In Peter Scazzero’s devotional book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, he shares from some of Bernard of Clairvaux’s most famous writings. In his great work entitled Loving God, Bernard describes four degrees of love:
Loving ourselves for our own sake
Loving God for His gifts and blessings
Loving God for Himself alone
Loving ourselves for the sake of God
The highest degree of love, for Bernard, was simply that we love ourselves as God loves us – in the same degree, in the same manner, and with the very same love. Not in a self-centered manner, but loving the essential image and likeness of God in us, losing ourselves completely in His grace through Jesus Christ.
I confess that I usually get stuck at the second degree of love. For as many years as I’ve been a follower of Christ, I just can’t seem to grow beyond loving and relating to God for His gifts and blessings, apart from the seasons of life where I have walked through great personal suffering.
Most recently, it was a long and dark season of enduring postpartum anxiety, depression and severe insomnia that prompted me to cry out to God repeatedly. In that valley, I felt like God had allowed me to be stripped of my health and sanity. I no longer had the gifts and blessings of regular sleep, a peaceful mind and a joyful disposition. It was hard to recognize myself in the mirror. I could no longer love myself for
my own sake, in fact, I despised myself and at times felt completely worthless. It was in these moments that I began to barely scratch the surface of the third degree of love – loving God for Himself alone.
What did it look like to still cling to God and believe that He loved me unconditionally, even when I felt like everything in my life (on the surface at least) that I could prove His love with had been taken away from me? It dawned on me then, that my entire life leading up to this valley season had been relatively smooth-sailing. Of course, in seasons of abundance, it was easy to proclaim God’s goodness, to point to the ‘evidence’, as it were, of God’s faithfulness in my life.
But what happens when there’s nothing physical or material that you can point to and say, look at this as proof of God’s goodness? What happens when the only thing you can proclaim is that Christ has taken your place on the Cross, to suffer and die in your place, so that you may have eternal redemption in the Father’s presence, and that “in all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1 Peter 1:6)? Would we then be able to truly love God for Himself alone, and not what He can give us?
And when we have finally matured to that point, perhaps we would then be able to see ourselves fully and completely through God’s eyes, and not our own. Perhaps we would see Jesus in ourselves and be able to fully submit ourselves to His will for our lives, not pandering to the pressures of the world, nor crushing ourselves under unresolvable guilt and self-loathing. Perhaps we would be able to live in complete obedience to God, being a faithful image-bearer of His in the world.
That would be something truly worthwhile to grow towards.
By sister Ethel Yap