“Make love your aim.” 1 Corinthians 14:1
Bernard of Clairvaux was a 12th century monk, a gifted writer, and a charismatic leader. He 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.
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 that in the early years. The problems come when we don’t grow out of it. I have known people of every age who have not outgrown this self-absorbed love.
The second degree of love is a considerable improvement. It is the love of God for the sake of self. I say this is an improvement because at least the idea of God has been introduced to the selfish person. He’s on the radar screen. The person loves God and professes faith. Good!
But there is a real danger. For what reason does this person love God? For the sake of self. In other words, 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 is true, of course, but it is still rather infantile. It’s like being nice to daddy so he’ll give you money whenever you ask. This love is concerned to get something back from God. That’s love of God for the sake of 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? The brilliance of Bernard 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.
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 self-loathing comes in a variety of forms and causes tremendous damage.
The real way forward is to love yourself as God loves you. This means that you love yourself for the sake of God. You recognize that you are indeed uniquely formed in His image. You consistently 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 takes delight in you. You take satisfaction in the talents and gifts God has bestowed upon you. You stop trying to be someone else, but decide to be precisely who God created you to be. In this acceptance you love “self.” That is the love of self for God’s sake.
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. Bernard showed us that this is the way forward to a love of self that is healthy and reflects God’s desire for each one of us.
Dr. Terry Ellis
June 18, 2012