I think we all understand that to know and experience love is the great need of the human soul. It is the noble pursuit written about and talked about and sung about throughout the ages. But conversations around love often feel a bit vague and mysterious. Many times, we are still left with the question: what is love?
Because people do a lot of things in the name of love… People exchange wedding vows in the name of love, but they also break them in the name of love. People reconcile in the name of love, but they also start wars in the name of love. People pursue careers in the name of love, but they also walk away from it all in the name of love. People care for the hurting in the name of love, but they also stay with an abuser in the name of love. Love is a word that certainly gets tossed around a lot. So, in a world sometimes motivated by love, but unsure of what it truly means, where does that leave us?
We know love is something to aspire to, but it is often elusive and confusing. We want it, but we want the good kind- the kind that doesn’t lead us down a path of heartbreak and regret, the kind of love we can hold on to and depend on… we want the unconditional kind.
I think in theory most of us understand the concept of unconditional love, but depending on our own personal experiences with love, it can feel more transactional than unconditional.
We live in a world where the paycheck we receive is based on the quality of work we do. The friendships we have are largely determined by the amount of investment we make in them. The romantic relationship begins because each person appeared likable and charming enough to keep pursuing. The amount of work we put into being interesting and entertaining to others determines how many social media followers we have. In other words, in most social settings in our lives, we perform and then we are compensated appropriately.
To make the concept of unconditional love even more confusing is our own experiences in life.
Unconditional love feels more like a fantasy than reality to the wife whose husband just left her for a younger woman, or to the kid who was always compared to another sibling growing up, or to the teenager who felt pressured to do things they felt uncomfortable with to fit in, or to the guy who just got dumped because she didn’t love him the same way he loved her, or to the person whose friends stopping calling when they went through a difficult time, or to the overachiever who has only ever felt noticed when applauded for a job well done.
And we all have our experiences. Mine included a father who drank way too much and struggled with anger and control when I was a little girl.
I will say, I am so proud of my father. He has accepted the love of God in a personal and radical way, and has become a follower of Jesus Christ. He began a journey to recovery decades ago, and he has been sober for about 25 years now. He is a loving, generous, wise man, devoted to my mom and to his family. I am proud of the man my father has dared to and struggled to become.
But when I was a little girl, I saw a different dad than the one I know now. I knew my father loved me, but it felt like it came with conditions. My dad’s drinking made the house chaotic, and unstable. I found myself trying to do whatever I could to keep my father’s temper from flaring when he drank too much, and trying to console my mom when the fights did break out. I found myself having to say and do the right things for my parents to be in a good enough place to notice me.
And then I went through a difficult season with my father as a young woman. I was resentful and angry, and my father was hurt and frustrated. So for a few years, even when we lived in the same home, we didn’t really speak to each other. It wasn’t until my early twenties that I began the work of reconciling with my dad, and it was truly by the grace of God that we repaired a very broken relationship.
These experiences growing up left their mark on me. Even after becoming a follower of Jesus, I struggled to understand that the love of God is unconditional. If I had to perform to some degree to experience love as a child with my own parents, how could I possibly expect God to simply love me for me and not what I bring to the relationship?
In Matthew 7, Jesus acknowledges these sorts of questions that many of us have:
9 “Do you know of any parent who would give his hungry child, who asked for food, a plate of rocks instead? 10 Or when asked for a piece of fish, what parent would offer his child a snake instead? 11 If you, imperfect as you are,[a]know how to lovingly take care of your children and give them what’s best, how much more ready is your heavenly Father to give wonderful gifts[b] to those who ask him?”
-Matthew 7:9-11 TPT
Jesus didn’t say that our Heavenly Father is ready to give wonderful gifts to those who behave nicely or to those who perform properly or for those who make the people around them happy or for those who do all the right things. Jesus’ promise is that our Heavenly Father simply gives to those who ask.
The love of God is not transactional. God’s commitment to us is not, “You love me, and I will love you in return. You make me happy, and then I’ll take care of you. You perform religiously, and then I’ll call you Mine.” The love He gives us is not determined by our actions; the love He gives is determined by who He is.
God is love. It’s not just what He offers. It’s who He is. And our actions- good or bad, do not alter who He is. He is love; and because it’s who He is, there will never be a shortage of His love in our lives.
16 We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love.
God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. 17 And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world.
18 Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love.
-1 John 4:16-18 NLT
Our sin can’t weaken His love. Our experiences can’t weaken His love. Our mistakes can’t weaken His love. Our failures can’t weaken His love. Our heartbreaks can’t weaken His love.
In fact, if we live our entire lives rejecting and running from God, and even hating Him or denying His existence, He will still love us. He will forever love us. And if you were to say, yes, but if He loves everyone regardless of whether they love Him in return, then how can you believe in a place like hell? How could a God who sends anyone to hell ever love with unconditional love?
If unconditional love is truly unconditional, then it can never be forced. And if we choose our entire lives to reject God, then He would never force us to spend an eternity worshipping Him because that wouldn’t be love. If that were the case, Heaven itself would become hell to the unbelieving. Truly, hell in its simplest form is a place completely separated from the rule and reign of God. And if this is what people choose their entire lives here on earth, then God will honor their choice into eternity as well.
God’s love is unconditional. God’s love towards us will never be revoked. And He will never love us more than He does today. In fact, He never grew into love with us or fell in love with us. We did absolutely nothing to earn His love. He has simply loved us always, completely and perfectly.
In other words, He loves you entirely, just as you are.
When we open our hearts and minds to this wild truth, and let this truth spread to every area of our lives, the need to perform in life for acceptance begins to weaken. People-pleasing loses its tight grip on us. The need to control begins to shrivel away. And the chains of guilt and shame are broken as well. Because of the unconditional love of God that is complete in every way, we can live free and at peace. We are enough, because His love says that we are.
So, hear this friend: you are loved just as you are. No need to perform. No need to prove something. You are loved just as you are. You have always been loved this way, even though you may not have known it, you are loved completely in this moment, and for all eternity you will be loved perfectly. The only thing you will ever have to do to receive this love is to believe it and accept it. So today, whatever your experiences have been, whatever you may have been told, whatever your current situation is, wherever you are in your faith journey, I pray your open heart to believe it and receive it- to accept for yourself the very personal, radical, and unconditional love of God.