What is Love Anyway? (Part 2)
So what is Love anyway? If we are called to love others the way God loves us (cf. 1 Jo 4:11), it's important we get the right answer.
Yesterday in Part 1 I drew the conclusion that relationships which are based on conditional love always fall short because they are only as strong as your ability to measure up; and the hardness of this life is a constant reminder of just how frequently we lose our grip.
So it should come as no surprise that God's love for us is not "Conditional Love"- its not a matter of him loving us to the same extent that we love him (if it was, we'd be in deep trouble). But if God's love is not conditional, what exactly is it?
This answer may surprise you... God's love is not unconditional either.
Huh!?!? Yes, you heard me right. God's love is not "Unconditional Love" either, at least not as we're used to thinking of that. Its something much better than that. Let me see if I can explain.
You see, when people talk about God's "unconditional love," they are actually getting the answer partially right - they are realizing that ultimately none of us have anything to offer God; if there is going to be any acceptance for us, it can't be based on our ability to meet the conditions. We're his enemies, for Pete's sake! (Rom 5:10) We're dead in our sins! (Eph 2:1).
Nevertheless, God does accept us. So we tend to use words like "unconditional" to try and capture just how generous he is - he doesn't say, "clean yourself up and then I will love you" - he says, "I love you even though you are a slut and a whore and you are absolutely incapable of cleaning yourself up because you are addicted to your sin."
The only stipulation is for us to believe. So there is a sense in which "unconditional" is a very appropriate term.
But there's a problem with it too. Many times when people say love should be "unconditional" what they really mean is "Stop judging me! Don't say my actions are wrong! I want your love and approval, but I don't want to change my behavior. You should accept me the way that I am!"
And here's where things get sticky. God's love is never content to just leave us where we are - real love rescues.
It's like the wife in Life is Beautiful who demands to get on the train which is hauling her husband and son off to the concentration camp; it's like the father of that same boy who puts a bright face on everything - even his own execution - all to keep his wife and son alive, to keep them hoping, to keep them from giving up.
They do these things because they love, and because they love they cannot bear to see the ones they love remain in bondage. They are willing to do anything to rescue them, even if it costs them their own lives.
We're back to that parental imagery again - real love cares so much it will do whatever it takes to deliver. This is how God loves us - as sons! (Gal 4:4-7) as a husband loves his wife! (Jer 3, Rev 19:7+). Real love draws lines and says I love you too much to leave these wrongs unredressed.
David Powlison puts it like this: "God's love has hate in it too: hatred for evil, whether done to you or by you."
So the fundamental truth in the term "Unconditional Love" is that God's love always receives us just as we are. But the fundamental flaw in that same definition is that God's love is never content to simply leave us in our plight.
Once again, Powlison is helpful:
If you receive blanket acceptance, you need no repentance. You just accept it. It fills you without humbling you. It relaxes you without upsetting you about yourself - or thrilling you about Christ. Its lets you relax without reckoning with the anguish of Jesus on the cross. It is easy and undemanding. It does not insist on, or work at changing you. It deceives you about both God and yourself.And that's the crux of it really - the reason God loves us in the first place does not rest in us; it rests in Christ, in what he has done for us. We need not worry about that bond failing, because Christ has completed everything he set out to do. If you want to experience God's favor, you must be in Christ. And that only happens through repentance and faith.
We can do better. God does not accept me just as I am; he loves me despite how I am. He loves me just as Jesus is; he loves me enough to devote my life to renewing me in the image of Jesus.
This is much, much, much better than unconditional! Perhaps we could call it "contraconditional" love. God has blessed me because his son has fulfilled the conditions I could never achieve. Contrary to what I deserve, he loves me. An now I can begin to change - not because I can earn his love, but because I've already received it.-David Powlison, God's Love: Better than Unconditional (p14).
At the same time, we also see how God love really can be upset over our sin. That doesn't mean he witholds his love for us; but we shouldn't be surprised when he calls a spade a spade and even disciplines us from time to time. Just like a loving father will discipline his children. He simply is not content to leave us in our gutters.
That's real love - it's not conditional, but it's not unconditional either. It's beyond conditional, it's contraconditional. That's how God loves us, and that's how we are called to love one another.