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The Problem With Unconditional Love

For God so loved the world … –John 3:16

The problem with unconditional love is the tendency to take it for granted.

If I have to behave a certain way or do certain things to deserve the love I receive, I will undoubtedly try harder to please the one who loves me. But the absence of such requirements seems to disconnect unconditional love from any reciprocal or behavioral expectations.

For example, it’s natural for a father to love his children. He demonstrates his love by nurturing, providing, protecting and sheltering them, even granting their reasonable requests. However, if he constantly rushes to their aid, bailing them out of every circumstance, resolving all their conflicts and handling every situation for them, two dynamics occur. First, the father’s unconditional response enables the children’s ongoing poor behavior. Second, the children’s exploitation of their father’s unconditional response hinders their positive character development.

This is where consequence enters the picture. Consequence — both rewards and discipline — must be part of unconditional love. Truly loving his children, a prudent father allows them to experience the consequences of their behavior and choices by way of the “if’s” and “then’s” of life. If they behave, obey and choose wisely, then he rewards them. But if they misbehave, disobey and make poor decisions, then he lovingly disciplines.

This concept may seem blunt and harsh, yet God interacts with us the same way.

God’s Unchanging Character

Oh, we revel in God’s unconditional love; yet we often overlook His unchanging holiness. We often overlook the fact that His love is unconditional because of who He is. Yes, He is, and will always be, love — in Him there is “no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (James 1:17 KJV). Yet He is also, and will always be, holy—“I am the Lord, I do not change” (Malachi 3:6 NKJV). He is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8 NKJV). His standard for holiness and righteousness is not compromised by His love, nor does it mellow or evolve based on our fondness for sin or the ever-devolving cultural norms. No, His character and standard remain constant.

Jesus’ Finished Work

Only by accepting Jesus’ finished work of salvation and the regeneration of the Holy Spirit’s rebirth and renewing sanctification (Titus 2:5) can we meet God’s holy standard. This happens not because of who we are or what we do, but because of Whose we are. As Christians, we are “hidden in Christ” (Colossians 3:3) because He clothes us with His garments of salvation and covers us with His robe of righteousness (Isaiah 61:10).

Our Response

Grasping the reality of His holiness helps us appreciate His unconditional love and respond accordingly. I can love Him, not out of fear of punishment, but from genuine gratitude for what He has already done. Like any other relationship, I demonstrate my love for Him by spending time with Him, listening to Him through His Word, serving Him, obeying Him, walking daily with Him and following His leading. I do this because I want to, not because I have to. No relationship is sound or healthy based on force; genuine love only flows from free, willing hearts.

Only with this mindset and response can I truly appropriate and appreciate God’s unconditional love.

I realize He lovingly wants what’s best for me.

I accept His direction in my life, even if confused or uncertain about whatever outcome I face.

I obey His Word, asking immediate forgiveness when I stray, because my heart, mind, soul and body are captured by His love.

As such, I do not presume upon His unconditional love, but willfully seek only His will, His leading, His heart, His intimacy and His favor.

By doing so, unconditional love aligns with expected standards. My behavior doesn’t change His love; His love influences my choices, behaviors and actions. I cannot earn more or less of His love; yet His love compels me to follow Him, obey Him and seek His favor and blessings.

Father, keep me from ever presuming upon Your unconditional love. Rather, encourage me to revel in it through obedience, intimacy and fellowship in Your presence.

About Nate Stevens

A missionary kid raised in a Christian home and church, Nate Stevens is a lifelong student of Scripture. He has enjoyed a 36-year banking career in a variety of leadership roles. He is the author of "Matched 4 Life," "Matched 4 Life Workbook," "Deck Time with Jesus," and contributes to the Moments book series (Divine Moments, Spoken Moments, Stupid Moments, etc.). He co-leads a singles ministry in the Charlotte, NC area and is a popular speaker / teacher at conferences, seminars and Bible study groups, speaking on a wide variety of topics. Nate currently lives near Charlotte, North Carolina, is a newlywed to his beautiful wife, Karen, and is an active dad with two awesome kids, Melissa and Mitchell.
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