Probably most Christians—pastors and laypeople alike—are confused about biblical love. So if even they’re clueless, how can rest of the world understand?
After last week’s post, a reader asked if blessing those who curse us, loving enemies, and doing good is service or love. My answer was that there’s no difference between them. Service is simply one way that love manifests. So is patience, kind deeds, hospitality, encouraging words, prayer, or any other quality of good character.
The best way I’ve found keep love (agape, good will) in context is to use the phrase, “promote the good” in place of “love.” Agape is the word used in loving neighbors as self, among other verses. Thus, “promote the good of your neighbors as you would yourself.” Or, “If you promote the good of only those who promote yours, what are you doing so remarkable? Don’t even tax collectors do that?” Or, “For God so willed the good of the world…,” “speak the truth in good will,” and so on.
There’s nothing special about willing the good of friends, family, and people you like. Even gang members do that. But willing it for enemies involves invoking God to help you. (I can always tell where my heart is by what I sincerely ask God to do.) For example, if you want to love the guy who just stole your car, but you certainly don’t like him, you ask God to somehow bring about his good. That’s how you love and bless an enemy.
You may never know how he ends up, but that’s not your responsibility. On the other hand, God might answer with a police chase where he’s seriously injured after wrecking your car. Maybe he nearly dies. Maybe God meets him in that experience and his life turns around.
Loving enemies doesn’t mean we’re responsible for the outcome, although we can often influence it. We’re responsible for our own character and behavior, and praying for enemies promotes our good and well-being regardless how they turn out. God is always the author and finisher; you’re the contributor. That’s how you love Him and promote His good.
Grace: the Opposite of Earning, Not Action
Maybe the best way to further explain unconditional love is to show what it isn’t. Conditional love is when you promote/will the good of someone only if they meet certain conditions. If they fail to meet them, you withhold service or kind words or other forms of good will from them. It’s all about earning.
For example, as I wrote here two weeks ago, we like to say that respect is earned. If you don’t do something I respect, or you don’t respect me, I won’t respect you. You’ve failed to meet my condition. Respect is another form of love; and since you didn’t earn it, I withhold it. Similarly, if you insult me, you “deserve” one in return. You’ve earned an insult, not blessing and love.
Conditional love is always about the receiver—what that person does or fails to do. By contrast, unconditional love is never about the receiver, but always about the giver—what that person does. The giver of unconditional love is always in control of it, and therefore holds great power. That’s why grace is such an active force for good, and withholding it is an abuse of power, a force for evil.
But doesn’t God love conditionally? Doesn’t He punish and destroy anyone who fails to meet His conditions? Yes and No. Destruction is another highly misunderstood and misused word. We assume it entails total annihilation, wipe out. But that’s not the case, just as “death to self” doesn’t mean “reject the self” or kill yourself, but rather, death to the darkness within.
When Scripture says that God will destroy people, it means the evil in them, not the people themselves. When God “destroys” someone, the evil is gone, but the person remains—in a physical body or not. It’s much the way adulthood destroys childhood. The child is gone (sometimes painfully), but the person remains.
And, when the person remains after God destroys him, goodness also remains—exactly like pure gold after impurities are burned away or chaff is consumed by fire. These are common biblical analogies to describe only the waste being annihilated, with the remnant preserved.
So, punishment is a consequence and provision, not a condition, because God’s love operates regardless what people do. It is without condition because He still promotes the good of those being punished and uses even the agents of destruction lovingly, for ultimate good, not harm.
It’s what one would expect from a totally good and loving God. He doesn’t abuse power the way people do, and doesn’t return evil for evil. The reason He says that vengeance is His, not ours, isn’t to ensure maximum damage, but to ensure the least amount necessary. Because He is pure love, He’s the only one who can be trusted with payback.
But through gross misunderstanding, humanity is presented with an unloving, hypocritical, unlovable God of ill will we can’t make sense of. No wonder people are thoroughly confused, and so many hate Him.
Many sincere Christians wouldn’t promote unconditional love even if they understood it because, deep down, they believe it isn’t right. Love without conditions? That can’t be good. Often, if we’re honest, what we really want is damage, not goodness—except for neighbors we like and care about. Then we want unconditional mercy, grace, and good will. And we end up being no different than non-Christians.
So if we claim we’re the light of the world and a Christ-like force for goodness and holy blessing, yet can’t agree with the most basic Christian tenets of love, we’d better find out where the disconnect is. When it comes to unconditional love, let’s not just scratch our heads over it. And let’s not aspire to conditional love, but learn from it so we can move towards Christ. We should ask questions and seek understanding. Knock and the door will be opened. Then we can not only hope, but fully expect to overcome evil with good.