When asked as to which is the greatest commandment in the law, Jesus answered,
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’. All the law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37-40)
A thousand years ago, Bernard of Clairvaux set out four stages in the way we can set ourselves to following these two commandments which summarise the law and the prophets. Today the Cistercian order keeps his teachings alive.
The first stage is that of (1) loving ourselves for our sake, or self-respect. I learnt in the Boys’ Brigade from the age of 12 its motto which is “the advancement of Christ’s kingdom among boys and the promotion of habits of Obedience, Reverence, Discipline and Self-respect, and all that tends towards a true Christian manliness”. What puzzled me was the reference to self-respect. Is there not a danger of downsliding into outright selfishness?
Yet it was self-respect which kept me able to grow into Christian manhood. There were many forces then (it was over sixty years ago) which tended to make me lose respect for myself such as competition in the school I attended, being younger than those in the same class (I was under age most of the time), and my selfish desires being greater than my capacity to control them. Over and over again, I had to remind myself to respect myself for who I am, no matter how far ahead or behind I may be. Self-respect restrains total selfishness because what is important is my identity as a person, not the gratification of desires. Today, the need is still there for self-respect, to love oneself as a person, despite advancing age and a weakening body. The sign of being in this stage of love is that of self-affirmation.
Only with love for oneself as a person can one move on to the second stage of (2) loving God for one’s sake. God enables us to be more of the person we ought to be. I was often encouraged as a teenager and young adult of what Paul wrote in Philippians 4:13, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength”. It seems to be selfishness but it is not centred on the gratification of one’s desires but on the enlargement of the capacity in myself which only God can give. Today, I love God for what God can do in me, not in physical or mental ability which is diminishing but perhaps in the wisdom or insights which advancing age brings. The sign of we being in this stage of love is that of thanksgiving for the many blessings God has showered on us.
From there, one can move to the third stage of transformation which is that of (3) loving God for God’s sake. No more is there a centering on the capacity within us but there is a centering on the capacity in God Himself. God is where there is an abundance of all the good that is within us, so we can appreciate the goodness in others (there is no envy, for God can be very generous) and in nature. The sign of we being in this stage of love is that of praise or appreciation. We are constantly applauding! Non-Christians are puzzled when we praise God even though we are down and out! Yet it is but a logical progression from thanksgiving (thanking God for blessings showered on us) to praise (blessing God for being able to bless those who are young and healthy and strong, though I am now old).
Yet the progression cannot be taken for granted: there are many who are still trapped in the first, second or third stages of love, unless the Holy Spirit or “the in-between God”, as John Taylor the British theologian puts it, dwells in us. It is God who enables us to love God.
This brings us to the fourth stage of love, that of (4) loving ourselves for God’s sake. It is eternal life which Karl Barth, the German theologian described as life seen from God’s perspective. From God’s perspective, we are not worth loving yet God loves us. From our perspective, we are worth loving, hence the progression from the first to the third stages of love.
However Job described who we are as “man, who is but a maggot – a son of man, who is only a worm!” (Job 25:6). Even Psalm 8 asks “what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:5) How then can we explain the paradox in the next verse that “(God) made him ruler over the works of your hands” (Psalm 8:6)?
The paradox is explained by the fact that it is God who has moved man from total selfishness to self-respect (stage 1) to thanksgiving (stage 2) to praise (stage 3). God is able to move us to stage 4 where we love ourselves for God’s sake, not ours. In this stage, we see no righteousness in us, yet God loves us, but only from God’s perspective, can we see that love. This love is expressed in the New Testament by the Greek word “agape” (pronounced aga-pay) which is best described as divine love, not the human love of friendship (philos) or family affection (sturge) or sexual love (eros).
When we love God with all our heart and soul and mind, we are loving God with the same agape love which God has for us. We can only give what we receive and so Jesus was challenging those who asked Him about the greatest commandment, to receive from Jesus as God, the agape love which Jesus would later show through His death on the cross.
When we do love God in that manner and extent, we are enabled to love our neighbor as oneself: by then we would have loved God for God’s sake and hence able to appreciate the goodness in others as in ourselves. We are not discouraged by the enmity shown to us by others for when we love ourselves for God’s sake, we are able to love ourselves despite the enmity showed by us to God.
That enmity is shown by us to God in the way you and I do send Jesus to the cross continually by our transgressions, whether knowingly or not. Through His death, we are forgiven and set free daily to love God more and more. To love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind means to die with Jesus daily. Yet we are continually made alive in God as we see ourselves as being continually loved despite our daily transgressions (stage 4 of loving ourselves for God’s sake).