“Make love your aim” 1 Corinthians 14:1
Do you love yourself? It’s a serious question. Jesus said we are to love your neighbor “as you love yourself.” So self-love has an important role in our spiritual formation. But love of self is very tricky. If we don’t understand the proper motive and intention then we risk becoming narcissistic, maudlin, and even amoral.
Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th century monk, wrote a book entitled On Loving God. In it he described four degrees of love, each one successively better and purer than the one before. His degrees of love can help us think more clearly and deeply about aiming for the highest love.
The first degree of love is love of self for the sake of self. In other words, we solely are concerned about self. A baby comes with this programming, and there is certainly nothing wrong with it unless we don’t grow out of it. Many people have only this selfish love as their aim.
The second degree of love is a considerable improvement. It is the love of God for the sake of self. This is an improvement because at the very least the idea of God has been introduced to the selfish person. God is on the radar screen, and the person has some stirring of faith. Good start!
But there is a real danger. This individual has figured out that faith in God, love for God, can be beneficial, to the extent that you can get something out of God. Love Him and He will bless you. This kind of love is no different from a child’s love for Santa Claus. The child really does not love Santa, but the presents Santa brings! Many Christians never move beyond love of God for the sake of self.
An aside here. Much of the “prosperity preaching” today is second degree love. Nothing more. It is a popular appeal to a shallow self.
The third degree of love is much higher. It is the love of God for God’s sake. In other words you love God simply because of who He is. You delight in Him. You have the deepest affection for God because of His excellence and beauty. At this point you are no longer concerned about circumstances, and you do not stand in judgment of God’s faithfulness. You love God no matter what comes.
Now you might think that is as good as it gets. How can we improve on loving God for God’s sake alone? Bernard’s brilliance is that he envisioned a fourth and highest kind of love, the apex of spiritual development. It is the love of self for God’s sake.
In this love, you recognize that you are indeed uniquely formed in His image. You constantly remember that you are so valuable to Him that He would send His Son for you. You acknowledge and revel in the fact that the great God of the universe delights in you, forgives you, and transforms you. You take satisfaction in the talents and gifts God has bestowed upon you. You stop trying to be someone else, and decide to be precisely who God created you to be. In this acceptance you love the “self” God created you to be. This is the love of self for God’s sake.
I have known many people who have a great difficulty in loving themselves. They are filled with regrets and recriminations over some previous behavior or neglected commitment. They cannot forgive themselves. This graceless self-loathing comes in a variety of forms and causes tremendous damage. What they do not realize is that they are in fundamental disagreement with God, and that is part of the problem! The real way forward is to love yourself as God loves you, or love yourself for the sake of God.
The greatest general mistake in self-help attempts is starting with self. That never works. Until you love God, you can never have a healthy self-image. And the starting point is realizing and accepting God’s deep and joyous love for you!
Interestingly, some people in attempting to draw close to God end up feeling terribly unworthy. That is equally as unhealthy as narcissism, and it results from an unhealthy view of God.
I believe a great deal of personal misery is alleviated when we relax and begin to accept the fact that God really does love us deeply and we are the objects of His deepest grace. In our love for Him we find an appropriate and necessary love for self. So loving God truly transforms everything in life. Make love your aim.
Dr. Terry Ellis
October 18, 2015