According to 12th century monk Bernard of Clairvaux, the love that God commands is nothing new to human beings. In fact, it is one of the “four natural affections.” Nature itself dictates that we have a degree of love, if only love of oneself. We are all capable of acting in what we believe to be our own best interests, or as Paul puts it, “No one hates his own body.” Bernard argues that narcissism — “first-degree love” — is in essence the schoolmaster which brings us into fellowship with God.
Sometimes, that enlightened self-interest even extends to the benefit of those around us. As such, our love grows by degrees to include our neighbor, or even God. Even the narcissist sees the wisdom in the love of the Survivor contestant, acting in concert and in ways that are mutually beneficial, until such time as circumstances dictate severing the alliance. The Survivor loves, so long as that loves serves his other goals.
Exposure to the God of the Bible often creates this kind of love for God. Reading of God’s justice, His lavish vengence on His enemies, and His equally lavish rewards for His children can motivate a person to enter into a relationship with God. This “Social Gospel” love, however, is still not much different than narcissism, as it is motivated not by what is good for God, but by what is good for me. I love God, I serve God, I even love and serve my fellow man because in the end I stand to gain from the transaction. If loving you or God is good for me, then I will. But when it ceases to be such, my love for you or God ends. This is “second-degree love.”
Bernard argues that for Christian maturity to advance beyond mere enlightened narcissism, what has to change in the perosn is not who or what they love, but for whose sake the love is given. “Third-degree love” is loving God not for my own sake, but for His. This love recognizes God for who He is and seeks to return to Him the love He has shown to us. “Whoever praises God for His essential goodness, and not merely becasue of the gifts He has given, loves God for God’s sake and not selfishly.”
But even “third-degree love” rings a bit hollow. After all, part of what makes God God is His work as Creator. To love God for His own sake, but to insist that His creation is only worthy of such love as it can earn by being useful strikes quite a hypocritical note. To demand that something to which God has given His love unconditionally must somehow prove iteself to us places us in judgment over God Himself. This demand also gives rise to the belief that God’s love for us is similarly earned, creating in the Christian the mind of the Pharisee rather than the mind of Christ.
So even as we learn to love God for who He is, “love God for His own sake” in the words of Bernard, we must also take the next step to what Bernard calls “fourth-degree love.” We must learn to love ourselves again, but this time for God’s sake. Bernard compares this love to becoming “like a red-hot iron, forgetting its own nature and becoming like the fire itself.” When we love “for God’s sake,” our love is motivated not by what is good for us, but by what is good for Him. Then we learn to love what God loves — and not just when doing so suits us.
When the “why” of love informs the “what,” narcissism is replaced with fellowship.