Love yourself. It’s championed as the pathway to happiness and gratitude by some and scoffed at as the pathway to narcissism and godlessness by others.
But check this out. Bernard of Clarivaux, the towering 12th century Cisterian abbot, advisor to the Pope, mystical writer, and one of the most significant voices in church history sees four stages of growth and maturation for Christians. Just wait for what comes last…
- “Love of Self for One’s Own Sake.” This is where we all begin…trying to make life happen on our own. We try to give ourselves the love we need. We try to find it in a thousand other substitutes. But we blow it. We stumble and fail and sabotage our happiness. This kind of self-love is ultimately self-sabotaging.
- “Love of God for One’s Own Sake.” Much like the first step in AA, we admit we’re powerless. Our acknowledgment opens us up to a relationship with God, but this stage is much like a child relying on a parent for help. We go to God for the help we need, but we don’t yet know God intimately or experience union in any kind of deep way.
- “The Love of God for God’s Sake.” In this stage, we turn our attention to God. In fact, we may talk much more about being God-centered. I’ve lived much of my life here as a good “Reformed” boy. Finding Reformed theology was like a second grace, and I devoured books about God’s character. I kept saying, “It’s not about me. It’s about GOD!” We might even become a bit arrogant, and dismiss any talk of self-love as a sinful remnant of the past. Our focus on God is an important development in our maturity, but if we get stuck here we’ll miss out on the promised union.
- “Love of One’s Self for God’s Sake.” Here we discover we’ve been created for intimacy. God turns the tables on us. He shows us how delightful we are. He convinces us that we’re worth getting to know. We discover we’re loved and loveable. We learn intimacy, surrender, and enjoy contemplative union. We actually get to know God in a far more personal and intimate way.
Are you on this particular journey to self-love? For many of us theological egg-heads, the last movement might be the most critical. It may also be the most frightening. Because, as I’ve gotten to know myself and many of you, we’ve focused on God precisely because we didn’t like ourselves. We found a theology that told us how bad we are. And, it even helped a bit with our deep sense of shame and guilt. But we find ourselves constantly returning to our old, dry wells. Our God-focus, though it helps at times, doesn’t make our addictions go away, doesn’t curtail our sometimes scary anger, doesn’t necessarily lead to humility.
Take heart. Bernard says, “God wants you to stop, to relax, to allow yourself to be embraced. He’s smiling at you. Yes you. He actually thinks you are worth loving, worth knowing. And he won’t stop telling you how much he adores you.”
This isn’t hyper-therapeutic, new-agey spirituality. This is ancient wisdom for hungry and thirsty souls.