Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th-century monk, may be best known for his devotional classic On the Love of God in which he outlines what he calls Four Degrees of Love.

 The 1st Degree of Love: Loving Yourself For Your Own Sake (Selfish Love)

The 2nd Degree of Love: Loving God for Your Own Blessing (Dependence on God)

 The 3rd Degree of Love: Loving God for God’s Own Sake (Intimacy with God)

 The 4th Degree of Love: Self-Love for God’s Sake (Being United with God’s Love)

Bernard’s first degree of love makes complete sense. Possibly building from Augustine’s concept of incurvatus in se, which is Latin for “turned/curved inward on oneself,” Bernard understood that we come into the world completely about self. All loves initially serve self in some way.

As we hear and slowly comprehend the Gospel, something in us opens to God’s pursuing love and we begin to actually love (we can only love because he first loved us). While this may not be a complete love, it is still love though it is for our own benefit, not for God’s sake. Loving God allows us to escape hell, enjoy his promises, and potentially live a better life (think Prodigal son here). Bernard does not consider this a bad stage of life because he understands that even the coldest heart of stone can be “tenderized by the goodness of God’s grace.”

Through our frequent dependencies in crying out for God to meet us in our point of need, we enter the third degree of love. This continual turning to him opens in us a growing awareness of his presence and enjoyment of being with him. Our deepening intimacy becomes sweet as we discover how wonderful he is. “This experience thus promotes the love of God, so that it transcends over all our needs. Like the Samaritans, we are to respond that we know His goodness, not because we were told about it, but we have experienced it for ourselves (John 4:42).” Bernard would say at this point, we are loving God for who he really is.

Similar to the disciples who declared their love (loyalty) and fell away, it’s in our continual return and discovery of God’s infinite grace and loving acceptance that we can relax in loving him for his sake.

The final degree of love is a bit of a surprise. Loving self in God for God’s sake may be Bernard’s version of Augustine’s notion that knowing God and knowing self are inseparable. As Bernard puts it, “in God all our affections center, so that in all things we seek to do only His will and not to please ourselves.” This is far different from present thinking that loving God diminishes our sense of self. It can’t. Our true self is now caught up in him. The same self that he loves and that is growing to fully love him. As one author puts it, “I love me for God’s sake, wanting to claim everything that happens in my life as an opportunity to put Jesus on display because I believe he’s the most wonderful thing going.”

In all this, I think the invitation for all of us is to spend less time wondering about which degree of love we inhabit and instead ponder how we will respond to his simple invitation to receive his love. In this, I think we are on the path to loving God who is loving us.


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