"Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose. If love is to be a blessing, not a misery, it must be for the only Beloved who will never pass away” —C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves
People in the modern era are obsessed with being in love. The internet is littered with articles about how you know if you’re in love. Some magazines even have pieces about “scientifically proven signs you’re in love.”
So how do you know if you’re in love with God?
That one’s a little trickier.
During his lifetime, Bernard de Clairvaux wrote and discussed loving God a great deal. He was a vocal defender of the faith against Gnosticism because it cheapened Christ’s sacrifice. Even after he died, Bernard’s writings continued to influence later theologians like Martin Luther and John Calvin.
One of his most famous books cataloged his observations about what he believed to be the four stages of believers’ relationship with their creator.
Stage 1: A Self-Centered Reality
Everyone starts here. If you’ve ever seen a diagram showing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, this is essentially the bottom third or even half of the pyramid.
These needs all center around ourselves, what we feel we need, what we want. People in this stage have minimal room to even notice other people’s troubles, much less be concerned about them.
Children, especially babies live this way; and most of us have probably run across someone like this who behaves like a high-function infant despite being well into adulthood. We can’t judge, though. All of us have certainly been that person at moments in our lives where we demand things from others without thinking about the potential impact. We become deaf to anyone else’s voice but our own.
Against this flood of self-indulgence, Bernard stated, “A commandment, like a newly-built dike, is then needed: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:39).
Stage 2: Loving God’s Generosity
Our God is really, really good and generous. Every single Christian comes into a relationship with Christ because of his incredible sacrifice and gift of forgiveness.
That said, it can be easy to get sidetracked into loving the gifts more than the giver.
“If our prayers mainly consist of asking God to give us something or protect us from something or make something happen for us…” Tom Hughes muses in his book Down to Earth, “If this is where our love for God stops, we are in danger of hating God if he does not give us what we want when we want it.”
Being a believer for a long time doesn’t guarantee that this mentality will change. We can trail along behind God all of our Christian walk while still babbling incessantly about our “needs.”
Stage 3: In Awe of God
When David brought the Ark of the Lord back into Jerusalem, he sang this in celebration:
“O nations of the world, recognize the Lord, recognize that the Lord is glorious and strong. Give to the Lord the glory he deserves! Bring your offering and come into his presence. Worship the Lord in all his holy splendor. Let all the earth tremble before him. The world stands firm and cannot be shaken” (1 Chronicles 16:28-30 NLT).
Sections of this song are dedicated to remembering the promises God has kept for Israel and praising his faithfulness to protect his people, but other portions like the one above are dedicated to simply being in awe of God’s nature.
These are the believers who can’t wait to talk with God, listen for him to speak, or just rejoice in his presence. They are also the believers who can weather terrible circumstances because the uncrackable kernel at their center is faith in God’s character.
When life’s hurricane hits, their awe remains.
David Wilkerson often discussed the real need for mature believers with this mentality. “Our society is desperate to find hope and peace in these troubled days. They long to know the truth of Isaiah 26:3: ‘You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on You.’ And they will look to God’s children for a testimony.”
So what’s left? If you reach stage 3, haven’t you arrived? Close, but not quite.
Stage 4: Loving What God Loves
The fourth stage Bernard de Clairvaux laid out was self-love for God’s sake.
If you just read that and immediately broke out in hives, you’re not alone. Modern culture’s ideas about self-love, however, have far more in common with gross self-indulgence than what Bernard was proposing.
He described it this way: “Blessed are those who can attain the fourth degree of love. Then they will love themselves only in God.
“In God all our affections should center, so that in all things we should seek to do only His will and not to please ourselves. True blessing will come to us then, not in self-gratification, nor in transient pleasure, but in accomplishing God’s will in us.”
In his podcast, Gary Wilkerson describes this kind of self-care by comparing it to one of the frequent instructions flight attendants give parents with small children before a plane takes off.
“All of us in life need to put our own oxygen mask on. That's not selfish. That is a gift you give to the people around you who maybe can't do that themselves. When I think about world dying, my caring for myself, my soul-care—that the Bible requires and calls me and blesses me to be able to do—does not diminish my ability to be a servant, to love, to give, to be generous.
“It actually fuels me. It's not selfish. It's actually more generous because now that person has something to give.”
We ought to care for ourselves in order to be better able to follow God’s instructions and minister to others. When even our self-care is informed by an intent, outward focus on our Lord, then we are living in true love.