Many of us grew up in church hearing that only God is capable of unconditional love and that mankind – fallen creatures that we are – can only respond with conditional love. God is faithful, we are faithless. This self-deprecating rhetoric may lessen the guilt of a works-based legalism, but it is a convenient excuse for some. Even for those who aspire to such love, it seems unattainable. The myth of man’s inability to reciprocate unconditional love has become so second-nature that we hardly notice its negative repercussions.
According to this line of thinking, humans are forever resigned to the inescapable fate of conditional love. Conditional love is entitled love – it expects something in exchange for the worth and effort it represents. Unconditional – or unentitled – love gives without expecting anything in return. One is selfless and serving, the other self-serving.
There is no fear in unconditional love; because fear is based on the anticipation of unmet needs, desires or expectations. Someone who went through a bad breakup has difficulty trusting again because they’re afraid they won’t receive the committed love they seek in exchange for the time, emotional energy and devotion they offer to the other person. But if there are no conditions on your love, there can be no fear of what might be withheld or withdrawn from you.
Unconditional love is extremely counter-intuitive to our nature, and especially our culture – which tells us it’s healthy to place such expectations upon ourselves, our family, friends or spouse. But this is not the kind of love God extends to us and invites us into. “Agape” is Greek word used for God’s standard for love. It does not indicate “perfect” love – in that it is without flaw. Only God’s love is flawless, yet the Bible uses the word ‘agape’ in relation to mankind countless times. Agape love is based purely on covenant – where the only condition is the commitment upon which the relationship was founded.
We were uniquely created to express the self-sacrificing love of Christ – to die to our fleshly desires, lay down our life in selfless service, and consider others as more important than ourselves. In fact, according to 1 John 4:7-21, we are told that God’s love is being perfected – completed – inside of us as we continue to open more of ourselves up to more of His heart and His character. And this, my friends, is the key: to abide in Christ. Apart from Christ, we are slaves to our natural instinct of self-preservation – but in Him, we are empowered to lay down our lives in selfless love for those around us.
It is unnerving to admit that we are capable of loving our families, friends and spouses – or even strangers – with that kind of love. So we often lower the bar for ourselves, chalking up our wishy-washy love to the fallen state of humanity. And even while our grateful hearts can praise the Lord for love that “saves a wretch,” we continue to mimic the world in their self-centered concept of love. That’s why the divorce rate amongst believers – not to mention our screwed up family dynamics and broken models of friendship – are no different from the world. We have not held ourselves to a higher standard of love. But the problem lies deeper still.
It is far more controversial to claim that humans are capable of offering unconditional love to God Himself. We love God because he first loved us – but it was never meant to stop there. Marriage imagery abounds in the Bible – not only for Christ’s love for the Church, but to describe God’s covenant with Israel. The entire book of Hosea proves one single point: It is in God’s nature to love His people regardless of how unfaithful they are. The problem comes when we draw the following conclusion: that God’s unconditional love is destined to be mostly one-sided. On the contrary, the Bible indicates that we are fully intended to reciprocate – as a bride commits herself to her husband in fidelity, self-sacrifice and wholehearted devotion.
But in order to cultivate this kind of love, we must love God for who he is, not what we can get from Him or through Him. Only then will our love be free from all entitled conditions and earthly expectations – whether it be having a successful career or feeling #blessed. Do we really believe that the Immanuel Presence – “God with us” – is enough for us in this life? Observe the mentality of the persecuted Christian – trial or tribulation may come, but their devotion to the Lord cannot be shaken. A martyr does not spend his last breath cursing a God who failed him in this life – he spends it praising the One whom he loved more than life itself.
So let’s debunk the cultural myth that we are doomed to settle for entitled love. By the power of the Spirit, we are capable of loving without self-preservation – without condition, expectation or reservation. We were made to lay down our lives for God and for man.