Everyone wants to be loved, and we all hope that those who love us do so unconditionally. Christians believe that God loved us unconditionally, but few can really define it. What is unconditional love?
What Is Unconditional Love?
The best way to define unconditional love is by examining its character. First, unconditional love is altruistic. It seeks the highest good of the beloved, even if that highest good is at some cost to the lover. Sometimes there is personal benefit in it, but more often, that isn’t the case.
It is selfless, doing whatever is necessary (and sometimes going above and beyond that) to support, comfort, and generally benefit the beloved. This brings us to the second characteristic of unconditional love. That of security.
When the beloved knows that their lover seeks their highest good, even when they stand to gain absolutely nothing by it, they begin to feel safe and secure in that relationship. A good example of this is the parent-child relationship. Children in a healthy, stable home instinctively know their parents are a safe harbor.
If they get bad grades, they know their mom and dad will be upset, but they’re only upset because they want their children to do their best, and to reap the benefits of diligent study and hard work. Even punishments are designed to reinforce the need to conform to the highest standards for ourselves, even if it doesn’t feel so altruistic in the moment.
The third characteristic of unconditional love is that of operative mercy and grace. Unconditional love forgives our errors, and even our downright nasty attitudes at times. Husbands and wives understand this very well (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). Marriage isn’t always romance and smiles.
Sometimes it is disagreements and bad habits or behaviors that really irritate us. If the marriage is healthy, unconditional love moves the spouses to forgive each other and help one another overcome ingrained habits and difficult behavioral patterns. Church Father Tertullian wrote of this sort of marriage,
“How beautiful, then, the marriage of two Christians, two who are one in hope, one in desire, one in the way of life they follow, one in the religion they practice. They are as brother and sister, both servants of the same Master. Nothing divides them, either in flesh or in Spirit. They are in very truth, two in one flesh; and where there is but one flesh there is also but one spirit. They pray together, they worship together, they fast together; instructing one another, encouraging one another, strengthening one another. Side by side they face difficulties and persecution, share their consolations. They have no secrets from one another, they never shun each other’s company; they never bring sorrow to each other’s hearts… Psalms and hymns they sing to one another. Hearing and seeing this, Christ rejoices. To such as these He gives His peace. Where there are two together, there also He is present, and where He is…. there evil is not.”
Notice how each of these three characteristics works with a sort of synergy. If just one element is missing, then problems will begin to develop, as the love isn’t really unconditional. Many people, both male, and female, deeply misunderstand unconditional love, which gets them into all sorts of trouble.
For example, many find themselves trapped in unhealthy, abusive relationships, thinking that they have to accept their partner as they are, no matter what. They have allowed their own desire to love another unconditionally to be used as a weapon against them.
Unconditional love, if it is to be effective in our lives, must be reciprocated. If someone finds themselves suffering in a relationship with a serial adulterer, a physical or emotionally abusive spouse, etc., they’re clearly not in a reciprocal relationship.
The abusive partner is expressing only selfish desires, with little to no concern for their spouse. Remember when we mentioned the parent-child relationship? That relationship is defined, in part, by healthy boundaries. It is the same in any would-be romantic relationship.
There must be clearly defined boundaries of respect, ethics, and morality in any truly healthy relationship. Expressing unconditional love doesn’t somehow remove those boundaries, as they are in place to preserve the dignity of both people in the relationship. Unconditional love is not, then, a free-for-all.
Does God Love Unconditionally?
This should begin to help you understand the unconditional love of God a bit more and help to reconcile some of the biblical data that could perhaps otherwise be confusing. God indeed has loved all of us unconditionally.
Even though we were rebellious, living a sinful life, and ignoring His law and love, He sent His Only Begotten Son to die for us. Notice the selflessness of the act. This is the ultimate altruism (Romans 5:8; John 3:16; John 15:13).
His love is safe, secure and you can always count on it. (Psalm 103:8-11; Deuteronomy 7:9) Because He loves us unconditionally, He is also gracious and merciful, willing to forgive our sins (1 John 1:9; Daniel 9:9; Ephesians 1:7; Hebrews 8:12; Psalm 86:5).
However, just as in the human relationships we mentioned above, there are boundaries, which if violated, transgress the terms of the relationship of unconditional love. If they’re not repented of, they place us outside that relationship.
“Now the church consists of both her earthly and heavenly parts, for the Son of God came to earth and became man that he might lead man into heaven and make him once again a citizen of Paradise, returning to him his original state of sinlessness and wholeness uniting them unto himself. This is accomplished through the action of Divine grace...but man’s effort is also required. God saves his fallen creature by His own love for him, but man’s love for his creator is also necessary; without it he cannot be saved. Striving towards God and cleaving unto the Lord by its (the soul) humble love...”
In other words, in order to receive the unconditional love of God it must be reciprocated by us, otherwise, we remain outside the boundaries of that relationship and are incapable of reaping the benefits. I encourage you to pursue the unconditional love of God, and then to bring that love into your human relationships. It is well worth the effort.
For further reading:
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/sticker2you
J. Davila-Ashcraft is an Anglican priest, Theologian, and Apologist, and holds a B.A. in Biblical Studies and Theology from God’s Bible College in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is a recognized authority on the topic of exorcism, and in that capacity has contributed to and/or appeared on programming for The National Geographic Channel, Discovery Channel, and CNN. He is the host of Expedition Truth, a one-hour apologetics radio talk show.