HEROES II: BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX
AND THE GODLY LIFE
July 14, 2002
I John 4:7-21
Bernard of Clairvaux, no doubt a new name to many of you this morning (unless you looked ahead in the bulletin last week!), is a significant figure in the history of the Church. Among the various things that he is remembered for, Bernard had this habit of asking himself every morning, ?Why have I come here?? With deep conviction, he then daily reminded himself of his main duty??to lead a holy life?. But what is a holy or godly life? What does it involve? What does such a life look like?
I suppose the answer to this question would vary considerably, depending upon whom you ask. For some, the godly life involves an unwavering commitment to follow certain rules and regulations. The elderly woman that Deb and I lived with for several months when I was in seminary, for example, believed that living a godly life required a person to give up playing games on Sunday. My wife and I were told quite clearly to stop our monopoly game the moment that our host heard the dice hit the board. For others, godly living requires a particular and precise devotional procedure that must be carefully enforced?getting up at a certain hour and going through the same steps each day. And for still others, the godly life involves erecting sturdy defenses to keep a safe distance between them and the world.
For Bernard, however, the ?substance? of a godly life was not so simple, or should I say, so easy. A godly life cannot be reduced to a few readily-performed religious rituals, nor is godliness merely the avoidance of certain activities that we deem inappropriate. Rather, Bernard found the meaning of the godly life beautifully depicted in texts such as this one in I John 4.
John is writing to a gathering of believers who are apparently struggling because of an ornery bunch who have recently withdrawn from their fellowship. In attempting to calm the tension in the air, John reaffirms the faith of those who remain, and he rehearses the fundamentals of living a godly life. For John, it all comes down to one thing: to be a godly person is to be a loving person. To live a godly life is to live a loving life.
John actually discusses the centrality of love throughout this letter, not just here in chapter 4. In 1:1-28, he suggests that those who know God will obey his commandments. The greatest of those commandments, as Jesus so clearly taught, are to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. In 2:29-4:6, John continues by talking about righteousness. Once again, to be righteous involves listening to ?the message you have heard from the beginning??love one another. So, when we read this moving passage here in chapter 4, we find, not a new theme emerging in the letter, but a bold restatement of ideas already central to John?s theology. To be a godly person, once again, is to be a loving person.
In 4:7-21, John now fills out the picture a bit further, and in doing so he provides three crucial ideas. First, God himself is love (vv. 8, 16). The Bible is of course chock full of images describing God?he is holy and powerful and present. John himself describes God as light and as righteous earlier in the letter. But of central importance, both to John and to all of us, is the conviction that the God of the universe is love. Love provides the guidelines in which God works in the world. Love motivates God to act. Love leads God to give. ?God?s love,? John suggests, ?was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.?
It?s difficult, I think, to imagine anything more important to our spiritual lives than grasping, not only with our minds, but with our hearts, the idea that God is love. A great deal of evidence in the world might suggest otherwise: political unrest and seemingly endless conflicts around the world, pervasive poverty affecting countless people, natural catastrophes. On the basis of surfaces observations alone, it might be easy for us to doubt the love of God. Yet over and over again, John and others, including Jesus himself, remind us not to base our conceptions of God entirely on the external circumstances of life. The world is broken, to be sure, but it is in the process of being redeemed by a God who is first and foremost a God of love.
In addition to affirming the fact that God is love, John now carefully personalizes it. ?So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. To say that God is love does not necessarily mean that we embrace the idea that God loves us. John seeks to move from more theoretical theology, in a sense, to tire-meet-the-road experience?God loves us. God loves me.
Once again, a fair amount of tangible evidence might lead us to discount God?s love for us, even if we are somehow able to affirm God?s love in general. We?ve lost a loved one through a terrible illness or accident. We have suffered a serious personal setback ourselves. For some of us, the circumstances of life seem to shout, ?God might love others, but I doubt that he loves me!? John insists otherwise. Where did we ever get the idea that God causes all of the bad things that happen in our lives? We perhaps think that we are doing him a theological favor by attributing all of life?s apparent catastrophes to his doing. God, John makes clear, loves us, and rather than causing all of life?s turmoil, he is in fact sparing no expense to free us and the world from it.
Finally, John reasons that, if God is love and if God loves us, then his love will flow through all of us who know him. We will love God, and we will love others. This, John concludes, is at the heart of the godly life to which we are called. It is particularly at this point where Bernard has been so helpful to me and countless others for the last 1,000 years. Bernard reflected at length upon passages such as this one, and he thought a great deal about love and what it means to live a godly and loving life. In fact, one of his most influential books is appropriately titled On Loving God. In it, Bernard describes what he calls the four degrees or levels of love. These four degrees clearly lead from one to the other, and Bernard, like John, wanted very much to see the people of God progress beyond the basics:
1. In the first degree of love, we love ourselves for our own sake. We are, after all, self-interested creatures. By habit and instinct, we seek to meet our own needs, satisfy our own pleasures, and master whatever brings us benefit. In the 1980?s, Robert Ringer?s book entitled Looking Out for Number One rose to the top of the New York Times? best-sellers list and stayed there for months and months. In it, Ringer essentially argued that our primary if not only responsibility in life is to think about ourselves. We love ourselves for our own sake.
If we act on this self-interested tendency without restraint, we of course become totally self-centered, and we crave and lust and strive to get whatever we want. Here, Bernard concludes, is where the biblical commandment to ?love our enemies as ourselves? comes in. In teaching us to love our enemies as ourselves, the Bible not only seeks to address some of the needs of the people we care for, but also to limit our self-interest and to redirect our concerns from ourselves to others. Self-love that leads to self-gratification can be tempered and altered, in other words, by lavishly loving others. Loving others becomes a spiritual discipline of sorts, for it helps to free us from self-centered love.
2. In the second degree of love, we begin to love God, but for our own sake. As we live in the first degree of love and continue loving ourselves for our own sake, we eventually come face to face with any number of experiences and situations that will hopefully help us to see our own limitations. It could be an escalating sense of loneliness or the realization that all of my self-serving ambitions have in fact brought me no lasting happiness. It could also be a significant event. We might get sick. We might experience a financial set-back, like losing a job. Perhaps a family crisis. A car accident and heart-wrenching loss. Something transpires in our lives, and as a result we beginning thinking about God rather than ourselves. How many people cry out to God when confronted with tragedy? How many call out from their sick beds? Yet, such calls are typically self-centered?we cry out because we want God to do something for us. We seek God because of the pleasure we might gain and the pain we might avoid.
This often necessary degree of love, though intended to help us move along the journey, is unfortunately where too many people permanently pitch their tents. Following Jesus becomes a way of self-gratification. If we trust God, some people would have us believe, he will do whatever we ask, give us whatever we want, and keep us from every pain and set-back. For such people, the evidence of genuine Christian faith is material blessing and perfect health. That is at least one reason why so many young Christians grow disheartened or even lose their faith when things go wrong. They have been living with this faulty notion that loving God will always result in good health and material success. Such thinking, Bernard would respond were he with us today, is not vital Christianity, but pigmy faith. Rather than being a destination where we should put down roots, loving God for self-centered reasons should serve as a bridge to the third degree of love.
3. In this third degree of love, we learn to love God for God?s sake rather than our own. When we cry out to God from our loneliness or in the midst of our seemingly overwhelming needs, he hears us and comes to us. As we increasingly sense God?s goodness??O taste and see that the Lord is good??and as we continue to pray and worship, we discover that the so-called temporal benefits of loving God become less and less important. Now, we begin to love him, not simply the things we want him to do for us. In this third level, loving God becomes an end in and of itself, not just a means to something else.
In his book On Job, the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez refers to loving God in this way as ?disinterested? religion. ?Is such love possible?? Gutierrez asks. He writes, after all, from a context of intense suffering and persecution, having watched many of his parishioners undergo hardship the likes of which most of us can hardly begin to imagine. Can we love God just because he is God? Can we love God without expecting him to give us everything we ask? Can we love God while enduring the pain and suffering that often comes with living in a broken world? Can we love God simply because he is a loving God who loves us with an everlasting love? Bernard would encourage us to believe that in fact we can if we continue along the spiritual journey with our eyes focused on Jesus. The more we taste of God, the less we want of everything else. The more we taste of God, the more we want of him.
4. Finally, Bernard refers to a fourth degree of love in which we love ourselves for God?s sake. In describing this fourth degree, which Bernard readily admits is uncommon and momentary during this earthly life, we totally forget about ourselves and are caught up into an overwhelming sense of God?s presence. Bernard likens this to a drop of wine losing itself in a vat full of water. We now no longer even think about ourselves and our bodily needs, for all we are has been taken captive by God. Such an experience of love is a glimpse, a foretaste, of heaven itself.
I remember an experience that my grandfather had while I was in high school. My grandfather, though he felt deeply and never shied away from a genuine expression of emotion, was generally a reasoned and self-controlled man. On this particular night, he was sitting in the front pew of our United Methodist church near Allentown. As I recall, no service was going on at the time. He was simply sitting quietly in prayer. Suddenly, his hands began to shake, and he cried and cried. The entire episode lasted for perhaps three or four minutes, and he then just sat there limp. Several of my friends and I witnessed the event, and we were anxious to talk with him about it later. ?Terry,? this 88 or 89 year-old man told me after he had regained his strength, ?I have never sensed the presence and love of God like that before.? Perhaps Bernard is referring to such an experience, an experience which I have yet to have. Maybe I will someday as I continue on the journey.
According to I John, not to mention the teachings of Jesus, we are to love God and each other. Love is at the heart of the godly life. But people often trivialize this notion of loving God and each other, reducing it to petty rules like not playing monopoly on Sundays or making it a means to some self-centered end. Bernard of Clairvaux, like Jesus and John before him, would have nothing to do with such thinking. Bernard is a hero of the Christian faith, someone to be read and imitated, because he sought to love God for reasons other than accumulating blessings or avoiding pain. Bernard believed that we should love God because he first loved us. Bernard believed that we should love God because he is a wonderful and gracious God. Bernard believed that we should love God because he is infinitely good. Bernard believed that we could love God so much that we would actually forget about ourselves. I would like to love God that way. I don?t, at least not all of the time. I am afraid that a lot of other things still mean more to me than they should. But I do want to love God that way?don?t you? I hope and pray that all of us are learning and growing as we go. Christians like Bernard of Clairvaux, those who have gone on before, can be a great help and inspiration.