“Four Degrees of Love” from the Treatise “On the Love of God,” by Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153)
You ask me, “why should God be loved?” I answer: the reason for loving God is God Himself. And why should God be loved for His own sake? Simply because no one could be more justly loved than God. No one deserves our love more.
Some may question if God deserves our love or if they might have something to gain by loving Him. The answer to both questions is yes, but I find no other worthy reason for loving Him except Himself.
God is entitled to our love. Why? Because he gave Himself for us despite the fact that we are so undeserving. What better could He have given?
If we ask why God is entitled to our love, we should answer, “because He first loved us.” God is clearly deserving of our love especially if we consider who He is that loves us, who we are that He loves, and how much He loves us.
And who is God? Is He not the one to whom every spirit bears witness: “Thou art my God?” God has no need of our worldly possessions. True love is precisely this: that it does not seek its own interests. And how much does He love us? He so loved the world that he gave his only Son; He laid down His life for us.
The 1st Degree of Love: Love of Self for Self’s Sake
Love is a natural human affection. It comes from God. Hence the first and greatest commandment is, “thou shalt love the Lord thy God.” But human nature is weak and therefore compelled to love itself in service to itself first. In the human realm, people love themselves for their own sake. This is planted within us for whoever hated his own self?
But if this love of ourselves becomes too lavish, it will overflow its natural boundaries through excessive love of pleasure. People can easily become slaves to the soul’s enemy: lust. This love of self is held in check by the command to love our neighbor. If we cannot love our neighbor because of our love of self, then we must restrain our lusts and give to our neighbor’s needs. Your love will then be temperate when you take from yourself and give to your neighbor.
But what will you do if your own needs are not met? Will you look to God to meet your needs? God promises that those who seek first the kingdom and his righteousness will have all things added unto them. God promises that to those who restrict themselves and give to their neighbor, He will give whatever is necessary.
Seeking first the kingdom means to prefer to bear the yoke of modesty and restraint rather than allow sin to reign in your mortal body.
In order to love our neighbor, we must see that God is the cause of our love. How can we have a pure love for a neighbor if we do not love him in God? And you cannot love your neighbor unless you love God. God must be loved first in order that we may love our neighbor in God.
The Second Degree of Love: Love of God for Self’s Sake
God, therefore, who makes everything that is good, makes Himself to be loved. He does it as follows: first, God blesses us with his protection. When we live free from travel we are happy, but in our pride we may conclude that we are responsible for security. Then, when we suffer some calamity, some storm in our lives, we turn to God and ask His help, calling upon Him in times of trouble. This is how we who only love ourselves first begin to love God. We will begin to love God even if it is for our own sake. We love God because we have learned that we can do all things through Him and without Him we can do nothing.
The Third Degree of Love: Love of God for God’s Sake
In the first degree of love, we love ourselves for our own sake. In the second degree of love, we love God for our own sake, chiefly because He has provided for us and rescued us. But if trials and tribulations continue to come upon us, every time God brings us through, even if our hearts were made of stone, we will begin to be softened because of the grace of the rescuer. Thus, we begin to love God not merely for our own sake but for Himself.
In order to arrive at this, we must continually go to God with our needs and pray. In those prayers, the grace of God is tasted, and by frequent tasting, it is proved to us how sweet the Lord is. Thus it happens that once God’s sweetness has been tasted, it draws us to the pure love of God more than our needs compel us to love Him. Thus we begin to say, “we now love God, not for our necessity, for we ourselves have tasted and know how sweet the Lord is.”
When we begin to feel this, it will not be hard to fulfill the second commandment: to love our neighbor. For those who truly love God in this way also love the things of God. Also, it becomes easier to be obedient in all of the commands of God. We begin to love God’s commands and embrace them.
This love is pure because it is disinterested (i.e., not offered in order to obtain something). It is pure because it is not merely in our words that we begin to serve, but in our actions. We love because we are loved. We care for others because Jesus cares for us.
We have obtained this degree when we can say, “give praise to the Lord for He is good, not because He is good to me, but because He is good.” Thus we truly love God for God’s sake and not our own. The third degree of love is the love by which God is now loved for His very self.
The Fourth Degree of Love: Love of Self for God’s Sake
Blessed are we who experience the fourth degree of love wherein we love ourselves for God’s sake. Such experiences are rare and come only for a moment. In a manner of speaking, we lose ourselves as though we did not exist, utterly unconscious of ourselves and emptied of ourselves.
If for even a moment we experience this kind of love, we will then know the pain of having to return to this world and its obligations as we are recalled from the state of contemplation. In turning back to ourselves, we will feel as if we are suffering as we return into the mortal state in which we were called to live.
But during those moments we will be of one mind with God and our wills in one accord with God. The prayer, “Thy will be done,” will be our prayer in our delight. Just as a little drop of water mixed with a lot of wine seems to entirely lose its own identity as it takes on the taste and color of the wine; just as iron, heated and glowing, looks very much like fire, having lost its original appearance; just as air flooded with the light of the sun is transformed into the same splendor of the light so that it appears to be light itself, so is life for those who melt away from themselves and are entirely transfused into the will of God.
This perfect love of God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength will not happen until we are no longer compelled to think about ourselves and attend to the body’s immediate needs. Only then can the soul attend to God completely. This is why in the present body we inhabit this is difficult to maintain. But it is within God’s power to give such an experience to whom he wills, and it is not attained by our own efforts.
Entering Into the First, Second, and Third Degrees of Love
What are the four degrees of love?
- First, we love ourselves for our own sake; since we are unspiritual and of the flesh, we cannot have an interest in anything that does not relate to ourselves.
- When we begin to see that we cannot subsist by ourselves, we begin to seek God for our own sakes. This is the second degree of love; we love God, but only for our own interests.
- But if we begin to worship and come to God again and again by meditating, by reading, by prayer, and by obedience, little by little God becomes known to us through experience. We enter into a sweet familiarity with God, and by tasting how sweet the Lord is we pass into the third degree of love so that now we love God, not for our own sake, but for Himself. It should be noted that in this third-degree we will stand still for very long time.
Can We Attain the Fourth Degree of Love?
I am not certain that the fourth degree of love, in which we love ourselves only for the sake of God, may be attained in this life. But when it does happen, we will experience the joy of the Lord and be forgetful of ourselves in a wonderful way. We are, for those moments, one mind and one spirit with God.
I am of the opinion that this is what the prophet meant when he said: “I will enter into the power of the Lord: Lord I will be mindful of that justice alone.” He felt, certainly, that when he entered into the spiritual powers of the Lord he would have laid aside self and his whole being would, in the spirit, be mindful of the justice of the Lord alone.
When we attain the fourth degree of love [mindful of the justice of the Lord alone], then the net of charity, which now is drawn through this great and vast sea, does not cease to gather together fish of every kind. And when brought at last to the shore casting forth the bad, will retain only the good. Still, I do not know if we can attain this degree in this life. We live in a world of sorrow and tears and we experience the mercy and comfort of God only in that context. How can we be mindful of mercy when the justice of God alone will be remembered? Where there is no place for misery or occasion for pity, surely there can be no feeling of compassion.
About Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153)
One of the great leaders in church history, Bernard was both an eloquent speaker and an example of godly living. At the age of 22, he left his home in Dijon, France to enter the monastery of Citeaux. Only three years later he was appointed to supervise a group of monks in the newly founded monastery at Clairvaux and he remained there until his death. Bernard’s words had a profound influence on Martin Luther and John Calvin.
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