Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Should We Speak of God's "Unconditional Love"?

I recently bought the DVD (for only $7.50 at Target!) of the movie Rudy, which, as Michael Medved has said, is “without a doubt one of the finest sports movies ever made.” The first thing I did was watch an interview with the real Rudy Ruettiger. The real Rudy basically has one message: you can do whatever you want to do or be whomever you want to be—just follow your dreams. (And hey, now he’s making $17K a speech with that message, so perhaps I shouldn’t knock it!). But to be honest, while a great story, Rudy’s interview was pretty sappy. And I hate to break it to him, but his life motto just isn’t true. Joe Carter puts it well in today’s Evangelical Outpost:

Admittedly, it’s a well-intentioned fib, meant to encourage the young and prevent them from placing unnecessary limitations on themselves. The problem, though, is that it often works too well. Children, who lack experience of their own, tend to trust adults about what possibilities are open in the world. But ambition and hard work cannot always compensate for a lack of ability or aptitude. As much as I may dream of being a doctor or NFL linebacker, the fact that I am 5’10”, 170 lbs, and faint at the sight of blood, prevents me from pursuing those occupations. Recognizing these limitations, though, can help us discover our natural talents. By realizing that not every pathway is open to us, we are able to find our true “calling.”

Amen. But this got me to thinking about another common saying: “God’s love for you is unconditional.” Like the “you can be anything you want to be” saying, most of us say this without giving it much thought. But if it’s not true, and is misleading, then the implications are far worse than telling a student who gets C’s throughout all of his schooling that he can grow up to be President of the United States. (Okay, bad example.)

About 10 years ago, one of my favorite authors—David Powlison—wrote about this question of “unconditional love” in the Journal of Biblical Counseling, vol. XII, no. 3 (Spring 1994): 45-48. The article has since been revised into a booklet, called God’s Love, which you can purchase for $1.

Powlison suggests that people who use the term often have good intentions, wanting to affirm four interrelated truths:

  1. “Conditional love” is bad—unconditional is shorthand for the opposite of manipulation, demand, judgmentalism.
  2. God’s love is patient—unconditional is shorthand for hanging on for the long haul, rather than bailing out when the going gets rough.
  3. True love is God’s gift—unconditional is shorthand for unearned blessings, rather than legalism
  4. God receives you just as you are: sinful, suffering, confused—unconditional is shorthand for God’s invitation to rough, dirty, broken people

These are true—and previous. But Powlison offers several responses. (I can only summarize and paraphrase here—buy the booklet to see the arguments in full.)

First, Powlison suggests that “there are more biblical and vivid ways to capture each of the four truths just stated.” “People currently employ a somewhat vague, abstract word—unconditional—when the Bible gives us more vivid and specific words, metaphors, and stories.”

Second, it’s not true that unmerited grace is strictly unconditional. Jesus Christ opened a way for us to experience the biblical love of God by fulfilling two conditions: a life of perfect obedience to the moral will of God, and a perfect substitutionary death on our behalf. Powlison writes: “Unconditional love? No, something much better. People who now use the word unconditional often communicate an acceptance neutered of this detailed, Christ-specific truth.”

Third, God’s love is more than conditional, for it is intended to change those who receive it. “Unconditional” often connotes “you’re okay.” But there is something wrong with you. The word “unconditional” may well express the welcome of God, but it does not well express the point of his welcome.

Fourth, “unconditional love” carries a load of cultural baggage, wedded to words like “tolerance, acceptance, affirmation, benign, okay,” and a philosophy that says love should not impose values, expectations, or beliefs on another. In fact, humanist psychology even has a term for it: “unconditional positive regard” (Carl Rogers).

Here is Powlison again:


We can do better. Saying “God’s love is unconditional love” is a bit like saying “The sun’s light at high noon is a flashlight in a blackout.” Come again? A dim bulb sustains certain analogies to the sun. Unconditional love does sustain certain analogies to God’s love. But why not start with the blazing sun rather than the flashlight? When you look closely, God’s love is very different from “unconditional positive regard,” the seedbed of contemporary notions of unconditional love. God does not accept me just as I am; He loves me despite how I am; He loves me just as Jesus is; He loves me enough to devote my life to renewing me in the image of Jesus. This love is much, much, much better than unconditional! Perhaps we could call it “contraconditional” love. Contrary to the conditions for knowing God’s blessing, He has blessed me because His Son fulfilled the conditions. Contrary to my due, He loves me. And now I can begin to change, not to earn love but because of love.

…You need something better than unconditional love. You need the crown of thorns. You need the touch of life to the dead son of the widow of Nain. You need the promise to the repentant thief. You need to know, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” You need forgiveness. You need a Vinedresser, a Shepherd, a Father, a Savior. You need to become like the one who loves you. You need the better love of Jesus.

Amen. Let us drop the language of “unconditional love” from our vocabularies and embrace the more radical and biblical and conversation-starting language of “contraconditional love”! And let us especially celebrate it during this Christmas, as we ponder the fact that He came to live and die on behalf of those who deserve none of his love.