Augustine here addresses a problem we often face in seeking to do good – we are accused of evil that we do not do and are not given credit for the good we do. He reminds us of the words of both Paul and the Lord Jesus — all we need to be concerned with is pleasing not men but God, maintaining a clear conscience and making sure our example does not lead others astray and provide cause for scandal.
This is our glory: the witness of our conscience. There are men who rashly judge, who slander, whisper and murmur, who are eager to suspect what they do not see, and eager to spread abroad things they have not even a suspicion of. Against men of this sort, what defense is there save the witness of our own conscience?
My brothers, we do not seek, nor should we seek, our own glory even among those whose approval we desire. What we should seek is their salvation, so that if we walk as we should they will not go astray in following us. They should imitate us if we are imitators of Christ; and if we are not, they should still imitate him. He cares for his flock, and he alone is to be found with those who care for their flocks, because they are all in him.
And so we seek no advantage for ourselves when we aim to please men. We want to take our joy in men – and we rejoice when they take pleasure in what is good, not because this exalts us, but because it benefits them.
It is clear who is intended by the apostle Paul: If I wanted to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ [Gal. 1:10]. And similarly when he says: Be pleasing to all men in all things, even as I in all things please all men. Yet his words are as clear as water, limpid, undisturbed, unclouded. And so you should, as sheep, feed on and drink of his message; do not trample on it or stir it up.
You have listened to our Lord Jesus Christ as he taught his apostles: Let your actions shine before men so that they may see your good deeds, and give glory to your Father who is in heaven, for it is the Father who made you thus. We are the people of his pasture, the sheep of his hands. If then you are good, praise is due to him who made you so; it is no credit to you, for if you were left to yourself, you could only be wicked. Why then do you try to pervert the truth, in wishing to be praised when you do good, and blaming God when you do evil? For though he said: Let your works shine before men, in the same Sermon on the Mount he also said: Do not parade your good deeds before men. So if you think there are contradictions in Saint Paul, you will find the same in the Gospels; but if you refrain from troubling the waters of your heart, you will recognize here the peace of the Scriptures and with it you will have peace.
And so, my brothers, our concern should be not only to live as we ought, but also to do so in the sight of men; not only to have a good conscience but also, so far as we can in our weakness, so far as we can govern our frailty, to do nothing which might lead our weak brother into thinking evil of us. Otherwise, as we feed on the good pasture and drink the pure water, we may trample on God’s meadow, and weaker sheep will have to feed on trampled grass and drink from troubled waters.
This excerpt from a sermon by Saint Augustine on conscience and not seeking to please men (Serm. 47, 12-14, De ovibus: CCL 41, 582-584) is used in the Roman Catholic Office of Readings for Tuesday of the thirteenth (13th) week in Ordinary Time with the accompanying biblical text taken from 2 Samuel 2:1-11; 3:1-5.