Put these things into practice, devote yourself to them,
so that all may see your progress.
1 Timothy 4:15
Notably, it is progress and not perfection in following Jesus that today’s scripture encourages. Here the apostle Paul writes to his young Timothy asking him to give full attention and energy to the life Paul has taught and modeled. Paul wants Timothy to strive not for perfection in life and ministry, but for progress, and a progress that all may see.
Paul’s call for progress steady and onward is just the kind of progress exemplified in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. There can be no standing still with Jesus, no resting content with growth attained. The Christian life is “forgetting what lies behind and straining toward to what lies ahead” (Philippians 3:13b).
I am grateful to Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) for mapping the believer’s progress in love, the greatest of all virtues. Bernard is esteemed to be one of the greatest leaders in church history, with Martin Luther calling him “the best monk that ever lived.” Bernard’s burning love for Jesus is exemplified in one of his many hymns, “Jesus the Very Thought of Thee.” It is Bernard’s treatise “On the Love of God” that he sets forth progress in the “four degrees of love.”
Bernard calls the First Degree of Love, “Love of Self for Self’s Sake.” This is love readily observed as selfish love. This first degree in love is a preoccupation with Number One and our own needs, wanting the world to revolve around us. This, of course, is not the love God commands, but what our fallen sin nature dictates, “For no one ever hates his own body” (Ephesians 5:29). It is life wrapped up in self so that it is difficult to have interest in anything not relating to us. It is the rooster thinking the sun comes up because he crows. God commands love of self to be checked by love neighbor.
Bernard calls progress to the Second Degree of Love, “Love of God for Self’s Sake.” Here we come to love God but to love Him for our own interests. We find ourselves in trouble, facing life’s storms, and we turn to God for help. Here we begin loving God even if it is for our own sake. We learn to love God as “a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1), and our “light and salvation and stronghold” (Psalm 27:1). We love God for His blessings and His many gifts to us. Yet, this is still a love for our sake, rather than for God’s. It is not a bad love, but a love still centered on self.
Bernard sees progress in love taking us to the Third Degree of Love, “Love of God for God’s Sake.” Here we begin loving God not merely for our sake, but for His sake, not merely for His gifts, but for who He is. We come to love God for His wondrous beauty and majesty. As our neediness and frailty draw us to God we experience more and more of his goodness. Bernard recalls here the psalmist’s invitation: “O taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8). As we frequently taste of God’s goodness through worship, prayer, scripture, and obedience we are magnetically drawn to love Him, and to love Him unselfishly. We love God for who He is, and not just for what He can give us.
Bernard’s fourth and final degree of love might strike many by surprise, but only until they know God’s heart more fully. Bernard’s Fourth Degree of Love is “Love of Self for God’s Sake.”As we progress in intimacy with God we come to see ourselves as God sees us, and to love ourselves as God loves us. Here we are finally free from pre-occupation with self so that we love what God loves and desires: us! We come to truly love and delight in ourselves, for God’s sake.
Loving Father, as every good gift comes from you, so we ask for your grace to love you with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. Increasingly, liberate us from preoccupation with our interests and needs so that we can live for you and your kingdom. Set us free to live in the wonder of your love and purpose to bless the world. Set us afire with your love. Amen.
A fellow traveler,