What is unconditional love?
What is unconditional love? Why don't we see much of it around? Is unconditional love fair? Liz Carter, author of Catching Contentment, asks what we can do to understand a kind of world-changing love, even in difficult times.
A few days after I came out of hospital at the beginning of December, I found a pile of meals for the freezer left on my doorstep. There was no note with them; nothing to point to the giver. Just the food, left there with love to carry me and my family through a tough time. I’ve been ill all my life, and time after time I’ve experienced this kind of generosity: a love with no attached conditions, a love needing no recognition.
How do we know what love is?
As children, we learn about the kind of love reflected in how we are cared for. This might look like selfless, perfect love, or it may look nothing much like love at all - or it might look like something in the middle; a blend of the absolute and pure love many parents do their best to give, and the imperfect choices we all make. The image of what love is may well be marred within us, and so when we hear the phrase ‘unconditional love’ we may wonder what that means, because in our experience love has always come with strings attached. Even the best of parents make mistakes and impose conditions: ‘If you’re a good girl I’ll buy you a present,’ ‘If you get those grades we’re going to be so proud’.
Is it possible, then, to model unconditional love, when we don’t see much of it around?
In Jesus’ parable of the lost son (Luke 15), he talks about how the father is so desperate for his son to come home, that when he glimpses him in the distance he dashes towards him, embracing him and welcoming him. Instead of reminding his son how badly he has behaved, and how he has hurt him and the rest of the family so much, he prepares a feast with the choicest meat and gives the son a new robe. He lavishes his love on the son he thought was lost to him. It’s a beautiful picture of love, and yet a countercultural one, as well. We have the older son in the background, wondering why his brother should get all this attention and love showered on him, when he, the older son, is the one who stayed with his father and worked for him, day in, day out. It simply doesn’t seem fair.
But that’s the nature of unconditional love: it’s not ‘fair.’ At least, not fair in the terms we might apply to fairness. It doesn’t always seem to recognise that someone has messed up, or is broken. Instead, it cascades over the person within their brokenness, saying I love you anyway. I love you no matter what.
Unconditional love is able to do this because it springs from the source of infinite love. It is never limited and never runs out. When I had my first child, I couldn’t imagine how I could spare any more love if I had another, because my love for my daughter was so all-consuming. When my son was born, I discovered the same intense, fierce love for him enveloping my being, and the love for my daughter had in no way diminished. My love had grown a hundred-fold, because love is like that. Love doesn’t run out.
I see glimpses of this kind of love in those around me all the time. Each act of love is a reflection of the source of infinite love – even when the act is edged in imperfection. And even though we don’t manage perfect love, we can choose to live our lives immersed in the One who is perfect love - which brings us closer to it and enables us to share it with those around us. And it’s been in the times I’ve felt at my most broken that I’ve been so blessed by family and friends lavishing love on me in the way God lavishes love on us: without condition, and without expectation of payback. I’ve been given thoughtful gifts – like the meals above - and even anonymous gifts of money, asking for nothing back and no acknowledgment.
Love, in its purest form, is not restrained or confined by the broken state of the receiver of that love. Jesus’ great sacrifice wasn’t made for those who were fixed and perfect, but for those living under the shadow of darkness and death. God’s love is stronger, even, than death, because it has already defeated it. And the more time we spend in God’s presence, the more we access God’s love, freely available when we ask, pouring down over us as God delights in our worship. The more we read God’s words of love in scripture, the more we are assured of how God sees us and feels about us.
And when we begin to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, throwing ourselves into those profound depths actually intensifies our love for those around us, shattering the conditions we place upon it, and purifying it so that it becomes less self-seeking. ‘It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.’ (1 Corinthians 13:7) The more we love God, the more our love for others begins to reflect the kind of love God floods over us.
If only we always displayed this kind of love - what would the world look like?
Yet when we are in a dark place, it can be difficult to understand love, to grasp it when we are shown it and to love others from that broken place. Perhaps life becomes too narrow for us and it feels too exhausting to try. But let’s be kind to ourselves, and remember that Jesus actually demonstrated God’s love to us most of all in an act of pure weakness: from his brokenness on the cross, the most staggering, extravagant and truly unconditional love was poured out on humanity. That love has transformed lives through history, blazing through our darkness and shattering the murk in us. That love is wide and long and high and deep, and contains us in the depths of our hurting, holding us tight in everlasting arms. Jesus knows our exhaustion and our agony because he lived it, too. It’s a love that never, ever fails, and a love that, while not placing conditions, cannot fail to change us and encourage us toward holiness and truth.
And that’s when we begin to mirror it in our lives, and shower it upon others in their broken times – without expectation or condition.
‘And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.’ (Ephesians 3:17-19)