, Augustine cites passage after passage to show the importance of love in biblical interpretation. He eventually concludes:
“So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbour, has not yet succeeded in understanding them” (Christian Teaching 1, §86).
God is Love. And so Holy Scripture, according to Jesus, aims to induce us to love God or neighbour. And that means everyone. Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44). Love permeates everything. As Jonathan Edwards argued, “Heaven is a world of charity, or love.”
Reading the Bible according to Jesus makes all the difference. It means we keep our eye on the prize, and we look forward to that upward call to heaven, that world of love, which awaits us. Read to love God and neighbour and then you’ll avoid a bitter and angry heart.
Politically: The City of God is a city of love
In Augustine’s seminal work The City of God, he uses the metaphor of two cities to describe the believing and unbelieving world. Both are marked by a kind of love. The city of man loves self; the city of God loves God. He explains:
“Two cities, then, have been created by two loves: that is, the earthly by love of self extending even to contempt of God, and the heavenly by love of God extending to contempt of self” (City of God, 14.28)
While this principle has personal application, it is worth noting that Augustine here envisions Christians as a society among the city of God, those who are unbelievers. He describes how these two societies function.
In fuller context, Augustine explains:
Two loves, then, have made two cities. Love of self, even to the point of contempt for God, made the earthly city, and love of God, even to the point of contempt for self, made the heavenly city. Thus the former glories in itself, and the latter glories in the Lord. The former seeks its glory from men, but the latter finds its highest glory in God, the witness of our conscience. The former lifts up its head in its own glory; the latter says to its God, My glory, and the one who lifts up my head (Ps. 3:3). In the former the lust for domination dominates both its princes and the nations that it subjugates; in the latter both leaders and followers serve one another in love, the leaders by their counsel, the followers by their obedience. The former loves its own strength, displayed in its men of power; the latter says to its God, I love you, O Lord, my strength (Ps. 18:1).
The earthly city, which does not live by faith, seeks an earthly peace, and it establishes a concord of command and obedience among its citizens in order to bring about a kind of accommodation among human wills with regard to the things that pertain to this mortal life. And the heavenly city – or rather, that part of it which is on pilgrimage in this mortal existence and which lives by faith – must of necessity make use of this peace as well, at least until this mortal existence, for which such peace is necessary, passes away. …
So long as this heavenly city is a pilgrim on earth, then, it calls forth citizens from all peoples and gathers together a pilgrim society of all languages. It cares nothing about any differences in the manners, laws, and institutions by which earthly peace is achieved or maintained. But it does not rescind or abolish any of these; rather, it preserves and follows them, provided only that they do not interfere with the religion which teaches that we are to worship the one supreme and true God, for, however different they may be in different nations, they all aim at one and the same thing – earthly peace. Thus, even the heavenly city makes use of earthly peace during its pilgrimage. (Cited in Plough)
While Augustine’s argument here does not make sense of all the complexity of modern political life, it does tell us how we should think politically at the most fundamental level: the heavenly city has been created “by love of God extending to contempt of self.”
As John the Baptist said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
At the same time, Augustine shows where the two cities overlap in a common goal: “earthly peace.” This biblical notion (e.g. Rom 13:1–7) helps us make sense of why Paul commands us to pray for leaders “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim 2:2).
This teaching approximates the later reformational teaching of the Two Kingdoms, in which God reigns over both the church and state according to their respective powers and ends. In short, a pastor leads a church. A governor leads a state. Both have responsibilities over each sphere of life. And God’s providence reigns over all of it: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will” (Prov 21:1).
The reason why Augustine’s Two City teaching helps us to be confident in the truth without being jerks is because it shows us that the motivation of Christians is one borne out of love, and it also checks our ambition for political power.
For Augustine, the pilgrim society of the church of God, “cares nothing about any differences in the manners, laws, and institutions by which earthly peace is achieved or maintained.” Yet pilgrims must use this earthly peace. They “must of necessity make use of this peace as well, at least until this mortal existence … passes away.”
Personally: Love, and do what you want
Augustine famously summed up the Christian life with the phrase: “Love, and do what you want.” By Love, Augustine has a concrete definition. He means first true Love, which is God. And so Love is defined by God, and any true love comes from God. So he does not take the modern view that love is a nebulous concept.
Granted, since love does, the application of love might look different across times and places. In some families, speaking directly to one another feels loving. In others, it might not. But there is something stable to love that allows one to know it when one sees it.
In his fuller explanation of the concept, Augustine explains:
“Many things can be done that look well, yet do not issue from the root of charity. Thorns too have their flowers. Some actions seem harsh or savage, but are performed for our discipline at the dictate of charity. Thus a short and simple precept is given you once for all: Love, and do what you will. Whether you keep silence, keep silence in love, whether you exclaim, exclaim in love; whether you correct, correct in love; whether you forbear, forbear in love; let love’s root be within you, and from that root nothing but good can spring.” (Tr. 1 John 4:9-12).
Parents know exactly what Augustine means. We can correct our children out of frustration or out of love for their well-being. The act of correction (grounding, etc.) might look the exact same externally. But everyone knows, parent and child, when the correction is done out of love or not.
Augustine’s rule—Love, and do what you want—makes a world of difference. We can confidently speak for the good of another person, even though they may not love to hear it. But they should know, upon reflection, that we did so for love, not spite or anger.
Readers might have noted that I did not define exactly how to act lovingly or what confidence might look like in a given situation. Specificity like this can help. However, given our hearts’ propensity to act outwardly in one way while hiding bitterness inwardly, I think it best to think carefully about the biblical and theological command to love.
It really changes everything. When crisis hits, and Bible verses fly through your heart, there is a blessed stability to knowing that God is good, and he does good (Ps 119:68). And he is Love, and he loves us (1 John 4:8, 16; Rom 5:5).
When the love of God overwhelms us, we cannot help but act in loving ways to others. It may take time to break down our calloused hearts. But over time, our hearts soften. The love of God breaks through. The love of God shed abroad in our hearts progressively shows us how we can be confident in the truth without being a jerk. That, at least, is my argument.