Open Book
Light Bulb

four levels of love

During the Middle Ages the ideal of personal identity slowly, haltingly emerged. Historically individuals identified not as individuals but as part of a group—some tribe, clan, family, etc. This self-identification necessitated submission to the group’s will as determined by its leader(s). Such submission was commonly manifested via arranged marriages, unions arranged for the benefit of the group.

One way increasingly common individuality rejected group identification was the pursuit of romantic love. Love became identified with passion, and developed into the cult of courtly-love; pursued by knights and courtiers, and celebrated by troubadours. But passionate love was often manipulated for eroticized conquests. Love was popularly championed as relational and personal, but increasingly became about scoring; a perspective that continues today.
Witnessing the suffering that resulted from love as an objective instead of a relationship, Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th century abbot, preached extensively from the Old Testament book Song of Songs—the most sexually explicit Scriptural witness to the beauty, dignity and relational mutuality of God-designed, God-blessed love.

Bernard of Clairvaux identified four levels of love.

The first level is loving yourself for your own sake. Everyone tries to make life work by our own wits. But life is too complex for any individual. So much comes at us that we are overwhelmed. Limited by our inadequate competence acquired through self-love, sooner or late you realize you are out of your depth. You turn to God for help.

The second level is loving God for one’s own sake—turning to God for what He can do for me. We pray, read the Bible, gather with Christians, all with the goal of solving our problems. Only gradually does this self-centered preoccupation recede. Then you begin seeking God as He is, not as you imagine Him to be, and become attracted to what the Holy Spirit reveals.

The third level is loving God for God’s sake. Love deepens into the intimacies of adoration. You love not for what you might get out of God, but for who God is. This is a self-forgetful love.

The fourth level is loving oneself for God’s sake. A person doesn’t become less human by loving God more. Loving God makes you more human than is humanly possible. God’s love for you permeates, enriches and expands your love for God while adding a genuine love for others. There is a mutuality in this love. Not that our love can ever be equal or be on par with God’s, but we find our own humanity healed and made whole and affirmed in the love of God. The three early levels of love are not replaced; they are completed.

Eugene Peterson wrote, “God is love. Love is the core of God’s Being. Man and woman, made in the image of God, are also, at that core, love. This is who we were created to be: persons who love, persons who receive love. When we love we are most ourselves, living at our very best.”