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Valentine’s Day and the Religion of Conditional Love

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If Valentine’s Day is a celebration of love, what kind do you celebrate? Dig into people’s motivations, and you might find that everyone approaches love in one of two ways, thinking it’s either conditional or unconditional.

It’s sad to say, but the only love many people have ever known is conditional. Maybe you quickly learned as a child that people only showed you love and affection if you got good grades, excelled at sports, let people borrow your stuff, or looked a certain way. Craving love, you tried your best to live in a way that would earn it. But you always feared that once you stopped performing, the love would die with it.

If that’s what love means to you, then Valentine’s Day will be just another day of trying to buy it with chocolates, flowers, and cards.

But doesn’t conditional love leave you wanting?

Doesn’t it leave you insecure? You don’t know how long it will last, so you keep trying to earn it.

If that rings true, then have you ever thought of how your view of love impacts your understanding of God? Have you ever considered that most religions are built on the notion of conditional love? Sadly, that’s what can make them so convincing.

When a religious leader tells you that God won’t love you unless you follow the rules, rituals, and regulations, you instinctively believe it. Why? Because it plays to your longing to be loved, and your assumption that it has to be earned. So religions based on God’s conditional love make sense to you. That’s what you expect from every other relationship you have, so why not also from God?

So wanted to earn God's love, you go to masses and matins and vespers and confession and prayer night and Bible study, and serve with the kids, and work as an usher, and do your quiet time, all with the expectation that if you don’t do those things, God will withhold his love from you.

The problem is that conditional love can never satisfy your soul. It’s not the love God designed you to have because it’s not the kind of love He has to give.

God loves you unconditionally.

He loves you, not because you’re lovable, but because He is love. He loves you despite what you do. You can’t earn His love or deserve it. The gospel is the opposite of religions of conditional love.

However, let me make three critical clarifications.

First, God’s unconditional love doesn’t mean He approves of you unconditionally. God doesn't think your sins and rebellion are just fine. Not in the least. God hates sin (cf. Prov 6:16-19). There’s no excusing it or redefining it. Unconditional love gets poisoned when it’s misinterpreted to mean God’s unconditional approval. But the good news is that God loves you despite your sin: “But God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).

Second, God’s unconditional love doesn’t mean that He saves you unconditionally. God’s love alone doesn’t save anyone. It was the motivation that sent Jesus to die for the world, making salvation possible for whoever believes in Him—but you must believe: “For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God’s unconditional love gets twisted when it’s misinterpreted to mean unconditional salvation.

Third, God’s unconditional love doesn’t mean you’ll automatically experience that love no matter what you do. Jesus said, “Remain in my love” (John 15:9). He still loves you whether you remain or not, but your joy won’t be complete unless you remain. The way to stay in it is to love others (cf. John 15:11-12). There’s nothing inconsistent about his signal; the problem is with your receiver. The more you’re a conduit of love, the more you’ll experience it yourself.

This Valentine’s Day, remember that God loves you unconditionally, and flowers and chocolates can’t compare to His free gift of eternal life.

Send your questions or comments to Shawn.


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