Why Christians Should Use People

The Christian world has been listening agog to Mike Cosper’s The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill which presents, in vivid terms, the perils of power in the office of the pastor. Sadly, through numerous examples we have become accustomed to the idea that misuse of pastoral power has catastrophic consequences.

We are sensitive, therefore, to what pastors teach about how people should be treated. How should we react if a pastor published a book, that raised the question “whether humans ought to enjoy one another or use one another” and then answered that Christians should, in fact, use people.Yet such is the argument of Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 AD) in his work On Christian Teaching. To those familiar with Kant’s dictum that “So act that you treat humanity…always …as an end, never merely as a means”[1] Augustines’s words seem grotesque.

Isn’t using people the very definition of abuse of power? Have we found in Augustine the root of so much of the pastoral abuse we now see? How can Augustine urge us, urge pastors, to use people rather than enjoy them?

I’d like to explore Augustine’s argument and suggest that, far from being a license or a vehicle for abuse, it is actually an effective prophylactic for the kinds of pastoral abuse and mistreatment that presently occupy our podcasts and social media feeds.

Things and Signs

Augustine is writing to teach teachers and he begins by making a famous distinction between signs and things. Signs are things but not every thing is a sign, for the nature of a sign is to point beyond itself to something else. Likewise, Augustine says, “some things are to be enjoyed, some which are to be used, and some whose function is both to enjoy and use.”[2] Augustine explains the distinction: “To enjoy something is to hold fast to it in love for its own sake. To use something is to apply whatever it may be to the purpose of obtaining what you love.”[3]

The distinctions between sign and thing and use and enjoyment are in parallel. It is the things which are to be enjoyed, those loved for their own sake, that signs signify and other things are used to get to. Augustine uses the metaphor of a journey. Imagine travellers going to their homeland, he says, who are so taken up with the journey that they never arrive at their destination where they can truly be happy. Such is the danger of those that enjoy what is meant to be used.

Using People, Enjoying God

What, then, are the things to be enjoyed? Augustine has a clear answer: “The things which are to be enjoyed, then, are the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and the Trinity that consists of them, which is a kind of single, supreme thing, shared by all who enjoy it.”[4] It is only the Triune God, who is unchangeable wisdom and truth and goodness, who is ultimately to be enjoyed. Everything else points to the supreme goodness of the Trinity and merely reflects it. Augustine then goes on to summarize how the Triune God has enabled those who are broken and wounded by the love of lesser things, created things, to be healed and restored and returned to that happy homeland: enjoyment of the Trinity.

This, then, is the backdrop for Augustine’s question which is best read in the context of the whole paragraph:

Among all these things, then, it is only the eternal and unchangeable things which I mentioned that are to be enjoyed; other things are to be used, so that we may attain the full enjoyment of those things…It is therefore an important question, whether humans ought to enjoy one another or to use one another or both. We have been commanded to love one another but the question is whether one person should be loved by another on his own account or for some other reason. If it is on his own account, we enjoy him; if for some other reason, we use him. In my opinion, he should be loved for another reason. For if something is to be loved on its own account, it is made to constitute a happy life, even if it is not as yet the reality but the hope of it which consoles us at this time. But ‘cursed is he who puts his hope in man’ [Jer. 17:5].[5]

Augustine’s logic is that if we love another person for their own sake, if they become our journey’s terminus, as it were, then we have made that person “constitute a happy life.” That person bears the weight of all our hopes and expectations of our soul’s happiness.

Laid out like this, we can see why Augustine insists that people should not be loved for their own sake, as an end in themselves. For, since human beings, though bearing the divine image, are finite, and now flawed, they are not a safe object of our strongest desires. Within the created order, human desire is like a howitzer in a bowling alley: an instrument of immense power in want of an appropriate target. No matter how precisely aimed, infinite human desire unleashed on a finite human object will only lead to disaster for both the lover and the loved.

Augustine provides an example of this in his autobiographical Confessions. In Book IV, Augustine records his limitless grief at the death of a friend. Grief, which made him, he tells us, “become to myself a place of unhappiness in which I could not bear to be; but I could not escape from myself.”[6] Reflecting on his desolation, Augustine tells us that “the reason why that grief had penetrated me so easily and deeply was that I had poured out my soul on to the sand by loving a person sure to die as if he would never die.”[7] Augustine is not, of course, condemning grief at the death of a friend, we will return to this point later, yet he diagnoses in the catastrophic nature of his grief a sign that he had loved his friend as if he were infinite.

Of course, it is not just in death that people reveal their finitude. No amount of human attention, care, or praise is sufficient to sustain another human soul. And none of us give to others all the care or attention we are capable of, given our sinful and broken condition. What Augustine says of finite creatures in general is no less true of human beings: “something temporal is loved more before it is possessed, but will lose its appeal when attained, for it does not satisfy the soul.” It may not emerge as grief but in some other form: loveless withdrawal, overbearing anger, smothering control, or the inability to believe that the object of our love has ever done anything wrong. All these and more can be a sign that we have begun to make someone an end in themselves.

Faced with the discrepancy between our need and what is supplied by the finite object of our desire, we have two options. Denial, where we seek to convince ourselves and others that the object of our love really does meet our need; numbing ourselves to the pain of the shortfall so like the leper we can leave our hand in the fire. Or, we blame the one on whom we have leaned for not being able to bear our weight and direct upon them all our bitterness for the hunger of our soul. In neither case do we actually love the other person as they really are. Either we idealise them, ceasing to perceive their needs as finite beings, or we demonise them, blinded to their created goodness.

Loving For God’s Sake

Augustine, then, proposes an alternative. Having explained that we should not love even ourselves on our own account, he writes: “So if you ought to love yourself not on your own account but on account of the one who is the most proper object of your love, another person should not be angry if you love him too on account of God.”[8] We are to love others, not for each others’ sake, but so that we might reach our “permanent goal”, the “supreme reward” of knowing God.

A moment’s reflection should disclose how liberating this is. Seeking enjoyment in the Triune God, I am freed to no longer require from others that their goodness, their care, their compassion should somehow quench the thirst of my inner being. I am released to merely appreciate the way they reflect in some finite way the unquenchable goodness of the infinite God. If I appreciate your sense of humour or kindness, I do not have to be crushed if I find in you an occasional irritability because what I enjoyed in you has led me not to you, but your source: the Triune creator. Each peal of laughter, each word of kindness or spark of insight I find in another person is a reminder to me of my destination, my true place of rest, the unchanging, infinite goodness of the Triune God. Reflecting on Jesus’ command to love God with heart, soul and mind, Augustine writes,

any object worthy of love that enters the mind should be swept towards the same destination as that to which the whole flood of our love is directed. So a person who loves his neighbour properly should, in concert with him, aim to love God with all his heart, all his soul, and all his mind. In this way, loving him as he would himself, he relates his love of himself and his neighbour entirely to the love of God, which allows not the slightest trickle to flow away from it and thereby diminish it.[9]

It is only by loving our neighbour, friends, spouses and children for the sake of another, God himself, that we can love them truly and fully. Loving our neighbour in God risks no disappointment, no bitter taste of disillusionment for,

When you enjoy a human being in God, you are enjoying God rather than that human being. For you enjoy the one by whom you are made happy, and you will one day rejoice that you have attained the one in whom you now set your hope of attaining him.[10]

Everything good in our neighbour sweeps us towards the source of all goodness: the unchanging goodness of God. Everything flawed and finite in them provokes compassion, just as our sin provoked compassion in God.

Some Objections

At this stage, we might have two objections. First, isn’t this just “don’t make an idol out of people”, the kind of advice that you can find in countless evangelical publications about relationships? Of course, that is at the heart of what Augustine is saying. But where his analysis goes further is identifying how we can make someone an idol: by failing to continue travelling, by failing to make the last connection of relating our love for them to their creator and instead stopping, and closing our love and desire on their finitude. As Rowan Williams puts it, Augustine is warning “against an attitude towards any finite person or object that terminates their meaning in their capacity to satisfy my desire, that treats them as the end of desire, conceiving my meaning in terms of them and theirs in terms of me.’[11] Without this element, the injunction not to make people an idol can appear to make our love for people and our love for God a zero-sum game, that we can only ensure that we love God by not loving people. But Augustine’s analysis uproots that error. The problem with our love for people is not that it is excessive but that it ceases too soon, instead of rolling on and through towards its eternal source and satisfaction.

This helps answer the other potential objection we might have: doesn’t Augustine sound like a cold fish? Doesn’t this talk of ‘using’ people, no matter how qualified, make Augustine sound like one of those people that inspired Douglas Coupland to write, “Looking a convert in the eyes was like trying to make eye contact with a horse. They’d be alive and breathing, but they wouldn’t be a hundred percent there anymore. They’d left the day-to-day world and joined the realm of eternal time.”[12] Doesn’t his reflections on his grief over his friend’s death suggest that? This, I think, is to misread Augustine. For Augustine writes,

Yet the idea of enjoying someone or something is very close to that of using someone or something together with love. For when the object of love is present, it inevitably brings with it pleasure as well.[13]

“Using” people in this Augustinian sense does not preclude deriving pleasure from them, appreciating them, and therefore, feeling loss and sadness if we are parted from them. Friendship was a central theme of Augustine’s life, so much so that he could write, “what consolation have we in this human society…except the unfeigned faith and mutual affections of genuine, loyal friends?”[14] In the same passage Augustine speaks of the “burning sorrow that ravages our hearts” when we hear of misfortune befalling our loved ones. No, Augustine’s approach is not one of cold indifference, he does not rebuke us for the joy, the elation, the sadness and sorrow that human society involves; rather he urges us to let our love for our neighbour ascend to its highest intensity, and therefore abound to its highest object: the Triune God who is love itself.

Use, Love, and Abuse

It should now be clear how what Augustine is saying is the very opposite of the kind of “bodies piling up behind the bus” pastoral approach of some church leaders. If we are to use people it is as signposts to the infinite, unconditioned goodness of the Triune God. Using people to get something more limited than a human being, such as power, popularity, money or success, would strike Augustine as utterly perverse, travelling in the wrong direction, like someone booking a hotel in order to visit a bus stop. Relative to the rest of creation, Kant’s dictum is right – no created object is worthy to be an end for which other people are the means. Only the uncreated Triune God, Father, Son and Spirit, can qualify as an end for which human beings can serve as means.Everything else is decaying and failing – things that lose their appeal when attained. The paradox is that only when people are used, used to obtain and enjoy that triune goodness, are people loved as they really are: created echoes of that goodness uniquely made in the image of God.

Therefore, when we see pastoral abuse, we see guides that do not know the destination; pastors that do not know the eternal joy that is in the Triune God, the only thing that is “loved more passionately when obtained than when desired.” No amount of money or success, power or praise, can ever be the final source of enjoyment for the soul “whose true and certain abode is eternity.”[15] And so, those pastors who use people to get to them are travelling in the opposite direction to the one Augustine recommends. The bright lights on the horizon they point to are not the fires of home but merely the signalling on the railway line: useful for the journey, deadly as a destination.

Instead, Augustine would have us use each other to move towards the infinite love, goodness and glory of the Father, Son and Spirit and enjoy all things in Him. When we realise that is our true destination, then we can truly begin to use our power, pastoral or otherwise, and everything else we possess, in a way shaped by that divine love, “which allows not the slightest trickle to flow away from it and thereby diminish it”.[16]

Graham Shearer is a PhD candidate at Union Theological College in Belfast, where he lives with his wife and children. You can follow him on Twitter @GJShearer.

  1. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals in Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy, trans. Mary Gregor (Cambridge, 1996), p. 429, italics omitted.

  2. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. by R. P. H. Green (Oxford, 2008), 1.III.3,p9.

  3. ibid., 1.IV.4,p9.

  4. ibid., 1.V.5, p.10.

  5. ibid., 1.XXII.21, p.16-17.

  6. Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick, (Oxford), 4.vii, p.60.

  7. ibid., 4.viii, p.60.

  8. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 1.XXII.21, p.17.

  9. ibid., 1.XXII.21, p.17.

  10. ibid., 1.XXXIII.37, p.25.

  11. Rowan Williams, ‘Language, Reality and Desire in Augustine’s “De Doctrina”’, Literature and Theology 3, no. 2 (1989): 140.

  12. Douglas Coupland, Hey Nostradamus! (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010), 27.

  13. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 1.XXXIII.37, p.25–26.

  14. Augustine, City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson, Penguin Classics (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 19.8, 862.

  15. Augustine, On Christian Teaching,., 1.XXXVIII.42, p.28.

  16. ibid., 1.XXII.21, p.17.


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