The Personalist Project

Baby holding thumb, credit Petr Kratochvil, via

"Everyone is looking for unconditional love."

I said it reflexively, then found myself wondering if it were true. 

My friend was sighing over her romantic misadventures and the confusion of making moral missteps in pursuit of romance and affirmation, and the words had popped out of me. "It's understandable. Everyone is looking for unconditional love." 

Are we really looking for unconditional love when we fall into compromising ourselves to keep someone's affection and esteem? 

It seems to me, reflecting on it, that perhaps what it is that we are looking for is conditional love. Love that is safe, restricted, that demands a finite response and that can be kept with a finite, quantifiable investment of time or service or material contribution. 

Conditional love is less scary than unconditional love. Conditional love only wants parts of us. The more conditional and restricted it is, the less it demands. A love that is earned can be worked for--a love that is paid for feels more sure, less insecure, than one that has no price tag. 

In contrast? Unconditional love may not depend on any particular response, but that doesn't mean it doesn't call for one. Self-gift calls for self-gift. This is the nature of a living Christian faith: We love Him who first loved us in the gift of Himself. 

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.10This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. ...

...God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

19We love because he first loved us.  [1 John 4: 9-11, 16-18,  NIV translation]

This is our model of love: we are called to love others, not because of what they do for us, but because of who God's love has prompted us to be. And God's love, God's self-gift, challenges us to give our own selves wholly to Him and to each other.

This can be frightening in human terms. Perfect, unconditional love is honored more as an ideal than in practice. We still shy away from a love too large for us to grasp at and own. How much more over-awing is it to contemplate Divine love, the incomprehensible and infinite? If we are afraid our self-gift won't be adequate to our human relationships, how much more courage does it take to offer our selves in response to Who Is? 

It seems easier to distract ourselves with lesser loves. To stay with what is small and understandable and known, things and people that we can be useful to, rather than cherished by. We understand use. 

Perhaps this is why God came to us as a baby. However much we may be tempted to reduce our relationships to using and being used, there is something about an infant that stops us in our tracks. An infant is not useful. A child's love is unearned. And, if our hearts are not entirely hardened, the touch of a soft, baby's grasp inspires only tenderness in return, not fear or use. 

There is no fear in love.

Love became a baby for us. Love became small and soft and weak to drive out fear. He offers Himself to us.

How will I respond? 

Comments (3)

Jules van Schaijik

#1, Dec 21, 2016 7:53am

Thanks for this Kate. I like this line especially:

Unconditional love may not depend on any particular response, but that doesn't mean it doesn't call for one.

To be loved unconditionally turns out to be very demanding.

Rhett Segall

#2, Dec 21, 2016 11:34am

In order for God's unconditional love for us to be recieved and fruitful we must be pure and faithful.  If we go to see a 3D film we can only enjoy it if we put on the glasses.  The glasses are given to us but we must put them on!

So far as my relations with others go, speaking iof unconditional love is misleading.  I think it psychologically impossible for a father to love a person who mutilates his children.  I think the word steadfast love, more biblical actually, is helpful. The Christian  doesn't give up on the other but the other must change his/her diabolic behavior/attitude if we're going to connect.  In fact, Jesus did call people to repent. No Mr. Rogers there!

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#3, Dec 21, 2016 11:55am

Humans can't really quite manage perfectly unconditional love, I don't think. Which doesn't mean it isn't an ideal to strive for! I do like "steadfast love," though I think the sense is really very similar.

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