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What's Wrong with
Unconditional Love?
(Part 2)

By Willard F. Harley, Jr., Ph.D.

The newsletter I sent out last week included an invitation to challenge me on the topic of unconditional love. I received a host of responses, ninety-five percent of them supporting my point of view. But since I wanted this newsletter to address negative reaction, I've selected two of the few that took issue with me. They are both based on their theological understanding of God, so I'll be theological in my response. One writer wondered if I Corinthians 13 doesn't imply unconditional love, and the other felt that the Greek word sometimes used in the Bible for love, agape, meant unconditional love.

If theology is uninteresting, or offends you, skip this newsletter and return next week when I'll be discussing a topic related to unconditional love -- conditions that make separation and divorce reasonable. If love is conditional, what should the conditions be? For me, that's a much more difficult question to answer than whether or not unconditional love is a good idea, or even possible.

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

Dear Dr. Harley,

Doesn't the description of Love in 1 Corinthians 13 imply unconditional love? I believe that if you are to do all those things, then your love is not conditioned on anything.

F. R.

- - - - - -

Dear F. R.,

I Corinthians 13 defines love in both positive and negative terms, so first of all, let's see what it tells us that it's not. It's not "giving all I possess to the poor and surrendering my body to the flames" (verse 3), because those things can be done without love. So, apparently, love isn't sacrifice. It's something else. In verse 4 we find more that it is not: It's not envy, it doesn't lead to boasting, it is not proud, rude, or self-seeking. It is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs, and doesn't delight in evil. Do you get the picture so far? It's more a state of mind than a pattern of behavior, although certain behavior does indicate that a person doesn't have the right state of mind.

The keeping a record of wrongs is an interesting indication that you don't have love. There are many spouses who can't seem to let go of past offenses, such as infidelity. Does that mean they don't love when they're trying to give their unfaithful spouse another chance? God doesn't keep such a record of those who He loves (Psalms 103:11-12). But even in this context, His love is conditional because it's reserved only for those who fear Him. I interpret that to mean those who are in a relationship with Him.

I draw a distinction between the love of a couple trying to restore their relationship, and the love of a couple with the relationship fully restored. In the former case, records of past offenses are definitely kept (and should be). Love has not been restored, at least for the betrayed spouse. I must remind that person to avoid talking about the affair. But in the latter case, the betrayed spouse really does leave the past behind.

Now that we know what love isn't according to the passage, what is love? Love rejoices in truth, protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres (verses 6-7). I'm not sure I know what all of that means. I think I get the protects and perseveres parts, but the rejoicing in truth, trusting, and hoping is confusing. I might guess how it might apply to marriage, but others could rightfully disagree with me because the meaning and application isn't clear.

In trying to understand what love means in this chapter, the emphasis of love over faith, especially in the last verse, is very illuminating. Paul can't possibly be talking about faith in Jesus Christ since we are saved by faith, (John 5:24). According to every witness, including Paul, the writer of I Corinthians, nothing is more important than that, and we develop an understanding of love through our faith in Christ. Instead, he must be talking about a general faith (removing mountains) and a general love. He's saying that it's more important that we love than it is that we have the power of faith. And with that, I can't agree with him more. But when it comes to God's love, the love we are to try to emulate, I find nothing in this chapter to indicate that it's unconditional.

Best wishes,
Willard F. Harley, Jr.

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

Dear Dr. Harley,

In response to your article on unconditional love, I was wondering how you would handle the word, "agape". I believe this is where the idea of unconditional love came from. Certainly this is the love that God extends toward us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

I also read that I am able to love Him because He first loved me. When God began to draw me to Him at the age of 22 and reveal to me His love, was it because I was lovable or somehow did something to earn His love? I did everything I could to run from Him and yet He pursued me. This is what made Him irresistible and makes Him irresistible still.

However, knowing all this, I still have days when I don't spend the time with Him that He deserves or show Him the honor that He is worthy of. Does He withhold His love because I haven't made deposits in His love bank? Is there anything that can separate me from the love of Christ? And is this the love we are to extend toward one another? Please don't miss my heart on this because I'm asking sincerely, without any motive other than to continue to grow and learn.

Thank you,
R. S.

- - - - - -

Dear R. S.

Let me answer your letter in two parts: The first part deals with your point that Christ died for us while we were sinners, and the second deals with God being irresistible. Why aren't they irrefutable evidence that God has unconditional love for us?

The definition of God's love (agape) is important to understand, because it helps us get to know Him better, and also helps us understand how it should be applied in marriage. It's true that God's love gives us an opportunity to be in a relationship with him through our faith in Jesus Christ. His extending hand comes without preconditions. It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy (Romans 9:16). But his offer requires a response, and without that response, the relationship cannot be consummated. The response is our belief in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. It's God's condition for being in a relationship with Him.

There are some who believe that God will eventually save us all. His unconditional love, they say, is so great that even after death we will all be given 2nd, 3rd, and many more chances to redeem ourselves until we all arrive in heaven. But if that's true, the message of salvation as revealed in Scripture is seriously flawed. According to the sermons of Jesus, and the theology of Paul and others, there will be no second chances. According to these witnesses, God's invitation comes with no preconditions (unconditional), but our relationship with Him and our salvation is conditional on our faith in Jesus Christ in this lifetime.

As applied in marriage, we may offer our love by giving our spouse a chance to be in a relationship with us. But if our spouse doesn't reciprocate, the relationship itself is not completed. There are some who believe that they can single-handedly keep a marital relationship alive by loving unconditionally. The truth is that it takes two to have a relationship, and when one breaks away, the relationship no longer exists. No amount of love from one spouse can restore the relationship unless the other spouse responds in love.

Now let me address the issue of God being irresistible because of His love for us. There is a distinction that must be made between those who have faith in Jesus Christ and those who do not. Those of us who are believers realize that God loved us before we loved Him, and we are drawn to Him because of His love for us. Those who are unbelievers seem to have no such awareness. Once we are saved, nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). He is irresistible to us. But the unsaved will be eternally separated from His love after their death and will experience His judgment (Hebrews 10:31). They find nothing irresistible about Him.

Granted, being a Christian makes us more motivated to give others, including our spouse, second chances. But my point is that a marital relationship requires romantic love and caring love. And those kinds of love require a mutual commitment and effort. Both spouses care for each other by meeting each other's important emotional needs and avoid hurting each other. When they do, they experience romantic love. If they fail to provide that care for each other, the marital relationship doesn't exist. They may stay together and avoid a divorce, but, from my perspective, they don't really have a marital relationship.

The same is true of our relationship to God -- if we do not believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord, we don't have a relationship with Him. It's conditional on our response to His offer. But when we have that relationship, it changes the way we think and behave. We're not perfect, that's for sure, but the relationship itself places us in God's will.

In one of Jesus Christ's sermons, He is reported to have said, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!" (Matthew 7:21-23).

I never knew you is the defining sentence. In other words, even those who claim to be Christians can fail to be in a relationship with God. They can go to church every week, pray, attend Bible studies, and even be a Christian leader. But when the time comes for them to face Christ at the judgment, He will say to them, I never knew you.

Marriage can be that way, too. You can get a license, say your vows, buy a home, raise children, and live together throughout life. But without mutual care, you don't really have a marital relationship. Some of the spouses I counsel admit that the person they go to bed with every night seems like a total stranger.

To be in a marital relationship, spouses must meet each other's important emotional needs and avoid hurting each other. That makes enough Love Bank deposits to create the feeling of romantic love. But our relationship with God doesn't work the same way. Our faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord automatically places us in God's will, and that's all the deposits we need to make. The sacrifice of His Son, Jesus, keeps our balance high.

If everyone God loved responded to Him because of their awareness of His love, no one would be lost. But we know that most people will not be saved because most people have not, do not, and will not, believe in Jesus Christ, even those who attend church regularly. They don't respond the way you and I did. It's our response that made our relationship with Him possible, and once that happened, He was irresistible.

Best wishes,
Willard F. Harley, Jr.

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