Bernard of Clairvaux, a man who led a renewal movement in the 12th century European church, has an incredible insight about the “levels of love” as we relate to God and understand ourselves.
God is love, and because we were created to resemble Him, we, too, have an impulse to love. But that impulse first leaks out in a badly perverted form.
Level #1: I love myself for my sake. In other words, we’re selfish. That’s true of every child born into the world.
And then we hear about a God who is good enough to do what no one else would, to look after us. Good. It’s about time.
Level #2: I love God for my sake. That’s how most people who believe there is a God regard Him. Each thinks, He is Someone who exists to make me happy, to make my life better. Now I can go to church and worship God without any real sense of sinfulness or any significant dislodging of my selfishness. I can go to church with the same expectation that carries me into a restaurant: feed me well. I want what you serve me to taste good and be good for me. I’ll leave a big tip if you deliver.
Eventually it becomes appallingly clear that I can be a little hellion who loves no one but myself. And a new word enters our vocabulary–wrong. I’m wrong. And when I realize that I’m wrong, another new word occurs to me that I need: Forgiveness. Maybe then we hear about Jesus and what He did for us on the cross. Before, goodness meant my receiving whatever I wanted. Now that same word is measured by Someone sacrificing His well-being in an act of utter selflessness for the well-being of someone who is utterly selfish.
Love level #3: I love God for God’s sake. When I realize who He is and who I am, when I see that He loves me when I use Him, and died to forgive me for being so self-centered, I become a Christian, a forgiven sinner who loves God for who He is, a lover like no other.
Bernard’s insight into the Christ life reaches still higher. Gratitude begins to stir. A longing rises up. I want to do something for someone else, for God. I look at what I have, at who I am. Perhaps I have musical talent. Perhaps I’m relational difficulties. The longing takes shape and I realize that everything I have (those gifts AND those trying circumstances) is an opportunity to release my gratitude to God.
Love level #4: I love myself for God’s sake. Now everything in me (weaknesses and strengths) and in my life (trials and pleasures) becomes an eagerly received opportunity to bring Him pleasure by trusting His goodness, counting on His promises, and living to delight Him).
Suffering is transformed from pain requiring relief into a costly opportunity to delight the God I love. Blessings, all the good things I enjoy, no longer remain sources of pleasure to enhance and exploit, but now stretch before me as avenues for displaying my love for God, both by accepting them with gratitude and by sharing them with joy.
So what level are you on?