We often hear that God loves us unconditionally, and that we are called to love everyone we meet in the same way. Matthew 22:37 & 39 give us the two Great Commandments, which are founded upon this principle: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ and ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ St. Paul dwells on this topic in the well known “Love Chapter” of First Corinthians (1 Cor 13).
Unconditional Love is central to the Christian Gospel.
But, what is “Unconditional Love”?
Recently, I’ve been reading “Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason” by Alfie Kohn, an interesting and informative book that seeks to apply science and reason to the raising of children. The book is fascinating, and not just because it uses convincing science and logic to throw many cherished myths about raising children right out the window.
What struck me in reading Kohn’s work is his thoughts on what “Unconditional Love” means, and it’s importance in becoming the well rounded, stable and (spiritually) healthy individuals we are meant to be.
For one, he points out that if we demonstrate our love for another only when we meet their expectations, then our love is conditional. Unconditional love “doesn’t hinge on how they act, whether they’re successful or well behaved or anything else.”
He also states that if we love children just as they are, then they learn to “accept themselves as fundamentally good people, even when they screw up or fall short.” This in turn helps them to be freer to accept other people just as they are, and helps them to flourish, instead of being lost in a sea of judgment and rigidity.
Kohn also says that “Conditional parenting is based on the deeply cynical belief that accepting kids for who they are just frees them to be bad because, well, that’s who they are.” This is true of conditional love of any sort. Paul says it best, in Romans 7:22-24: For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
In other words, we are inherently good (or, at least we yearn to be “good”) says Paul – and Kohn – and Jesus. But, if we do not learn to love unconditionally, if we choose to see the flaws in others before we see what God sees in them, then we are allowing the sin that is in our flesh (as Paul describes it) to obscure the goodness within us, and within others. We then fail to love others unconditionally, as we are called to do, because we have not learned to see beyond what a person does to embrace who they are – a beloved child of God, just like everybody else, including us.
Ultimately, “…The choice between conditional and unconditional parenting is a choice between two radically different views of human nature.” Are we essentially economic robots – our behavior is purely the learning that love is earned in return for correct behavior?
If we are primarily automatons that require incentives to behave well, then how can we be authentic people – authentic in terms of understanding who we are, and authentic in our dealings with others? Our love is conditional if we accept others only when their behavior is acceptable. This also means that we can only accept ourselves if the person we seem to be meets whatever standard we’ve set for ourselves. We will be distancing ourselves from God’s unconditional acceptance of that inner person we try so hard to hide from everyone else, including ourselves.
Why do we need to create a false “self” that others will find acceptable? When we do so, we can never be the person we are meant to be – we will always be a façade, a mask behind which we hide (and often lose) our true selves in the name of finding acceptance.
Kohn goes on to say that “Unconditional parenting insists that the family ought to be a haven, a refuge … [that love] does not have to be paid for in any sense. It is simply and purely a gift …. to which all … are entitled.”
This is echoed throughout the Bible, and especially the New Testament. God is seen as “our Father.” We are called children of God, and members of the “Family of God.” Paul says it in a different way at times, describing us as members of the “Body of Christ.” God’s love is a gift, one that will never be taken away, one that is always there, not given as a result of anything we’ve done.
All of these biblical metaphors reflect an understanding of the importance of accepting and loving others unconditionally; and understanding that they reflect how God loves us. “The other” is part of who we are, and so we must learn to love others unconditionally if we are to learn how to love ourselves in the same way, and learn how to accept the unconditional love of God which is already there, waiting for us.
“Love your neighbor as yourself” is not just about learning to love your neighbor, but also about learning to love yourself.
Copyright (c) 2014, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or gaining) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)