Bernard of Clairvaux: Why Should We Love God?

You want me to tell you why and how God is to be loved?

I answer that the reason for loving God is God Himself. As to how He is to be loved, there is only one measure: It is immeasurable!

Is this a sufficient answer? Perhaps, but only so to a wise man. Now, I am indebted (Romans 1:14) to deal with the unwise as well, perhaps I need to answer for them also. So while a word is enough for the wise, I need to elaborate the answer for the simple folk as well. Therefore, I do not find irksome to treat the subject more fully, if not more deeply so.

There are two reasons, I insist, why we should love God for His own sake. Righteously so, God is love for His own sake. Profitably so, God is to be loved with the highest benefit. So when we ask again, ‘Why is God to be loved?’ there are two possible meanings to this question. But the answer is the same, for God is the sufficient cause of love, because of who God is.

Bernard of Clairvaux, On Loving God, I.1

Bernard of Clairvaux lived from 1090 to 1153. He was an abbot and an early figure in the founding and growth of the Cistercian movement. Bernard founded seventy monasteries, of which those monasteries founded one hundred more. That totals one hundred seventy communities of faith that trace themselves to Bernard, and to God’s work in Bernard. He was a reformer, a preacher, and a Christian mystic. On Loving God is among his most well known works.

These words I’ve quoted are from the opening pages of that book, in which Bernard raises the key question of the treatise and, more expansively, one of the greatest questions of all. “If God is the ground of all reality, how then should we live?”

That depends greatly on who God is, what God is like, and how human beings stand in relationship to that God.

Bernard assumes his readers believe in the existence of the God of Christianity. Bernard then asserts both how and why we should love God. His answer is simple: with everything, because God has given us everything, all because of love.

His answer is a Christian answer.

God is love, as we read in 1 John 4:8 and 1 John 4:16. Those brief summations capture and reflect a truth that runs through the Bible. God, as Creator, brought the creation forth as an expression of that very love which God is. Love, by its very nature, is relational. It is not only expressed in the abstract, but the concrete, and it is something shared between persons.

The love existing within the Trinity, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, spirals out into the creation. And, as Genesis 1 tells us, when God creates humankind in the divine image, it is so that human beings might relate to God, and to one another, in love. As God is fruitful, human beings are commanded to be fruitful and to flourish as part of the divine dance.

God is to be loved, says Bernard, simply because God is love, and thus lovely. Being infinite, there is no measure to which God can be fully and rightly loved. This does not stop us from responding in love. Love begets love, and increases love. And because God has provided us with everything–with existence, the created order, community, gifts, redemption, an invitation to a holy life, the grace by which to be sanctified, and an eternal hope–we owe everything in return.

Bernard divides the wise and the simple, not to be condescending (even though Bernard was known to be rigid and austere), but to name what should be plain to all.

The wise person will intuit Bernard’s meaning, for any contemplation of the Bible, of truth, and especially of Christ, will lead a person to begin to see that God, in God’s very nature, is immeasurable in loveliness and praiseworthiness, and therefore no amount of gratitude or thanksgiving or service could match the magnitude of God’s glory. And once this quest is begun, it becomes an eternal adventure of discovery, an everlasting way of companionship and friendship with the Creator, a pilgrimage of new creation.

The simple person is the one who has not given God’s character or nature much thought. But if they choose to do so, they will soon become wise. Seekers, in God’s economy, find. Askers, receive. Knockers find the door opened.

And even the wise, who know that God’s loveliness is immeasurable, take joy and delight in the further contemplation of God. The discoveries are ever new, the truths of God bring delight, the beauty of God is captivating, the goodness of God inspires wonder.

Bernard says that the love of God is righteous and profitable. Not only is it right. It brings benefit. For in the contemplation of God’s love, and as we respond to God in love, we not only receive the healing of our broken souls and the binding up of our deepest wounds, we are sent forth as witnesses, emissaries, ambassadors, and servants of the love which we have received from the source of love himself, filled to overflowing.

Love. We were made for it. We were made by it. Not only for the sentiment. But also for the eternal relational delight that results when God gives love to the beloved, and the beloved returns that love in word, thought, feeling, deed—with everything.