ACCORDING to Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), there are four degrees of love. I’m using his structure below to describe a progression in the mode of spiritual maturity:
1. Loving oneself for one’s own sake.
This first degree of love, whilst it sounds basic in its selfish form, is nonetheless vital in the owning of one’s existence. If we cannot love ourselves for our own sake, what purpose is there to life? We must love ourselves and believe in ourselves enough to live adequately, because much of the world may appear not to be too bothered about us, personally. If we will not be our own advocates how would we expect another – besides trusting family or good friends – to come to our aid? Only when we love ourselves can we begin to contemplate loving God – or needing God for that matter.
2. Loving God for one’s own sake.
It may be a quick step from loving ourselves for our own sake to loving God for our own sake. In loving ourselves we find we cannot provide everything we need. Therefore we need God. This love we have for ourselves means that there is no barrier to God, because we know, through our love for ourselves, that someone or something ‘equally’ loving has created us. Knowing God has created us, and that he sustains us, we are motivated to love God, but truly for our own benefit.
3. Loving God for God’s sake.
At some point in our loving God for our own sake we begin to contemplate loving God for God’s sake. When this occurs we know our love is maturing into something truly useable for the Kingdom. At this point we have recognised the God deserves to be loved for the pure fact he is God. At this point our faith converts to consistent works that glorify our Lord. At this point our love is more instantaneous and instinctual. We may readily sacrifice our worldly needs because we value them no more; besides the fact we are beginning to know that coveting nothing is the spiritual nexus.
4. Loving self for God’s sake.
Arriving at this degree of love is transcendence as much as anything; to find the truth in the transcending of one’s self in order to be consumed by the living God for the purposes of the Kingdom – this is blessed. This degree of love is the true losing-your-life-to-save-it reality. Only in doing that – to give oneself up for the unknowable purposes of God – will we find ourselves in the place of loving ourselves for God’s sake.
The progression of love is life’s divine task. Our purpose is to know God and grow.
To know God is to love God. And to love God is to love his creatures. And to love his creatures is to love the self, for the delight God takes in humanity because of Jesus Christ.
At some point in our loving God for our own sake we begin to contemplate loving God for God’s sake. The summit of love, however, is to receive from God the will and rationale to love and accept ourselves for God’s sake. Then we have what we need to change our world within our sphere of influence in order that it would extend for God’s Kingdom.
© 2014 S. J. Wickham.