Un??Conditional Love

Recent discussions in the news media concerning the roles of parents are a concern for all. It has become painfully obvious to even the most ardent of humanists that something is very wrong in the families of this country. The latest mammoth realisation is that fathers, much to the chagrin of the feminists, are essential to the well-being of the family and children in particular. Fathers of this nation need to be called to repentance and to be faithful to their wives and children. Being a good father is not a task that is shrouded in mystery neither is it a job that an ordinary man cannot undertake. Simply staying with the family is a big step in the right direction. However, as is usual when the blind attempt to lead the blind yet another faddsy ideology is touted as the universal '‘cure all’, rather than old-fashioned perseverance and faithfulness.

The latest clarion call is for parents, particularly fathers, to love their children ‘unconditionally’. This sounds noble and good, Biblical even, so what is wrong with this idea? The problem with terms like this one is that they do sound very like Biblical doctrines but just as Satan distorts the truth only slightly (Gen 3:1-5), the idea of unconditional love is a distortion of the Biblical concept of love. The result is appealingly deceptive and many Christians are in danger of accepting the teaching. ‘Unconditional love’ is currently being written about in Christian literature, preached about and expounded at Bible studies. It is the latest buzz word. However, what does the world and the Kingdom of God have in common, what agreement can there be between two diametrically opposed world and life views? (2 Cor 6:14-18) One of the great dangers of worldly philosophy is that often Biblical words (or Christian symbols, a la new age) are adapted and given new meaning, leading to a blurring, at the very least, of the great and distinct truths of Scripture. If the world enthusiastically embraces an idea, this should be a caution for Christians, we need then to search the matter out and weigh it up in the light of Scripture. Does the Bible teach the concept of ‘unconditional love’?

God’s love is cited as the model for the idea of unconditional love. God’s love for us, it is claimed is unconditional. However is this really what the Bible teaches? The Old Testament teaches very clearly that God declares Himself to be the covenant God of his people. In Genesis 2 the very nature of covenant of works is based on the setting down and keeping of conditions. God laid down conditions for Adam in the Garden of Eden. Adam failed to keep the conditions, thus God established the covenant of grace in which He Himself would fulfil the conditions. (Gen 3:15, 15:19-20) Ultimately it is Christ’s obedience, as the complete fulfillment of God’s covenantal promises, which is the condition by which we may have a relationship with the Father. This is demonstrated by the fact that when we pray we do so in the Name of Christ, since it is only through Christ, our mediator, that we may approach the Father. Christ Himself does not contradict this demand of the covenant, declaring that those who love Him will keep His commandments. (John 14:15,21, 1 John 5:1-5)

The barrier of sin, the result of man not keeping the condition of perfect obedience, cannot be overlooked by the Father. It would be a denial of His Holiness. God made this clear to the people of Israel, using the pattern of temple worship, particularly the Holy of Holies (Lev 16), to demonstrate that we cannot approach God carelessly or on our terms, only on His terms. We must never forget the awesome nature of the God whom we worship (Ps 99, Job 38-41), or make light of our unworthiness. (Lev 10:1,2, Isaiah 6:2-7)

There are always consequences when error is confused with Biblical doctrine; when we use psychological rather than Scriptural terms. At the very least this misunderstanding misrepresents God’s character and His relationship with His people. It can make us less aware of His holiness and diminishes the importance of Christ’s obedience and sacrifice. If God loves us unconditionally then there is less sense of obligation on our part to respond in faith and obedience. It would be as if God will love us no matter how we live or what we do. Yet God loves us in a sacrificial way, as He demonstrated through Jesus Christ. His love is unmerited by us and we can by no means earn His love. This is demonstrated in unconditional election. Certainly no sin except that against the Holy Spirit, is unforgivable, yet we cannot sin with impunity. Forgiveness is freely offered to those who genuinely repent of their sins. However there may still be consequences due to sin, we are not automatically ‘let off the hook’. (eg 2 Sam 12:13,14) We must understand this lest we become angry and even presume to blame God for our sorrows and hardships.

The idea of unconditional love has been eagerly embraced by humanistic, secular child-rearing experts. Sadly it follows on the heels of a plethora of previous ideas which have been ineffective at best and destructive at worst. Like the doctrine of self-esteem which is now acknowledged even by secular psychologists as having had a devastating effect on a generation of children, making them self-centered and unable to accept correction, deeming all criticism as being destructive to the personality. These children also achieved less than the generations before them because they were taught to think highly of themselves rather than to strive to please others. As a reaction to this idea, the pendulum then swung to the concept of ‘tough love’, where children were left to bear the consequences of their childish folly unaided by those in authority over them. Often these children had been indulged from an early age, permitted to go their own way and given no sound (Biblical) instruction, thus they had no basis on which to make wise decisions. They were then abandoned to their own devices in order that they may learn from hard experience. Many were branded as "ruined children". ‘Unconditional love’ is a reaction to that idea.

These ideas often seem like they have a skerrick of merit but when they are put into practice soon prove to be disastrous. ‘Unconditional love’ is really a contradiction in terms, an impossibility. It purports to love someone without making any demands on that person, setting no conditions for them to receive love. It seeks to define love in human terms, confusing it with being ‘nice’. Many people cite ‘horror stories’ to demonstrate this: "my parents only loved me when I obeyed them or did what pleased them." It is perfectly reasonable for parents to show approval when their children please them and just as proper to show disapproval when their children displease them. (God establishes this truth in the principle of blessing and cursing in Lev 26.) To deny that would be to deny participating in a relationship. If we never expect a response from our children, we indulge them to their peril. We correct and train our children partly by our honest response to their behaviour. The Biblical concept of love is that it actively serves and seeks the good of the recipient. Thus we want their response to be God honouring which would manifest itself in obedience and honour to parents and all awful authority. Children’s hearts, like all men’s hearts, are "like the earth on which we tread; let it alone, and it is sure to bear weeds." Christian parents, seeking to love their children sacrificially, vigorously search out the ‘weeds’, pull them up and plant and nurture true religion in their place. Our covenant responsibilities demand that we do so. Instruction in the faith and training in righteousness are not passive but very active duties. (Deut 6:7-9, Prov 22:6,15)

Only the wisdom found in Scripture is trustworthy for child training and for every area of life. God’s love provides the pattern for human fathers, but it is necessary to understand the true nature of that love. Also as Christian parents we must clearly give the glory to God for blessing us with children who are the strength of our households; well trained and virtuous (Ps 127), not confounding those around us by using ‘psycho-speak’ rather than the plain, clear teaching of Scripture. The misconception of unconditional love gives everything and demands nothing from the child, thus we can expect nothing. Sadly this may be what we will get. No, I will not love my children unconditionally; rather let the demands of Scripture make us strive to make demands of our children.

Your sister in Christ

Lisa Vaatstra.

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / gmilne@ihug.co.nz / revised July 1999 / Copyright 1999