Society seems to have rediscovered love! You might think that most of what could be said on such an important subject would already have been said by the romanticists, the moralists and the social commentators. Still, just when it seems every possible thought on the subject has been taught, we are discovering new and different ways to love. We are told to love our children with one kind of love and our neighbors with another.
We are told the virtues of tough love” toward our children—that, if we love them, we should be very firm in insisting that they maintain reasonable standards of conduct. “Tough love” is some of the best advice for parents about relating to their own children.
Then we are told to extend to our neighbors another kind of love “unqualifying love.” This kind of love is to be non-judgmental, accepting everything that the person says and does. This kind of love has no expectations, makes no demands, sets no standards, and above all does not try to tell an individual about Jesus until he or she asks.
Are there really two different kinds of love? And if so, what do they have in common? Whether people grow to adulthood neglected and unloved, or over-disciplined and compelled to meet many parental demands, the effect is the same. They become social misfits.
We often confuse the basic human need to love and be loved with the compulsive need to be accepted. Some define “unconditional love” as unreserved approval and unqualified acceptance, but that is simply not valid.
Unconditional love is a direction rather than a reality. Unconditional love does not mean we must tolerate those who make immoral advances or that we must go along with their proposals to behave unethically. Nor does it mean that we should allow people we love to cheat us. This is not unconditional love. Unconditional love means that by our behavior and by our statement we say, “I will love you and uphold you, not because I want something from you, but simply because I find it in my heart to do so.” It must be distinguished from manipulative love, which says, “I will love you if you do what I want, in the way that I want and when I want you to.” Conditional love is not love at all, but manipulation which uses love as bait.
Some have misunderstood the nature of unconditional love and have proposed unconditional love in relationships as a way of precluding evangelization. We must not allow misunderstanding to defraud and confuse us. As believers in Jesus, we are committed to obey his command to go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to every creature. Those who proclaim love as a method of reaching people are not talking about love at all. They are talking about manipulation. All true love is truly unconditional, and all true love is truly tough.
Scripture is our stabilizer. The understanding of Scripture keeps us from capsizing and going overboard with the notions of men. The extremes of both “tough love” and “unconditional love” are temporized by Scripture: “Love…is kind…Love beareth all things, believeth all things…” (1 Corinthians 13: 4, 7).
On one hand, tough love says that we withhold approval and acceptance when necessary. We are to govern with a strong hand those whom we have the responsibility to nurture. These are certainly conditions, but they must be balanced against the Scripture statements that say love bears all things and that love is kind. The loving person does not seek for himself or herself.
On the other hand, the same Scripture tells us that the term “unconditional love” has a relative rather than an absolute meaning because there are certain conditions in love. If love bears all things, the one who loves accepts a burden. If love is patient, then love puts us through the ordeal of enduring the loved one’s misbehavior. Perhaps those who advocate unconditional love mean that we should not put any condition on the recipient of that love. But is that really possible when inherent in all human relationships is the element of expectation?
Without anticipating some kind of response, without contemplating some kind of interaction, without expectations in a relationship, there is no interaction, hence there is no love. Love does make demands. No matter how much we want love from others it is a mistake to think we can expect that love without expecting obligations.
A young couple went to a minister for a reality check. They spoke of their love for one another. Because of their love and trust in one another, they wanted to live together. They considered their relationship so beautiful, so meaningful and so much of God that they did not feel the need to encumber themselves with any legal document to bind them.
The minister gave them another sense of reality. He pointed out that if their love were truly that strong, each would want to promise the other publicly, before the whole community, that they would never leave, that they would never give up that relationship.
Loving people is giving them a commitment that they willingly receive. If they are unable or unwilling to receive it, then that commitment, is not real love because it is incomplete. The sentiment might be beneficent and gracious, but it is not love because love never fails. 1 Corinthians 13 does not say that Love:
- never forbids.
- never causes disappointment.
- approves you just as you are.
- never requires anything of you.
- gives you everything you want.
- makes you happy all the time.
- makes you the most likeable person around.
- is a cure for bad moods.
- makes the truth what you want it to be.
- keeps you from making mistakes.
Whether we talk in terms of “tough love” or “unconditional love,” we are not talking about different kinds of love, but about differing aspects of the same characteristic of godly behavior. Love is many things, but above all, it is a behavior that varies with need. Loving behavior can range from warm acceptance and approval to firm insistence that the beloved consider the consequences of who they have become, what they are doing, and where they are headed. After all, if we know that a friend has come to the point of rejecting the gospel and denying Christ and is headed for the consequences of a Christless eternity, not to tell him or her the good news of Jesus as savior is to let that individual down.
Godly love makes us sometimes hard and other times soft. The texture of our behavior ought to change according to what is appropriate—and knowing what is appropriate is one of the characteristics of God’s love.