I’m a cat person, not a dog person, so I don’t know what it means to be loved by a pet. But I’ve heard people say they wished they could find someone who loved them as unconditionally as their dog. And then I’ve listened to confused Christians excitedly respond, “That’s how much God loves you!”
I appreciate the sentiment, but that’s not quite right. Let me suggest there’s a big difference between unconditional love and unconditional affirmation.
A dog gives you unconditional affirmation. He doesn’t care whether you failed the exam, lost the big sale, got into a fight with your mom again, or can’t seem to stay in a long-term relationship. You’ll always come home to a dog who’s happy to see you. He affirms you no matter what you do (within limits!).
That’s not what God does. He loves you unconditionally, but He doesn’t affirm you unconditionally.
What’s the difference?
God loves you even though He declares that you’re a sinner. We know that because verses like John 3:16 tell us that “God so loved the world” which is the same group of people who aren’t good or righteous or even bother to see after God (cf. Rom 3:10-12). If God’s love were conditional, He would never have loved the world. But He does. How can He do that? Perhaps it’s because loving is not just something that God does, but what He is love (1 John 4:8). “The life of a triune Godhead is a life of perfect love, of perfect and inexhaustible giving and receiving,” E. L. Mascall wrote. “When we see God, we shall see Love itself” (Grace and Glory, p. 46).
So God loves the world, which means He loves you, but He does that despite disapproving of your every thought, word, or deed that falls short of His perfect holiness!
God doesn’t affirm your sin, and if you’re ever in a church or denomination that does, run for the hills! (See here and here and here.) Affirming your sin would not only contradict God’s holiness, righteousness, and justice but also His love for you. After all, if someone loves you, they seek your good, and since sin harms you, if someone affirms you in your sin, they would be seeking your harm, which is the opposite of loving you. In other words, it’s precisely because God loves you that He doesn’t affirm everything you do but rather disciplines you whenever necessary, just as a father disciplines a child (Heb 12:6).
And honestly, isn’t that what you really want?
No one wants unconditional affirmation. Not really. We know it wouldn’t be true to reality. And generally speaking, if we’re in the wrong or performing poorly, we don’t want people to pretend like we’re doing well but want to be told the truth so we can do better.
Frankly, that’s one of the hardest things about being a writer or artist. You want to get better and ask for critical feedback from people. Usually from friends or family. But they’re afraid of hurting your feelings, so instead of telling you what they really think, they lie and tell you that you’re doing a great job. That kind of unconditional affirmation isn’t truthful or helpful and it probably has the opposite effect of discouraging you when you recognize it.
No, God doesn’t give you unconditional affirmation. But He does give you unconditional love. And knowing that can change you. You love because He first loved you (1 John 4:19), so that love begets love. And when you lovingly obey Him, then God gives His affirmation. One day, you’ll appear before Jesus to have your works evaluated, and those works done out of faithful love will be affirmed and rewarded, while good-for-nothing works will be rejected (1 Cor 3:11-15).
God is not like your dog, and I think that’s very good news.
Send your questions or comments to Shawn.