On Loving God

To the most illustrious Lord Haimeric, Cardinal-Deacon and Chancellor of the See of Rome, from Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, wishing that he may live for the Lord and die in him. Up to now it has been your custom to ask me for prayers and not for answers to questions. Let me confess I am not very apt at either, although my profession implies prayer even if my conduct falls short of my obligations. . . . I do not promise to answer all of your questions, but only that which you ask, about loving God; even then my answer will be what he deigns to bestow upon me. This subject tastes sweeter to the mind, is treated with more certainty, and is listened to with greater profit. Keep the other questions for more brilliant intellects.

You wish me to tell you why and how God should be loved. My answer is that God himself is the reason why he is to be loved. As for how he is to be loved, there is to be no limit to that love. Is this sufficient answer? Perhaps, but only for a wise man. As I am indebted, however, to the unwise also (Romans 1:14), it is customary to add something for them after saying enough for the wise.* [* Apparently “A word to the wise is sufficient” is a very old saying.] Therefore for the sake of those who are slow to grasp ideas I do not find it burdensome to treat of the same ideas more extensively if not more profoundly. Hence I insist that there are two reasons why God should be loved for his own sake: no one can be loved more righteously and no one can be loved with greater benefit. Indeed, when it is asked why God should be loved, there are two meanings possible in the question. For it can be questioned which is rather the question: whether for what merit of his or for what advantage to us is God to be loved. My answer to both questions is assuredly the same, for I can see no other reason for loving him than himself. So let us see first how he deserves our love.

How God Is to Be Loved for His Own Sake

God certainly deserves a lot from us since he gave himself to us when we deserved it least (Galatians 1:4). Besides, what could he have given us better than himself? Hence when seeking why God should be loved, if one asks what right he has to be loved, the answer is that the main reason for loving him is “He loved us first” (1 John 4:9–10). Surely he is worthy of being loved in return when one thinks of who loves, whom he loves, how much he loves. Is it not he whom every spirit acknowledges (1 John 4:2)[?] . . . This divine love is sincere, for it is the love of one who does not seek his own advantage (1 Cor 13:5).

To whom is such love shown? It is written: “While we were still his enemies, he reconciled us to himself” (Rom 5:10). Thus God loved freely, and even his enemies. How much did he love? St. John answers that: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son” (John 3:16). St Paul adds: “He did not spare his only Son, but delivered him up for us” (Rom 8:32). The Son also said of himself: “No one has greater love than he who lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Thus the righteous one deserved to be loved by the wicked, the highest and omnipotent by the weak. Now someone says: “This is true for man, but it does not hold for the angels.” That is true because it was not necessary for the angels, for he who came to man’s help in time of need, kept the angels from such a need, and he who did not leave man in such a state because he loved him, out of an equal love gave the angels the grace not to fall into that state.

I think that they to whom this is clear see why God ought to be loved, that is, why he merits to be loved. If the infidels conceal these facts, God is always able to confound their ingratitude by his innumerable gifts which he manifestly places at man’s disposal. For, who else gives food to all who eat, sight to all who see, and air to all who breathe? It would be foolish to want to enumerate; what I have just said cannot be counted. It suffices to point out the chief ones: bread, sun, and air. I call them the chief gifts, not because they are better but because the body cannot live without them. Man’s nobler gifts—dignity, knowledge, and virtue—are found in the higher parts of his being, in his soul. Man’s dignity is his free will by which he is superior to the beasts and even dominates them. His knowledge is that by which he acknowledges that this dignity is in him, but that it is not of his own making. Virtue is that by which man seeks continuously and eagerly for his Maker and when he finds him, adheres to him with all his might.

Each of these three gifts has two aspects. Dignity is not only a natural privilege, it is also a power of domination, for the fear of man hangs over all the animals on earth (Genesis 9:2). Knowledge is also twofold, since we understand this dignity and other natural qualities are in us, yet we do not create them ourselves. Finally, virtue is seen to be twofold, for by it we seek our Maker and once we find him, we adhere to him so closely we become inseparable from him.

As a result, dignity without knowledge is unprofitable, without virtue it can be an obstacle. The following reasoning explains both these facts. What glory is there in having something you do not know you have? Then, to know what you have but to be ignorant of the fact that you do not have it of yourself . . . . The Apostle says to him who glorifies himself: “What have you that you have not received? And if you have received it, how can you boast of it as if you had not received it” (1 Cor 4:7)? . . . .

. . . [I]s there an infidel who does not know that he has received the necessities for bodily life, by which he exists, sees, and breathes, from him who gives food to all flesh (Psalm 136:25), who makes his sun rise on the good and the bad, and his rain fall on the just and the unjust (Matt 5:45)? Who, again, can be wicked enough to think the author of his human dignity, which shines in his soul, is any other than he who says in the book of Genesis: “Let us make man to our own image and likeness” (Gen 1:26)? Who can think that the giver of knowledge is somebody different from him who teaches man knowledge (Psalm 94:10)? Or again, who believes he has received or hopes to receive the gift of virtue from any other source than the hand of the Lord of virtue? Hence God deserves to be loved for his own sake even by the infidel who, although he is ignorant of Christ yet knows himself.

Everyone therefore, even the infidel, is inexcusable if he fails to love the Lord his God with all his heart, all his soul, all his might (Mark 12:30). For an innate justice, not unknown to reason, cries interiorly to him that he ought to love with his whole being the one to whom he owes all that he is. Yet it is difficult, impossible for a man, by his own power of free will, once he has received all things from God, to turn wholly to the will of God and not rather to his own will and keep these gifts for himself as his own, as it is written: “All seek what is their own” (Phil 2:21), and further: “ . . . man’s feelings and thoughts are inclined to evil” (Genesis 8:21).

The faithful, on the contrary, know how totally they need Jesus and him crucified (1 Cor 2:2). While they admire and embrace in him that charity which surpasses all knowledge (Eph 3:9), they are ashamed at failing to give what little they have in return for so great a love and honor. Easily they love more who realize they are loved more: “He loves less to whom less is given” (Luke 7:43, 47).

The First Degree of Love: Man Loves Himself for His Own Sake

Since nature has become more fragile and weak, necessity obliges man to serve it first. This is carnal love by which a man loves himself above all for his own sake. He is only aware of himself; as St. Paul says: “What was animal came first, then what was spiritual” (1 Cor 15:46). Love is not imposed by a precept; it is implanted in nature. Who is there who hates his own flesh (Eph 5:29)? Yet should love, as it happens, grow immoderate, and, like a savage current, burst the banks of necessity, flooding the fields of delight, the overflow is immediately stopped by the commandment which says: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39). It is just indeed that he who shares the same nature should not be deprived of the same benefits, especially that benefit which is grafted in that nature.

Should a man feel overburdened at satisfying not only his brethren’s just needs but also their pleasures, let him restrain his own if he does not want to be a transgressor. He can be as indulgent as he likes for himself providing he remembers his neighbor has the same rights. O man, the law of life and order imposes on you the restraint of temperance, lest you follow after your wanton desires and perish, lest you use nature’s gifts to serve through wantonness the enemy of the soul. Would it not be more just and honorable to share them with your neighbor, your fellow man, than with your enemy? . . .

Nevertheless, in order to love one’s neighbor with perfect justice, one must have regard to God. In other words, how can one love one’s neighbor with purity, if one does not love him in God? But it is impossible to love in God unless one loves God. It is necessary, therefore, to love God first; then one can love one’s neighbor in God (Mark 12:30).

. . . [T]he same creator wills that man be disciplined by tribulations so that when man fails and God comes to his help, man, saved by God, will render God the honor due him. It is written: “Call to me in the day of sorrow; I will deliver you, and you will honor me” (Psalm 49:15). In this way, man, who is animal and carnal (1 Cor 2:14), and knows how to love only himself, yet starts loving God for his own benefit, because he learns from frequent experience that he can do everything that is good for him in God, and that without God he can do nothing good (John 15:5).

The Second Degree of Love: Man Loves God for His Own Benefits

Man, therefore, loves God, but for his own advantage and not yet for God’s sake. Nevertheless, it is a matter of prudence to know what you can do by yourself and what you can do with God’s help to keep from offending him who keeps you free from sin. If man’s tribulations, however, grow in frequency and as a result he frequently turns to God and is frequently freed by God, must he not end, even though he has a heart of stone (Ezek 11:19) in a breast of iron, by realizing that it is God’s grace which frees him and come to love God not for his own advantage, but for the sake of God?

The Third Degree of Love: Man Loves God for God’s Sake

Man’s frequent needs oblige him to invoke God more often and approach him more frequently. This intimacy moves man to taste and discover how sweet the Lord is. Tasting God’s sweetness entices us more to pure love than does the urgency of our own needs. Hence the example of the Samaritans who said to the woman who had told them the Lord was present: “We believe now not on account of what you said; for we have heard him and we know he is truly the Savior of the world” (John 4:42). We walk in their footsteps when we say to our flesh, “Now we love God, not because of your needs; for we have tasted and know how sweet the Lord is.”

. . . A man who feels this way will not have trouble in fulfilling the commandment to love his neighbor (Mark 12:31). He loves God truthfully and so loves what is God’s. He loves purely and he does not find it hard to obey a pure commandment, purifying his heart, as it is written, in the obedience of love (1 Peter 1:22). . . . This is the third degree of love: in it God is already loved for his own sake.

The Fourth Degree of Love: Man Loves Himself for the Sake of God

Happy is the man who has attained the fourth degree of love, he no longer even loves himself except for God. “O God, your justice is like the mountains of God” (Psalm 35:7). This love is a mountain, God’s towering peak. . . . I would say that man is blessed and holy to whom it is given to experience something of this sort, so rare in life, even if it be but once and for the space of a moment. To lose yourself, as if you no longer existed, to cease completely to experience yourself, to reduce yourself to nothing is not a human sentiment but a divine experience (Phil 2:7).* . . .

As a drop of water seems to disappear completely in a big quantity of wine . . . just as red molten iron becomes so much like fire it seems to lose its primary state; just as the air on a sunny day seems transformed into sunshine instead of being lit up; so it is necessary for the saints that all human feelings melt in a mysterious way and flow into the will of God. Otherwise, how will God be all in all (1 Cor 15:28) if something human survives in man?

I do not think that can take place for sure until the word is fulfilled: “You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength,” until the heart does not have to think of the body and the soul no longer has to give it life and feeling in this life . . . . Hence it is in a spiritual and immortal body, calm and pleasant, subject to the spirit in everything, that the soul hopes to attain the fourth degree of love, or rather to be possessed by it; for it is in God’s hand to give it to whom he wishes, it is not obtained by human efforts.

All the same, do we not think the holy martyrs received this grace, at least partially, while they were still in their victorious bodies? The strength of their love seized their souls so entirely that, despising the pain, they were able to expose their bodies to exterior torments. No doubt, the feeling of intense pain could only upset their calm; it could not overcome them.

By Bernard of Clairvaux

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #24 in 1989]

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