St. Augustine on Relationships

Here is a paper I wrote for my Influential Christian Thinkers course in 2011 - working off of St. Augustine's "On Christian Doctrine" and how his definition of 'using' and 'enjoying' applies to various types of relationships.


In “On Christian Doctrine,” St. Augustine speaks of the difference between enjoying and using things. He says,

“Some things are to be enjoyed, others to be used, and there are others which are to be enjoyed and used. Those things which are to be enjoyed make us blessed. Those things which are to be used help, and…sustain us as we move toward the blessedness in order that we may gain and cling to those things which make us blessed.”

Now, Augustine does not apply the same negative connotation to the word ‘used’ as we typically do. Some things are meant to be used. To ‘use’ your iPod, for example, is actually better than to ‘enjoy’ it, because an iPod is merely a temporal thing.

“To enjoy something,” he says, “is to cling to it with love for its own sake. To use something, however, is to employ it in obtaining that which you love, provided that it is worthy of love.”

It is possible to apply Augustine’s views on things and how we should treat them (whether they are to be used or enjoyed) as a way to define how relationships in their various forms should be constructed in our lives. As humans, we are also things, and our relationships, therefore are things, and we must be careful how we approach these relationships and to what extent we will define them as ‘using’ relationships or ‘enjoying’ relationships.

In our modern-day society, with the divorce rate exceeding fifty percent and teen pregnancy rapidly increasing (and the age at which it starts rapidly decreasing), there is a need for us to take a step back and figure out what is going on. Where are we going wrong? And we need to figure out how we can bring our relationships back to what they are meant to be – both with ourselves and with others.

On Relationship with the Self

It can often be misunderstood how or to what extent a person is supposed to love themselves. There seems to be a continuum in which on the one side, you have those who struggle to have even the slightest bit of self-love, and on the other, you have those who pretty much don’t need the love of anybody else because they provide themselves with all the love they could possibly need.

The question is, when approaching relationships from the ‘use’ or ‘enjoy’ standpoint, where does self-love fall? Well, according to Augustine, one is meant to use rather than enjoy his or her self. See, we are meant to love ourselves not for our own sake, but for the sake of God, who made us. Augustine says, “[One] should not love himself on account of himself but on account of Him who is to be enjoyed.” See, if someone loves themselves for their own sake, then, rather than turn towards God, he or she actually turns away from God. “His immutable enjoyment of himself is imperfect,” Augustine says, because it becomes narcissism.

How must one, then, love his or her self on account of God?

First, I want to consider loving your physical self. We know that in the Bible it refers to the body as “the temple” and therefore we must love and care for it; but, how do we do this appropriately without idolizing our physical bodies? Augustine says that man must love himself “profitably,” and in order to do so, he says, “He must be instructed how he should love his body so that he may care for it in an ordinate and prudent way.”

Again, we see the continuum of self-love in regards to the physical body where on the far end you have those who worship their bodies and treat them as tools to further contribute to their own vanity – such is the case in compulsive exercisers and high-school jocks; these people experience what Kierkegaard refers to as the paradoxical passion of self-love: “When at its highest pitch [self-love] wills precisely its own downfall.”

On the other side of the continuum, you have those who work to destroy their bodies out of self-hatred – such is the case with those who struggle with eating disorders; as Augustine says, “Those who seek to do this perversely war on their bodies as though they were natural enemies.” And that is just what the problem is, they experience more than a lack of self-love, rather there is a sense of hatred for their bodies and they feel as though they must go into war with their self. I know because I fell into this group. And when I was at the most serious stage of my eating disorder (when I had no intention of recovery), I felt very much like I was in a battle against my own body because I hated it, and what my professor Lynn Szabo told me; she said: “Your body is not my enemy, it is your ally”. That changed my perspective on everything.

Our bodies are not our enemies, they are our allies. And this is why we must find a happy medium between enjoying our bodies for their own sake and hating them by engaging in self-destructive behaviours. But how can we do this? Well, Augustine talks of those who exercise not for vanity’s sake, but rather to prepare their bodies for their day-to-day needs. “[These men] do not strive to destroy themselves,” Augustine says, “on the contrary, they show care for their own health.” And therein lies the answer. When it comes loving your physical self and caring for it, balance is what is necessary; not warring against our body, rather, treating it with respect in light of our love for God, who created it.

Now, I’ve discussed self-love in the physical sense, but what about when it comes to self-love as it pertains to loving who you are? See, the problem is in many cases (excluding those of the narcissist) we take the golden rule, to “Love your neighbour as yourself” as a rule by which we follow in regards to how we treat the other. What we don’t realize, however, is that it also relates to how we must treat ourselves. Augustine addresses this issue. He says, “When it is said ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ at the same time it is clear that love for yourself is not omitted.”

Therein lies the answer. When it comes to self-love, we must treat our bodies as allies and not enemies in light of the fact that we are God’s creation and so we must care for ourselves in light of Him and, in our attempts to love our neighbours as ourselves, we must not forget to love ourselves as well, again, in light of God. Once we can achieve this, obesity will disappear, eating disorders will disappear, obsession with the pursuit of ‘perfection’ will disappear; we will be healthy, we will be loved, we will be free.

On Relationship with the Other

St. Augustine raises the question as to whether we are meant to enjoy the other, use the other, or both. He says, “It is commanded to us that we should love one another, but it is to be asked whether man is to be loved by man for his own sake or for the sake of something else.” Augustine believes we should love the other in light of something else – in light of God.

See, we are told not only to love our neighbours, but also to love God with all of our heart, soul, and minds (Matt 22:37). As Augustine puts it, “[Whatever appeals] to the mind as being lovable should be directed into that channel into which the whole current of love flows.” This means, that not only do we love ourselves in light of God (as I discussed in the previous section), but we also love our neighbour in light of God. Augustine puts it this way: “Thus, loving his neighbour as himself he refers the love of both to that love of God.” This type of love is also known as Agape, or ‘gift’, love. And, according to Augustine, no one will be upset if you love them in this way.

On Relationships of a Sexual Nature

Now when it comes to sexual relationships, I think it is important that rather than focus on how we must treat the other (as I’ve already discussed this in the previous section) we must focus on how we view and treat the sexual relationship itself. Sex is something meant to be shared between a man and a woman within the context of a marriage. This type of relationship is, in fact, meant to be viewed as eternal – because I believe it is not simply the joining of two bodies, but the joining of two souls. Therefore, the sexual relationship between spouses is something that is meant to be enjoyed.

A premarital sexual relationship, however, is merely temporal, and as such, it is not meant to be enjoyed, rather, it is something that is meant to be used. I might even take it further as to say that using something that isn’t even worthy of love of any type (meaning the nature of the relationship and not the people themselves), is actually an illicit use, and, as Augustine says, it is a “waste or an abuse”.

What happens is we go after premarital sex thinking it is this great thing, but once we acquire it, we realize it feels empty and we don’t understand why. So we go after more and more, trying to find completeness in it, but the more we get, the less complete we feel because, as Augustine says:

“A temporal thing is loved more before we have it, and it begins to grow worthless when we gain it, for it does not satisfy the soul, whose true and certain rest is eternity; but the eternal is more ardently loved when it is acquired than when it is merely desired.”

See, the problem is that not only have we lost sight of the fact that sexual relationships are meant for marriage and to be enjoyed in light of their eternal commitment to the other, but we have also began enjoying premarital sexual relationships and in doing so, cheapen any form of sexual relation (even in its intended form) entirely.

Augustine explains this well by using the example of being in a vehicle headed for one’s homeland; he says:

“[Our homeland is that which is meant to be enjoyed.] But if the amenities of the journey and the motion of the vehicles itself delighted us, and we were led to enjoy those things which we should use, we should not wish to end our journey quickly, and , entangled in a perverse sweetness, we should be alienated from our country, whose sweetness would make us blessed.”

We can take this analogy and apply it to sexual relationships. If we consider sex within a marriage to be our ‘homeland,’ which, naturally is meant to be enjoyed, and yet instead we get caught up in the journey to get there – enjoying it rather than using it – then we become so comfortable with premarital sex and our illicit enjoyment of it, that we no longer hold any value in waiting for sex within marriage.

If we enjoy something that should be used we lose direction and, as Augustine says, “Our course will be impeded and sometimes deflected.” This prevents us from receiving that which is meant to be enjoyed because we are “shackled by an inferior love.”

And that is exactly what is wrong with our society and its views on sex and relationships – we are doing it all wrong. We are enjoying sex outside of marriage, when it is something that isn’t even meant to be ‘used’ because it is not worthy of love. By doing this, we are losing sight of the fact that sex is not our homeland, marital sex is, and, therefore, we no longer see the value in waiting to arrive home because we are sadly “entangled in a perverse sweetness.”

On Abusive Relationships

According to Augustine, the spirit feels success when able to rule over other men. He says, “For it is the nature of the vicious spirit to desire greatly and to claim as its desert that which is properly due only to God.” Augustine refers to this type of behaviour as ‘hatred’.

We see this very behaviour in abusive relationships. One’s spirit longs to have power and authority over another human and therefore attempts to conquer the other through either physical or emotional abuse. In doing so, the abuser is not only hating the other person, but he/she is also hating his/her self. As Augustine says, “It is iniquitous for the spirit to wish those below it to serve it…and it is said most justly, ‘He that loveth iniquity hateth his own soul.’”

By abusing the other, we see not only damage done to the abused, but we also see the ultimate destruction of the soul of the abuser. Augustine says that the soul becomes weighed down by its own corruption. He explains that one’s spirit is only healthy when it is willing to submit itself to that which is more powerful, namely, God, and that when he or she chooses to dominate over another rather than humbly submit to God, his or her pride is “altogether intolerable.”

Therefore, in order for abusive relationships to end, we need to learn to submit ourselves to God, and love the other in light of Him, so that there no longer is a need to dominate over the other.

On Divorce

Finally, I want to address the issue of divorce. With the divorce rate excelling rapidly past the fifty percent rate, we clearly are getting something wrong.

I think a big problem is that we see marriage relationship as temporal, much like an iPod, and therefore, as St. Augustine says, we do not love the other in light of our eternal relationship with them (as marriage is an eternal bond, as I discussed in the section on sexual relationships) because we know love is meant only for eternal things and so instead we ‘use’ the other.

I believe that we do not view relationships as being eternal because divorce is so common in our culture and this gives us the illusion that they are temporal. However, I also think the divorce rate is so high because we see relationships as temporal – it’s an issue of the chicken or the egg, and the problem is that the higher the divorce rate, the more we view marriage as temporal and, therefore, the more the divorce rate increases. It’s a vicious cycle that we can’t get out of – or, at least, we can’t get out of until we break this idea that marriage is a temporal thing.

Marriage relationships are meant to be eternal. They aren’t ‘here today gone tomorrow’ and if we start viewing them as something eternal rather than temporal, we will start putting more value in them, more value in ‘the other’, and more value in ourselves. And then divorce will no longer be an issue.

It’s all about loving ourselves in light of God, loving the other in light of God, and recognising the difference between that which is to be used and that which is to be enjoyed. Then our relationships will become what God intended them to be all along. No more abuse, not more self-hatred, we will simply love our neighbours as we love ourselves and do all this in light of loving God with all of our heart, soul, and mind.

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My name is Lauren Bersaglio and I am the Founder and Editor of Libero Magazine. I am a writer, speaker, and dedicated mental health advocate based in Vancouver, BC. I love writing, makeup artistry, strategy board games, and going for runs with my Goldendoodle Zoey.

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