Monday, January 20, 2014

Do I Really Have To Love (Unconditionally)?

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

As we continue to look on the VISION statement of Ridge Church we are going to look at the second part of our statement:

We of Ridge United Methodist Church are united with Jesus Christ in His ministry of compassion for all people by offering HOPE, UNCONDITIONAL LOVE and MEANING FOR LIFE.

Last Sunday we talked about how we as a people are called to be people who bring hope. 

Today we are going to look at the most difficult --- and maybe the most controversial part of our vision statement --- but I think it is the cornerstone of who we are supposed to be.

We are to be a people who offer unconditional love.

What I am going to try and do, is look at what we mean by unconditional love.

“Love” is a difficult and problematic term on its own.

We use it to refer to everything from preferences
          “I love the Duke Blue Devils”
to appreciation
          “I love the way you arranged those flowers”
to emotion
          “I love Zeke" --- my dog by the way
to commitment
          “I will always love you”

But we also use this simple expression “I love you” to mean an apology
I know I upset you but I didn’t mean to, please forgive me because I love you
to a demand
          do this because I love you --- so you owe me
to a promise
You know I love you and I will take care of you for the rest of your life
or a way of avoiding a promise
          I love you, isn’t that enough?

But, when we add that one little word unconditional to qualify love, we narrow the possible range of meanings considerably.

I think that if we can really comprehend what constitutes a “condition”, we will find that the type of love which is truly unconditional is one with which we are not terribly familiar in our culture.

And I think, at a base level, we all like the idea of unconditional love.

We see it as the loftiest kind of love --- maybe even God's love --- but is it possible?

          Does it even make sense?

Let me give you a couple of examples as we wrestle with this concept.

A mother is having a test of wills with her two-year-old.

The young boy wants to continue playing with his toys, but it’s time for bath and bed.

Mom has already given him a five-minute grace period, after his first howling protests. Now she insists he will do as she says.
She is not being unloving; her firmness is an expression of her concern for his well-being.

Of course, the child doesn’t see it that way.
          Or doesn’t care.
He simply wants his own will.

If he could speak his feelings, he would probably say, “If you really loved me, you’d let me do what I want!”

As adults, we have little problem identifying with Mom here.
          We understand a child’s immaturity.
                   Mom really is expressing love.
But is it unconditional love?

Yes, in the sense that she will continue loving her son even if he disobeys (if she is a healthy mother).

But no, in the sense that, in this as many other situations, love itself requires conditions.

A harder case: Dick and Jane have been married for almost twenty years.

It’s been a good marriage over all, with a couple of healthy children.

But problems have sprouted in the past couple of years.

And recently Dick discovered that his wife is having an affair.

Jane wants to continue the adulterous relationship.
She also wants Dick to accept it, like an up-to-date, sensible person, and let the marriage continue.
What does real love mean for Dick and Jane in this situation?

If he really loves her unconditionally, won’t he accept his wife on her terms, as an expression of his love?
Or will genuine love here require Dick to say, in effect: “It’s either me or him.”

So does genuine love require conditions?

Maybe the first thing we have to ask ourselves is What does “conditional” mean?
          Conditional --- not limited by conditions
          Conditions --- a restricting, limiting, or modifying circumstance

So, if the presence of love is limited by any particular condition (circumstance or requirement), it is not, by definition, unconditional.

So we could take those examples I just shared a step farther and argue:

The love of parents for their children and vice versa is not unconditional.

It depends on the circumstance of being related by birth or adoption.

Sexual love is not unconditional.

It depends on the sexual attraction between the participants.

The love of one’s friends is not unconditional.

It depends on shared interests, mutual support, communication, and all the other things that make our friends our friends.

So can unconditional love really ever exist??

The crazy truth is ----

Unconditional love is not personal.

If you love someone for their sense of humor, personality, the way they make you feel, or any other aspect of their identity, your love is conditional.

It depends on the presence of that characteristic.

If the person ceased to be or have all the things that you enjoy, would the love still be present?

And here’s the real kicker --- unconditional love does not come and go.
          It just is.

That leaves us with the ultimate quandary . . .

If human love is seemingly always conditional --- is God's love unconditional.

The logical answer is NO --- even God's love is conditional.

And the church had argued this for millennia.

Howard Snyder, an evangelical theologian that I highly respect, especially for his views on social justice ---- wrote a blog piece on number of years ago.

He argues:

The love of God, “greater far than tongue or pen can ever tell.” Human love may fail, but surely God’s love is unconditional, right?


God created man and woman and put them in the Garden. Conditionality were there from the start: “You are free . . . . But you must not . . .” (Gen. 2:16-17 NIV). The same truth runs throughout Scripture. And the logic of it undergirds the whole meaning of Jesus’ coming, death, and resurrection.

If God’s love were unconditional, the cross would be unnecessary. God does not love unconditionally. He loved so much that he sent his Son. And he loves so much that he will not, cannot, forgive and accept us as his redeemed children except on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice. To do otherwise would betray the integrity of God’s own character. Precisely for this reason, acceptance without cost or sacrifice would betray the essential nature of love itself.

The cross is the ultimate proof that true love is never unconditional.

He makes a persuasive argument --- especially if you come from a Calvinist background

And I hear it all the time.

I was at a funeral this week and the pastor talked about the need to get an "eternal life insurance policy"

The implication is --- of course, that if you do not have a relationship with Jesus --- then you are not getting to heaven --- but instead are going to hell.

So, is God's love conditional?

Does God only love us if we believe --- mentally assent to ideas that the church has authorized?

And if we fail to agree with those statements --- then is God going to assign us to eternal torment?

Unfortunately --- over the years I have come to understand that our answer --- or our perception --- to the question on whether God loves us unconditionally or not is predicated on the baggage that we bring to the table.

We could stand up here and begin a quote fest --- on both sides of the issue --- to try and prove our point
          Is God's love unconditional or not

And many of the verses both sides would quote would be taken out of context to serve the arguers purpose.

Some of the verses I could quote would include:

1 Corinthians 13
Love is very patient and kind, never jealous or envious, never boastful or proud, never haughty or selfish or rude. Love does not demand its own way. It is not irritable or touchy. It does not hold grudges and will hardly even notice when others do it wrong.
It is never glad about injustice, but rejoices whenever truth wins out. If you love someone you will be loyal to him no matter what the cost. You will always believe in him, always expect the best of him, and always stand your ground in defending him.
All the special gifts and powers from God will someday come to an end, but love goes on forever...
There are three things that remain -- faith, hope, and love -- and the greatest of these is love.
1 John 4:10
          In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us

Exodus 34:5
“The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness

Or Psalm 136 which reminds us over and over again that:
          God's steadfast love endures forever

And I could go on and on and on -----
          as could someone who wishes to argue the exact opposite
and we both can rationalize and explain away the other passages

But --- at the end of the day
          I think we are left with a choice
                   What type of God do we choose to believe in?
                             What type of God do we choose to emulate?

A dozen or so years ago ----
when the leadership of Ridge Church took a Saturday and spent it down the street at Westminster in retreat we wrestled with this very issue

At the end of the day we decided that we wanted to emulate a God who loves us unconditionally and who challenges us to do the same.

But what does that mean that we are to love "unconditionally"

I would suggest we frame it this way


Second --- Love is the only force that can change the world

We as Christians understand that Jesus is the embodiment of love.  So for us, we seek to emulate his way of life which was one of agape love --- or what we might call sacrificial love.

Martin Luther King put it beautifully:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.

I have decided to stick with love.  Hate is too great a burden to bear.

At Ridge United Methodist Church we have chosen to try and emulate God's love for us

We desire to see all people as God's children --- worthy of God's love --- worthy of our love.

Does this attitude --- this approach create problems?

Will we succeed in doing it?
          Probably not

BUT  --- it is the call of Jesus in our loves!

It is the crown that Jesus holds over our heads and invites us to grow into!

I believe in a God who loves me without condition.

But I also believe in a God whose desire for me is to follow the way of Jesus --- not so that God might love me more --- but so that I might love more!

1 comment:

C CONGER said...

What a beautiful and inspiring sermon. While it is true that humans may not be able to love unconditionally, and that the bible may portray a God that loves conditionally- we can't forget that humans themselves, a variety of them, wrote the Bible with their own perspectives and agendas. So it is entirely possible that a God who loves unconditionally DOES exist. And if creating a theology around such an unconditionally loving God helps us all to be better people and create a more loving global community… then I think that is a wonderful thing. Onward & upward. -CEC