St Augustine is writing about the Scripture passage, ‘Bear one another’s burdens and thus you will fulfil the law of Christ.’ (Galatians 6.2)
6. Therefore we should never reject the friendship of someone who is pressing to become a friend; we should not accept this at once, but hope to be able to accept it, and deal with the person in a way that might make this possible. We can say that someone has been accepted into friendship when we dare to pour out all our plans to him.
But suppose there is someone who does not dare to press to make friends, because he is put off by some worldly honour or status of ours. We should go down to his level and offer him, with friendliness and modesty, what he does not dare to ask for himself. It also happens sometimes, if less often, that there is someone we are willing to accept as a friend, but we find out about his faults before we do about his virtues. Then we are shocked and put off by these and abandon him, and do not succeed in discovering his good qualities, which are perhaps more hidden. That is why the Lord Jesus Christ, who wants us to become imitators of himself, warns us to put up with the weaknesses of such a person, in order, through tolerant love, to lead him to health; then we can share in his pleasure at that. For the Lord said, ‘My work is not as a doctor for the healthy, but for the sick’ (Matthew 9.12).
Because of the love of Christ, then, we ought not to drive from our mind even those who are ill in every respect, since they can be healed through God’s Word. How much less should we treat in that way someone who might seem to us completely ill only because we are at the very beginning of the friendship unable to support their woundedness? What is more serious, because we are shocked, we have dared to make a rash prejudgement about the person as a whole, not fearing the words, ‘Judge not, lest you be judged’ and ‘in the measure by which you measure, you will be measured yourself’ (Matthew 7.1-2).
On the other hand, it is often the case that good qualities appear first, and then we have to be wary of rash judgements that are too kind, in case you think someone is completely good, and then when his bad qualities appear later on, you are caught unawares and complacent, and are very upset. Then you might end up bitterly hating someone you loved too hastily, which is a terrible thing. For even if some of his good qualities came first, then those which appeared later should have been tolerated as bad qualities until they became evident, to the point where you had given him all the help that usually cures such problems. How much more, then, should you act like that when the good qualities come first, and ought to bind us like pledges to put up with what follows?
7. It is therefore the law of Christ that we should bear each other’s burdens. Moreover, by loving Christ, we will easily support someone else’s weaknesses, even where we cannot yet love him for his own good qualities. For we reflect that the Lord, whom we love, died for his sake. St Paul urges such love on us when he says, ‘And your weak brother will perish through your knowledge, when Christ died for his sake’ (I Corinthians 8.11). If, then, we love a weak person less because of the vice that makes her weak, let us think about her that Christ died for her. Not to love Christ, though, is not weakness, but death. Therefore we should reflect very carefully, begging the mercy of God, in case we neglect Christ in the weak person, when we ought to love her for Christ’s sake. © Margaret Atkins 2004
For two Augnet pages about this written work of St Augustine, click here.