I will be one of the first to admit, when I was a young believer, that understanding the unconditional love of God was troublesome because God’s love does seem to be built upon certain conditions. Then I realized that I was reading the text backwards.
“But,” the opponent will interject, “you say that God is all-loving.”
Yes, he is. In fact 1 John 4:8 says that
God is love.
But that’s not all that the text says, in fact that is only part of what John is saying. Remember, the presupposition of the biblical authors is that human beings are supposed to be imagers of God (Genesis 1:27). The full statement made by John is that,
Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. (ESV)
John’s language here is pretty strong, given that 1 John is written in what, has been told to me, in a very simple form of koine Greek, and is used by those who teach New Testament Greek to introduce students to the language. If you’ve never read John’s first epistle, it would probably be a good idea because he ties his thoughts together pretty well, constantly circling back and applying previous statements.
But what does this mean that “God is love”?
It says something about the nature of God. The Greek word used to describe love, doesn’t refer to a mere feeling but to something of a moral quality. God’s love is centered in his triune nature. The Persons of the Godhead are united in their kindly affection towards one another. The great thing is that they don’t want to keep the love that they have for one another to themselves. They want to share it and, to that end, they created an entire universe of creatures to express and share their love to and with.
We have to think about this carefully and thoughtfully else we could end up in a mountain of heresy, but let’s think about this.
In an earlier post, I talked about the issue of free will. One cannot love either meaningfully or truly unless they are free to do just that. In order for love to be true, it must be free to be given and free to be accepted. Of course the problem in a culture steeped in a post-modern mindset is that “love” has essentially lost its meaning. I watch and have watched a lot of television over the years, especially soap operas. I’ve watched characters pledge their undying love and 3 months later, they’d be pledging to love someone else. Love has been reduced from something that people do, regardless of feelings, to something that we merely feel.
My parents divorced in 2000. Their marriage ended a month shy of their 30th anniversary. It broke my heart. The words that my father said about the reasons why he left my mother were summed up in the statement, “I don’t love your mother the way that a husband should.”
To me, as I was turning 24, the only thought that I could muster was, “Well, love her the way the way that a husband should.” The fact that he recognized something that he wasn’t doing, in my naive way of thinking at the time, was that the problem would be fixed if he would simply start doing what it was that he wasn’t doing. Thing was, it wasn’t simply a matter of doing something that he wasn’t doing, it was a desire to do those things.
We look back through the Scriptures, go back to the beginning: God showed love to one man, Adam, brought him into his presence unconditionally. God didn’t tell Adam to get 3-5 years of experience and then he’d be made the steward of God’s earthly estate, far from it, he brought Adam in, gave him a job and a family, without conditions. However, in order to remain there, Adam had to obey one, single stipulation: don’t eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
Fast forward to the call of Abraham (Abram). There again, we see unconditional love being shown, but in order to benefit from that love, there are conditions that have to be met,
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
God just doesn’t start making everything smooth sailing for Abraham, he approaches Abraham and makes a deal with him: if you leave your people, then I will make you a people. God comes to Abraham, condescends to him, not because Abraham is a nice guy. In fact, as you read Abraham’s story, he’s kind of a jerk. But God doesn’t tell Abraham to stop being a jerk, he comes unconditionally to Abraham and makes him an offer, and offer that is conditional.
Let’s put this in a measure of perspective. Think about asking someone to go out on a date with you.
You don’t tell that person, “Get dressed up for 3 days, and I’ll take you out on a date.” Instead, you approach them, and say, “Hey, I think that you’re a neat person, and I’d like to get to know you better, would you like to go out to dinner with me one night?” The initial approach is unconditional, however what comes after is conditional upon the acceptance of the offer.
The false assumption is that if God’s love is, in fact, unconditional then all the benefits of it should be unconditional as well. If human love doesn’t work that way, then why should God’s love be less than human love. Think about it: if my love for the woman who I desired to marry had not been unconditional, I never would have asked her to marry me; however, in order to get the benefit of marriage, she had to say, “yes,” and she has to be faithful in her commitment as my wife. Therefore, we have to say, if God’s love is unconditional, then we should respond to it in order to benefit from it.