Love is a concept that is greatly misunderstood and seems nearly impossible to explain, yet that does not restrain us from claiming our love for others or even our favorite snack. Try to explain love to someone and you will undoubtedly end up tripping over your words as you search for a way to explain a concept that you suddenly realize you have not fully grasped. Psychologists and researchers have also endeavored to establish a succinct way to define love yet they either leave the explanation as a lofty and mysterious theory or root it in its most primitive form, using evolutionary instincts as an explanation. Neither suffices to satisfy us.
The fact that love is such a mystery is rather profound and serves as foundational proof that love is not a concept of human invention nor is it understandable with our current knowledge of human nature without an outside source. This leaves us as Christians to define love as it was intended; through an understanding of God and His definition of love. First, we will look at what love is not, in order to identify some ways we may intentionally or unintentionally be acting out in a harmful, worldly imitations of Godly love.
Conditional Love – As long as you meet my needs, give me what I want, perform up to my standards or meet some other criteria then I will bestow my love upon you and give you what you want. This would seem to be an obviously wrong and damaging way to love and yet many marriages and families are structured around this form of love which can be better defined as manipulation. There are even Christian books that subtly teach this way of love. The extreme end of conditional love is easy to identify as harmful and manipulative – I will withhold good things from you until you satisfy my needs. On the more subtle end we speak of love languages and the filling of one another’s buckets which sounds right at first until we look deeper and realize it’s a give to get methodology of love.
Unconditional Love – I will love you no matter what you do. This sounds profoundly Biblical and often used with good intentions. We often bring other words into the conversation when speaking of unconditional love that should be alarming when brought into focus. To love without condition means we must be tolerant and accept without judgement and be okay with the actions of others, stating that we “will be here for them” and accept them without condition. This type of unconditional love is impotent and void of a desire for change. Where conditional love is more externally obvious and a sin of commission, unconditional love is covert and more a sin of omission. For a parent, this can be a tolerance of behaviors that are sinful and damaging to the child’s future in the name of love but the root of this tolerance is fear or laziness. Confronting others with their sin and asking them to change is hard work and even when accomplished in the most loving manner can often drive others away and create a tension in relationships. Apply that same reasoning to any relationship and you will see that unconditional love is rather selfish.
It is impossible to reconcile this idea of unconditional love with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the love of God. Unconditional love can be used as a synonym with grace but that only stays true to a point. It is true that God provides redemption and reconciliation based on His grace alone, but the story of salvation is a story of movement and of rescue. Gods grace calls us to action – Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Eph 5:1–2.
Biblical Godly Love – If we proclaim that unconditional love is good, we must recognize that Gods love is so much better. Biblically, love is described as being of God and shown by the grace provided us through the Cross. Godly love however is not dispassionate or neutral to leave us as we are, the love of God is intended to bring us to repentance and change for our good and Gods glory (Romans 2:4). God’s love is passionate and jealous. God does not love us from afar but deals with our pride and conforms us to the likeness of Jesus and draws us near. God’s love is not fickle and based on our actions or responses because God sets His affection on those He loves, not based on their merit but only on His love (Deut 7:7).
We are called to love in the same way, to be selfless and patient (1 Corinthians 13:4), to want others to be saved and conformed into the image of Jesus (1 Peter 1:14–15). God’s love is active, full of pursuit, and expectation (1 Timothy 1:14–17). Godly love is not tolerant or accepting of sin but calls for change. Godly love confronts a spouse in a gentle way about their sinful behavior. Godly love proclaims the Gospel to our children in word and deed with gentleness and respect even if it offends them. Godly love shows patience, mercy, and grace which is beyond reason. Godly love is an overflowing of God’s love for us that is contagious and zealous to love others first.
God’s love for us is not conditionally based on our works nor is it unconditional, it is based on the condition of Jesus bearing our sin in an active yet patient manner, conforming us to His likeness Once you begin to rightly understand the love of God, these other worldly forms of love become weak imitations.