It is common to hear both from the pulpit and in popular culture the merits of unconditional love. From the one, we hear that God loves us unconditionally, that heaven is a free gift, that a last-minute prayer can save us from the flames of hell. From the other, we hear that we are only truly loved when those who love us do so without any direction, without any judgment, without any purpose or aim other than our fulfilling our own desires. In both cases, the greatest love is considered to be that which maximizes our own egos, our own complete control over our destinies. Both God and mortal lovers must stand second to my ambition, my freedom, my desires, and my sense of self-fulfillment.
But whenever the pulpit and pop culture agree, we ought to give pause . . . is this what God sent his Son into the world for? Desire satiated, but unchanged by charity? Passion unleashed, but without consideration for my duties to my children, my parents, my friends, my city, and my spouse? Is it really all about me?
The Scriptures tell us a very different story, namely that it is all about Him, that our destiny, our fulfillment, lie so completely in Christ that St. Paul exclaimed that he counted all but loss save for the knowledge of Christ. Unless desire, passion, and talent are directed toward the good, they are not good. This is the crux of the matter. Sure, everything God made is good in the sense that He made it. But this is not the same thing as saying that every use we make of those things is good. Metaphysics is not ethics. Just because something exists doesn’t mean we use it properly. Power isn’t good in itself. We must aim it in the right direction.
So let’s start with God. God loves us. But unconditionally? What do we mean by that? That God always loves us? Yes. That God won’t stop loving us? Yes. But God loves Satan too. God hasn’t stopped loving him. That doesn’t make Satan any better. God’s loving us doesn’t make us any better either, unless we—unlike Satan—cooperate with that love. Real love always has a purpose, a point; otherwise, it is nothing more than sentiment. What point? The good of its object. To say, “I love you,” but to do nothing is a lie. Hence, love must move past emotion into action. What action? That action that is good for the object. It won’t do for me to say to my son, “I love you,” and then keep giving him money to buy drugs. Why? Because the drugs aren’t good for him. But he wants them! He feels passionate about them. Yes, I’m sure he does. Nevertheless, love looks past what he wants toward what is truly good for him. Love doesn’t enable self-destruction in others. So, love demands something from its object. It demands the best.
What good would love be if it said to its spouse, “Because I love you so much, I will support your desire to sleep around with other men”? Can a man love his wife as a whore? No. Can a man love a whore as a wife? Yes. He can love his adulterous wife back into a proper wife (if she cooperates). But we love people into their good, not their destruction. Love always seeks the best for the object.
So, love is unconditional with respect to its subject, i.e., with respect to the person who exhibits the love. That person seeks the good of the other forever. It doesn’t matter whether that love is ever reciprocated. Still, love seeks that good. In this sense, God’s love is unconditional. And so is ours, if we love God. But love is not unconditional with respect to its object, i.e., with respect to the person toward whom the love is directed. Love places the highest conditions on that person, namely his truest good. It settles for nothing less than beauty of soul. It won’t dismiss sins. It won’t ignore vices. It won’t hide from the truth about who we are. Why? Because love and truth are two sides of the same coin. Love seeks a good that is only possible in a person willing to admit the truth about himself, willing to admit it and willing to change himself. In other worse, love cannot find completeness without repentance. And so, the God who loves is found throughout all of the Scriptures calling on us to do what? “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” But repentance means to turn around, to change one’s mind, to get back on the right track. Repentance assumes there is a proper path, accepts that there is a moral standard, recognizes that fulfillment is actually different from despair.
It is precisely this demanding, highly conditional love that we resist. We resist it because we don’t want to change for the better. We love our sins. And we demand that others love them in us. Our requirement that others love us unconditionally amounts to nothing more than that they celebrate our corruption, our moral misery, our self-isolation from divine knowledge. But true love can never do this. It can accept that a person refuses to change. God calls this hell. He allows it. But true love will never celebrate the use of human freedom to push away the calls of love that family, state, and church place upon us. How can we who were made for others find happiness in anything but those others? Not even God himself is absent from a relationship of people, for within his very nature is a Trinity of Persons. And he calls us to be his children, to be partakers of his nature, to become adopted as members of his family. Thus, our fulfillment and happiness are inextricably tied up (often in knots, yes) with other people. How right were the words of Paul Varjak to Holly Golightly in the conclusion of the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s:
You know what’s wrong with you, Miss Whoever-you-are? You’re chicken, you’ve got no guts. You’re afraid to stick out your chin and say, ‘Okay, life’s a fact, people do fall in love, people do belong to each other, because that’s the only chance anybody’s got for real happiness.’ You call yourself a free spirit, a ‘wild thing,’ and you’re terrified somebody’s gonna stick you in a cage. Well baby, you’re already in that cage. You built it yourself. And it’s not bounded in the west by Tulip, Texas, or in the east by Somali-land. It’s wherever you go. Because no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself.