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Aimless affection

‘Unconditional love’ is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card

Aimless affection

(Krieg Barrie)

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.



  • imjustsaying's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:41 am

    I want to love God unconditionally.  In other words, I want to do all His commands and be loyal to His being, wisdom, justice and truth.  In my human condition, I won't be able to do that perfectly.  However, no matter what the condition or circumstance or situation, I want to love Him and be true to Him unconditionally.  I don't make any conditions that He has to conform to.  If He is righteous, it is my desire to be righteous to match His Being.  I don't try to make Him match mine.

  • Xion's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:41 am

    Love is not the same as acceptance.  One of my kids continues to travel a wrong path.  I tell him that I disagree with his choices, but will always love him.  Even if he ends up in jail, I am there for him.  I give him advice, but he isn't interested.  He has damaged our relationship in many ways and so all I can do is wait and pray.  This sort of love comes with a lot of pain and sorrow.  Unconditional love is deeper than joy.

  • MommynatorRN's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:41 am

    After constantly hearing how uncompassionate and unloving I am for expecting the preaching of sin to convict sinners so they can be saved and so God can change them, this was refreshing. Thank you. One cannot be transformed into God's image until one admits the lack of God's image in our lives, and the only one who can imprint that image is Himself.

  • Jkirk77
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:41 am

    I am amazed how the world runs to "unconditional love"  to support and justify unholy and shameful behavior.God is Holy!   The Holiness of God should brings to us fear and shame.We all want to feel warm and fuzzy about the Love of God being unconditional.How do we respond to our Holy Loving God? How do we respond to his holy gift the Lord Jesus Christ?God's Love is conditional. We can't meet the requirement. Only one the Lord Jesus Christ has met the requirement.Because of the work of Christ. Those who  belong to the  Lord Jesus Christ by the grace and mercy of God through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit of God meet the requirement.

  • Buddy's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:41 am

    Thanks Janie, this is what Christ is all about.
    Unconditional love is not unconditional forgiveness. Nothing can separate us from the love of God but our sins, not covered by the blood of Jesus Christ can separate us eternally from the presents of God.
    This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. 8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. 1 John 1:5-10 (KJV)

  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:41 am

    I love my offspring unconditionally but expect certain behavior from them.  I expect  my three year old granddaughter not to play in the street.  I do not wish to run the risk of her dying just so I can claim I love her unconditionally.  For those who believe in sin, judgement and damnation (Biblical concepts) telling someone they can safely engage in activities forbidden by God would seem to be the exact opposite of love.  

  • nevertheless's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:41 am

    The Law is justice in support of love. The reason God is so unequivocal in our becoming righteous is that without our new nature it is impossible to love responsibly.