“At first, man loves himself for his own sake. That is the flesh, which can appreciate nothing beyond itself. Next, he perceives that he cannot exist by himself, and so begins by faith to seek after God, and to love Him as something necessary to his own welfare. That is the second degree, to love God, not for God’s sake, but selfishly. But when he has learned to worship God and to seek Him aright, meditating on God, reading God’s Word, praying and obeying His commandments, he comes gradually to know what God is, and finds Him altogether lovely. So, having tasted and seen how gracious the Lord is (Ps. 34.8), he advances to the third degree, when he loves God, not merely as his benefactor but as God. Surely he must remain long in this state; and I know not whether it would be possible to make further progress in this life to that fourth degree and perfect condition wherein man loves himself solely for God’s sake.” (https://ccel.org/ccel/bernard/loving_god/loving_god.xvii.html).
In the above section from Bernard of Clairvaux we have his rendering of the four degrees of love. The first degree is true of all of us: we love ourselves for our own sake. We are the center of our own world, and we speak and act accordingly, structuring our world to best suit our own selfish desires. For many of us, this way of living begins to wane and we are left searching for meaning in life. Douglas Coupland, in his little book ‘Life After God,’ writes: “Now - here is my secret: . . . My secret is that I need God - that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.” I do not know if Coupland realized how well his words fit with those of Bernard of Clairvaux.
When we realize that there’s got to be more than this - more than serving myself for my own sake - our attention may turn to God. There is still a selfishness here, as noted by Coupland; we seek God to help us be better, and in this regard we are still the center of attention. Saint Bernard takes us a step further, however, to the idea of loving God for God’s sake. This is a mature level of spirituality: to love God not for what God can do for us but simply because God is worthy of being loved (and is lovable). So whether or not God’s help is apparent in my life or he appears to be silent, I will still set my affection upon him. This third degree of love is the debate of the book of Job. In the opening chapters of Job, Satan attends a meeting in the heavenlies and raises the question: does Job serve God for selfish reasons? God has given Job wisdom and wealth, health and happiness, so of course Job loves God; it is in his own best interest to do so. Ah, but if God were to take away Job’s health and wealth, would Job still love God? Does Job love God for God’s sake? This is the third degree of love.
The fourth degree of love which Bernard refers to is loving self for God’s sake. It is a recognition of our own sacredness and beauty having been created in the image of God, and the orienting of our lives around this truth. The words of Paul come to mind: “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).