When we say that we love God, what do we mean by that?
We "love" many things. And the interesting thing about our loves is that we mature in the love we have toward the object.
Consider this: if we love children throughout their lives with the same love we have for them as infants, what would that look like. As infants we show our love by caring for every need out of the awareness that they cannot do anything by themselves. We feed, move, and protect them in every way because they cannot even do the most basic activity on their own.
Now fast forward that relationship to the day our children move out of their homes. By this time we have given them freedom to explore the world on their own. We have encouraged them to find their own identity even when some risk is involved. We may have empty cupboards on that day, but hopefully they can provide basic sustenance for themselves.
If we have "loved" that child in the same fashion throughout their entire life, it is certain they would not be equipped to move into the world on their own. They certainly couldn't face the harsh realities of providing for themselves if we did not mature our love for them over time.
When we say we "love God" then maturing in that love over our lifetime is assumed.
Three Phases of Maturing Love
As we mature in our love for God, we move through three phases: Devotion, Discipline, and Dedication.
Consider the phases of romantic love between two people. There is a maturing process that occurs. They begin with interest and infatuation. They will move into a sense of devotion to one another. They form a level of commitment to their relationship. And, finally, the are reach dedication to the other.
In our love for God, we also pass through similar phases. There is a period of interest forming and infatuation. On God's side of the relationship, it is an experience of prevenient grace - grace that goes before a deeper connection. When we approach a level of devotion, we are required to make a choice about our relationship with God. God works in us an act of transformation, justifying us by grace so that we can be in the relationship. The commitment we develop in our relationship with God deepens as God works within us to transform us through regular disciplines, or acts of intentional spiritual formation. Finally we reach a point where we are willing to surrender to God anything and everything. On God's part, we are filled with a new level of grace wherein we experience a level of perfecting love.
The three phases look like this, then:
Devotion - an emotional phase when we begin to understand God's love for us and attempt to return that love in simple ways.
Discipline - a mental phase in which we use intentional effort to put ourselves in places where God's love for us can mature us.
Dedication - a phase that is initiated when we surrender completely to God's work in our lives.
In Wesleyan tradition, this final phase was labeled Sanctification. It carried with it a very powerful idea of holiness: we can be holy in this life. It was a level of maturity in love for God, love for others, and love for self. In some of John Wesley's writings, the word "perfect" was used. It didn't mean that further maturity was impossible. In truth, the very opposite was intended. It was a phase of our lives where love was continually perfected. It developed and grew under the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we lived those totally surrendered lives.
The point Wesley made was that these phases of love in our lives, our "love for God", were a necessary part of a maturing faith. If we would seek maturity in our love for God, then we must be intentional about developing through the phases of love.