Editor’s Note: As some have recently celebrated Passover and/or Easter, our guest contributor Shirin McArthur reflects on unconditional love and how our beliefs about it shape us. Shirin is based in Arizona and brings to us her experience as a lay minister, writer, and spiritual guide.
I recently had a conversation about the idea and ideal of unconditional love. Someone was struggling with whether they would ever experience truly unconditional love. Reflecting on a series of challenged personal relationships, this person was feeling despair and wondering if they were irrevocably broken. I found myself considering our cultural conditioning and proposed that perhaps the problem was with American cultural assumptions rather than individual brokenness.
The Ideal of Unconditional Love
I think we’ve developed some dangerous assumptions about unconditional love. Perhaps they reflect our idealistic notions of perfection and, for Christians, distorted notions of Jesus’ love as unconditional love. Let’s begin with a look at the modern views on unconditional love.
Philosopher Steven Hales wrote a brief article that begins, “Unconditional love is impossible.” He wrote with social policies in mind, so he was concerned about promoting policies that support a kind of love that is possible. His primary point is that all love is conditional in some way. We all love for a reason. If the facts behind that reason change, the love changes too.
Do you see the problem? We think it’s possible for love to be completely without conditions, yet that’s not possible with our human nature. Modern psychology is helping us to understand this. Many therapists are sharing their opinions on unconditional love online these days. One such article states, “In reality, love grows and shifts over time. It can also fade, through no fault of anyone involved. Love changes, in part, because people change.”
This brings me to another “expert” opinion, from an article I edited years ago—and have never forgotten—for the “Evolutionary Thinking” issue of the Center for Action and Contemplation’s journal Oneing. Tasha Wahl wrote,
I have been married for twenty-two years to multiple men—dozens, maybe even hundreds. They are all named Erik, but they are as unique as the stars in the sky. I have learned to love them all.
My husband, likewise, has married many, many versions of me, which reflect every color of the rainbow, and every subtle shift in hue between the colors….
I have learned over the years to embrace the evolution of Erik, including the men he has yet to become and the ideas and ideals he has yet to embrace.
But in order to get to this place, I had to give up something that I thought I never could. I had to give up love as I knew it, or thought I knew it.
So, what does this mean for us? I don’t believe “all is lost.” Instead, I think we need to revise our opinions, assumptions, and expectations about love. We’re just not wired to love without conditions. We love for a reason. We love because we made a commitment. In fact, I would say that the concept of unconditional love actually runs counter to what love is about.
The Christian Perspective
The season of Easter is a good time to look at the Christian perspective. For Christians, the ideal of unconditional love is often built on the concept of agape. The ancient Greeks had several words for love. The word agape meant “affection, goodwill, love, benevolence.” It’s different from sexual love (eros) or familial or close-friendship love (philia). Agape was the word Jesus used in his commandment to his disciples to love one another. Over time, Christians came to believe this love needed to look like Jesus’ self-sacrificial love on the cross. Thus, it took on connotations of self-denial which were not present, as I (and many) read scripture.
In contrast, I believe we are called to “follow” Jesus in the way he lived, not in the way he died. Living a life with the intent to love with “affection, goodwill, benevolence” is unlikely to get us killed in modern-day America. It might even help counter the increasing animosity that frames so many of our public conversations.
So, if unconditional love is not about taking agape to dangerous extremes, what does it look like? Let’s take a brief look at what the Christian Scriptures say about love.
Love in Christian Scripture
The word love shows up 228 times in the Christian Scriptures. So, it clearly was a critical term for Jesus and his early followers. The Acts of the Apostles gives us a good sense of how love was lived out in the early church—and the limits to that love.
Acts 2:44–47 describes how the earliest followers lived together in Jerusalem: pooling their resources, sharing with fellow believers in need, eating and worshiping together daily, and creating goodwill. However, humans being humans, problems surfaced over time. The “signs and wonders” performed by the early apostles drew others to the faith who struggled with loving unconditionally. There were arguments amongst early church leaders about whether to include gentiles who came to believe in Jesus—which certainly doesn’t show unconditional love. When Paul had had enough of being persecuted by Jews, he basically abandoned them and declared he would preach only to gentiles. In this way, it appears his love was conditional—upon his own health and safety!
Here’s my primary point. The idea of unconditional love has come to mean a kind of doormat love: “You can do anything to me and my family, and I will love you anyway because that’s what Jesus did.” Yet that is not what Jesus had in mind. When a scribe asked Jesus about the greatest commandment, he gave him two: love God with all your being and “love your neighbor as yourself.” The key is in the last two words: “as yourself.” That’s not unconditional love. That’s conditional love, which recognizes that we must love ourselves first before we’re capable of loving others. Then we must treat them the same way we treat ourselves. (And if we treat ourselves poorly, that’s not love.)
So, is it possible to have an agenda-less connection? Is there a way to love that doesn’t have something behind it, driving it? I don’t think so, but I do believe that we could, possibly, have unconditional moments. I once handed a grocery store clerk a $5 bill to cover the balance for the person in front of me who was short on funds. What were my motivations? I got nothing in return—except her gratefulness and perhaps gold stars in heaven. Was that an act of unconditional love?
Here’s where I think I get the closest: smiling at people I don’t know as I pass them on my morning walks. I’m “in love” with the world because it’s a gorgeous morning, there’s beauty all around me, and my heart is filled with joy. I share that love spontaneously because it’s bubbling up and out of me. I “can’t help myself,” in that sense. The love comes spilling out. Maybe that is truly unconditional love: when God has filled us to overflowing and, in that moment, we can’t do anything else but join the flow and spread the love.
So, what do you think about “unconditional love”? What presumptions do you want to release? What unconditional moments come to mind? When have you spontaneously joined the flow of love?
This post is an adaptation of a series of posts written by Shirin McArthur for her Prayerful Pondering blog at https://shirinmcarthur.com/blog/.
 Tasha Wahl, “The Evolution of Love,” Oneing 4, no. 2 (Fall 2016), 54.
 In the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition.
Your child breaks something in anger or fights with a sibling or takes something that does not belong to him/her. Child is disciplined and says `’you don’t love me.” You explain that “I love you but I hate what you did.” Even scripture tells us that the closer we get to understand the mind of God “we will learn to love the things that God loves and hate the things that God hates.” As a child is nurtured, his moral conscience is pricked and with all hope will learn to love the God who taught us to forgive and be willing to follow His lead to bring others to the light.
Thanks Carolyn for sharing your thoughts on unconditional love. I find the topics of God and LOVE equally mysterious and appreciate Shirin and you for sharing your ideas and beliefs. I am hopeful more readers will share how they think about and expereince unconditional love. Tom