One pastor’s journey from life on the streets to the head of pro-democracy protests
If the first Republican primary debate had featured an applause-o-meter, one of the top five applause lines would have belonged to John Kasich, governor of Ohio. While answering a hypothetical question about a homosexual offspring and same-sex marriage, he pulled it together with “You know what? God gives me unconditional love. I’m going to give it to my family and my friends and the people around me.” Even though the stands were packed with Ohioans, that closing line might have scored high even in San Diego or Houston.
In a post-Christian society, no precept is valued more highly or uncritically than Unconditional Love. But what is it? Current schools of thought fall along these lines:
It’s acceptance without expectation.
It’s a choice, not a feeling.
It’s illogical, yet essential.
It’s something you must first extend to yourself.
In other words, we don’t really know what it is.
So, starting from square one, it seems that two kinds of unconditional love come more or less naturally: parental and self. Most parents—especially mothers, because of their biological connection—can’t break that emotional bond even when their children sorely disappoint them. As for self-love, although pop psychology chides us for lacking it, we came out of the womb madly in love with ourselves, inclined to forbear every failing and make every sacrifice—the way God tells us to love our neighbors.
Love always has an agenda: seeking, even demanding, what is best for the beloved.
That forbearing and sacrificial love directed toward others does not come naturally. But it’s not necessarily what most people mean by unconditional love, either. One of my friends from college days justifies rejecting a fundamentalist upbringing and embracing progressive Christianity with an unconditional-love argument. It goes like this: In the old days, God’s revelations were filtered through a narrow sectarian lens that forced people into ironclad observance of the Law: “Keep my commandments,” says the Lord, “and I’ll love you.” But Jesus brought the good news of acceptance and affirmation, demolishing walls between Jew and Greek, male and female, black and white, gay and straight. Now we must knock down our own walls and go forth with the outstretched arms of Christ.
Some evangelicals wouldn’t find this too far off the mark. In William P. Young’s bestseller The Shack, unconditional love is God’s reason for being, and ours. “You are free to love without an agenda,” says the character called Jesus, repeating himself in slightly different words a few pages later. We love unconditionally when we stop letting our expectations get in the way of our agape. God doesn’t bind rules and systems on people; only “religious” tyrants do that. God’s highest purpose for us is relationship with Him, and unconditional love is both the means and the end.
Only one problem here: Relationship can’t be unconditional. In her young-adult novel The Secret Life of Prince Charming, Deb Caletti is devastating: “Unconditional love is like a country of two with no laws and no government. Which is all fine if everyone is peaceful and law-abiding. In the wrong hands, though, you get looting and crime sprees, and the people who demand unconditional love are usually the ones who will rob and pillage and then blame you because you left your door unlocked.” “Peaceful and law-abiding” requires some law to abide—some basic rules of courtesy and reciprocity, without which a relationship will either evolve into a dictatorship or simply fall apart.
Real love bears, hopes, believes, and endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:7) but also expects all things, whether that means living up to potential or coming to Christ. God accepts us as we are, but will not leave us as we are. Love always has an agenda: seeking, even demanding, what is best for the beloved.
I understand what John Kasich meant in his debate answer, but it’s time to change the terminology. To the world, unconditional love looks like a Get Out of Jail Free card—a fatal misconception. The love of God that we are to imitate is sacrificial, but not unconditional. It affirms Him; it disarms us. It demands all, and will accomplish all.