I tried to be a good kid. Like, really hard. But that never seemed to keep me out of trouble! Take, for instance, that time in first grade when I dunked Peggy “Perky” Perkins’ french braid pigtails in finger paint. Or the Summer between fourth and fifth grade when I carved my alter-ego initials into a neighbor’s concrete carport. Or when I nearly got suspended from high school because it never dawned on me that “Fire Lanes” really were meant for Fire Trucks and not my shiny blue ’74 Audi 100 LS. Coincidentally (as some of my high school pals remember), I ended up parking that car in a deep ditch a few weeks later. I’m not sure my dad ever quite got over that…
Of course, in each case (and so many more it’s rather embarrassing to mention them), I was ultimately confronted by the disappointment and sometimes stern faces of my parents. Yet as hard as it was at the time, I always knew in my heart they loved me – unconditionally. Yes, they expected genuine apologies and often required me to make amends, but they were always there to pick me up and dust me off. Good as new.
How often do we imagine God in this way? How often do we feel:
#4 GOD’S LOVE IS UNCONDITIONAL
Many folks think God is like this – always there to love us and forgive us no matter what we do. His love is completely “condition-less,” given freely with no strings. Yet they base this view on a misunderstanding of the nature of God’s love for us.
Interestingly, the term “unconditional love” appears exactly nowhere in Scripture. No early church thinker or writer used the term. In fact no author of Christian works of any kind used “unconditional love” before the 20th century. The term was actually coined by renowned atheist Erich Fromm in 1934. Post-modern faith celebrities such as Richard Rohr or Wilkie and Noreen Au take this concept further, integrating psychology, new-age spirituality and “science-y” talk to present God’s love as holistic spirituality, costless and without strings.
The popularity of this notion is understandable. Humans embrace love from a secular, or “human” perspective. Our love as children of our parents (and our love as parents for our children), our love for spouses or partners, out love for brothers and sisters – all of these examples and others are based on a “no-boundaries” mindset and stem from a deep need for what psychologists call “unconditionals” – basic human needs essential to a person’s well-being. We love and accept those closest to us unconditionally, just the way they are.
It’s natural to believe God mirrors this, loving us and accepting us exactly as we are. The problem is we then follow that with the idea that if God loves and accepts people unconditionally, we should also love and accept ourselves unconditionally. “I’m fine just like I am,” we say, “I don’t need to change anything!”
Of course, humanistic love is unconditional right up until … someone lies, or cheats, or hurts, or betrays so deeply we break off all association, never re-opening our hearts to them. This is one reason divorce rates in this country remain surprisingly high. And here lies the key distinction.
Equating humanistic, “unconditional” love and acceptance (until it’s not) with God’s immeasurable, incomprehensible, and unwarranted love is a fundamental misreading of scripture. Humanistic love is typically responsive – that is, someone loves us, and we love them in return. On the other hand, God’s love is a love that initiates, a love that always IS. God’s door is always open, because there’s simply no door. Yet even as the door is open, God doesn’t drag us through … we have to walk in.
Many point to the Parable of the Prodigal, arguing the father in the story, representing God, unconditionally welcomes his wayward son home. And yes, he does bring out the robes and rings, kills the fatted calf and throws a huge party celebrating his son’s return. The same son who had essentially said “give me my share now, you’re dead to me, dad.”
But notice what the father didn’t do. He didn’t throw a party for the son in absentia. He didn’t break out the robes and bling celebrating his son while the kid was still traipsing off in far lands with prostitutes and drunkards. He didn’t celebrate his son being “alive again” until he came home.
We must change our hearts to receive the fullness of God’s love.
The difference is that while the father’s door is always open, the celebration only happens when the son returns, not while he’s straying. If the son never comes home, he remains – in the words of the father – “dead.” He must change to receive the fullness of the father’s love. By extension, we must change our hearts to receive the fullness of God’s love.
Miles McPherson, former defensive back for the San Diego Chargers turned senior pastor of The Rock Church, puts it this way: “Having God’s unconditional love does not mean you have God’s unconditional acceptance.” God loves us unconditionally, but he will not receive us unconditionally.
Jesus tells us in John 14:6 “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This, then is the change we must make. Accept that Christ is the single path to God. Reject the traps hidden in living “of this world.” Turn away from the common notion that mankind’s morality has somehow evolved over the last 2,000 years and what mattered then is irrelevant now.
God is ready and willing to welcome us home. His arms are strong enough to pick us up, dust us off, and drape us with robes of grace. And just like our parents, He’s there to put us back together when we break and come back home. Good as new.