Tom Hanks and Bernard of Clairvaux
900 years ago, Bernard of Clairvaux wrote about four degrees or stages of love. He contended that “loving self for God’s sake” is the most mature, deepest kind of love. This has always intrigued me and even puzzled me. I’ve wondered: how does that idea mesh with what Jesus said about denying self? Isn’t it selfish to love yourself? to think about yourself? That seems to be what I’ve been taught over and over.
The first degree of love is “loving self for self’s sake.” That made sense to me. Our default position is to look out for ourselves and love (value) ourselves for our own sake. It is a selfish and natural approach. The second degree of love is “loving God for self’s sake.” When we first come into a relationship with God, we seek to love (value) Him but it’s because of what we get out of it. Certainly, the gift of salvation, new life in Him, the gift of the Spirit, etc. are gifts that bless us beyond imagination. As new believers, our approach is often that of loving God because of what He does in us and for us. This isn’t wrong, per se, but simply a love that is not fully mature. The third degree of love is “loving God for God’s sake.” Again, this approach fits with the idea of being a maturation of love in that we now love God, not for what He does for us, but for who He is. I think of the men about to be thrown into the fire in Daniel and they said: “If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods.” (Daniel 3:17-18) In Job 13:15, Job says, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him.” This is loving God for God’s sake and it is clearly a mature kind of love.
But, the idea of loving self: how could that be more loving than “loving God for God’s sake”? It’s not until recently that it all started to make sense, and it was all thanks to Tom Hanks.
A few weeks ago, I saw Hank’s new film, Captain Phillips, in which he plays the captain of a cargo ship that is attacked by pirates off the eastern coast of Africa. Aside from it being an excellent film, what struck me is that, once again, I forgot that it was Tom Hanks playing the captain. Part of what makes Hanks a great actor is that you never think, “that’s Tom Hanks playing xyz character.” There are other actors who make huge blockbuster films who always seem to play themselves. They are interesting people and can pull off the action hero or the spy or whatever, but you are always keenly aware that they are in the movie. With Hanks, he never over powers a script but always seems to become the person who is a part of the story.
Here’s where Tom Hanks made sense of Bernard for me … he gets to know and loves the characters that he portrays. He becomes the character fully and embraces who they are. He forgets about Tom Hanks and becomes that other person. When we begin to believe that God has written us into the script of the story He is telling, we can begin to let go of the false self (this is what Jesus meant by “denying self”) and embrace the true us … the one God created and loves. As we allow Him to love us, we begin to love us … not the false us (defined by what we do, what we have, what others think) but the real us. To love ourselves is to embrace the real us in the context of God’s story. We don’t demand that He show up for us or do things for us, but we begin to ask how we fit into His story and His life. To love ourselves is to let Him love us and provide for us and define us. And, Bernard’s point is that we do this for His sake.
This is indeed the most mature kind of love because it requires embracing God’s love for ourselves. When this happens, we are connected to Him in a reciprocal relationship of love. We lay down the demands of the false self and simply let Him love us. Often, when we stop short at the third degree of love, we are focused on Him but don’t let Him focus on us which He desires to do.
Commonly, we stop short of loving ourselves for His sake because we deal with shame as it relates to the false self: “I don’t do enough” or “I’m not good enough.” Or, perhaps, we stop short because we are stuck in a cycle of trying please people. Or, maybe, we stop short because we’ve never felt the freedom to love the real us.
To love what God made (us) means to let Him love us which frees us to love Him in deeper, more specific ways than ever before. It enables us to simply be a part of His story as opposed to trying to get Him to be a part of ours.
Thanks Tom … I owe you one!