Is “Unconditional Love” Really Possible?

When I used to work as an editor at the LDS Church’s Ensign magazine, I remember that the correlation committee instructed us not to use the term unconditional love. I know that for some Mormon Matters readers a directive from that infamous committee doesn’t hold much water, but it gave me pause and I’ve been questioning the term ever since, which I still hear people in the church use quite often. In this post, I’d like to analyze the concept of unconditional love by applying Mormon logic as I understand it and believe it. 

First, I will consider the concept from God’s point of view. Does he love us unconditionally? It depends on how you define the word love, which is a term that we throw around too loosely and generally. In reality, God’s love operates on many different levels, some unconditional and some conditional. God certainly feels unconditional concern for all of his children. He has unconditional hope and desire that we will return to him and receive his love. He feels unconditional sadness for his children who don’t return to him. In his unconditional benevolence, he gave us a plan of salvation that makes it possible for all his children who kept their first estate and keep their second estate to ultimately return. He feels unconditionally compassionate about the trials and difficulties we go through, and he unconditionally wants us all to be happy.

However, I argue that he loves us at higher levels only to the degree that we make progress in becoming like him so we can return to him. To the degree that we vary from the conditions required to return to him, his ability to love us is reduced. The allegory of Lehi’s dream reinforces this. Those who follow the iron rod can reach the white fruit and partake of this fruit, which symbolizes the love of God. Those who don’t follow the rod fall away and do not get to partake of God’s love.

So what is God’s love, at its higher levels of expression? I argue that it’s a totally different thing from the concern, hope, desire, sadness, and compassion that I discussed above. God’s highest love comes to us in the form of his presence, which he can give us only when he is able to fully respect us and trust us, when he—and we—feel 100-percent safe and comfortable communing together in intimate fellowship, rapport, and mutual expression. On this earth, his presence comes to us chiefly through the Holy Ghost, whose influence can be cultivated only on the conditions of faith, purity, obedience, etc. After death, as we all know, we can regain God’s literal presence and love if we’ve followed his conditions for doing so, including repenting and receiving the necessary ordinances.

When we don’t follow the conditions, God won’t and can’t love us at this highest level. When we draw away from him in sin, he cannot fully respect us, trust us, commune with us, or even be with us, unless and until we repent. To receive this kind of love, we must be worthy through repentance and enduring to the end. While I’m sure God still feels bad about the spirits who rebelled in premortality, he clearly does not love them, although I imagine he still feels sadness for them. For his children who are on track to receive a telestial glory, he does not love them on this earth in terms of respecting and trusting them enough to commune with them through his spirit, and in the eternities he loves them only enough to let the Holy Ghost visit them, a benefit they earned by keeping their first estate, even if they didn’t keep their second. For the terrestrial kingdom, populated by those who lived a good life and accepted Christ but did not accept the fullness of the father, the father loves them enough to allow the Savior to personally minister to them in that kingdom, but the father himself does not love them at this highest level I’m talking about.

So that’s why I agree with the correlation committee that we shouldn’t use the term unconditional love when it comes to deity, at least not without a great deal of care to make clear what form of love we’re talking about. Some aspects of God’s love are unconditional—his concern, his hope, his compassion—but the higher aspects of his love are conditional. To me, the blanket term unconditional love is related to the false Christian doctrine that God/Jesus saves us simply by grace, when Mormons know that there’s still a condition attached, the condition of “after all we can do,” including doing all the repenting necessary for the atonement to kick in.

What about unconditional love among humans? Since we don’t have omniscience, we cannot and should not withhold or withdraw our love as readily as God does, but surely there are times when we are justified in withdrawing or withholding our respect, trust, and communion. If my son murdered someone, I would not love him as an equal who is worthy of my respect, trust, and communion, even though I should still be able to feel unconditional concern, compassion, and hope for him. If someone robbed my house, I would not be able to love him at this higher level I’m talking about, even though I might be able to show him forgiveness and charity. If my wife had an affair, I would love her less at this level. Any time anyone treats anyone else—including his or her own self—contrary to the gospel, I love the person less because I am not able to relate with them or see eye to eye with them. Ideally I would still feel unconditional concern, compassion, and hope for such people, including my own family members who misbehave, and I may even be able to minister to them in some ways, but I would not be able to fully respect them, trust them, and commune with them unless and until they truly improved enough to warrant it. And of course I would not expect people who are more righteous than I am to love me as much at this higher level as they could if I deserved it more.

In some situations, we don’t know how accountable an individual person is for a sin, and in that case we have to be extra-careful. God can still fully love those who make mistakes for which they are not accountable—after all, he precisely knows each person’s degree of accountability. For us, we often have to reserve judgment. Can we still truly love someone at the highest level—respect them, trust them, commune with them—while we’re waiting to see how accountable they are for their misconduct? It may be possible to partially love them and to minister unto them with the hope of one day being able to wholeheartedly love them, but I don’t think full, unreserved love in such a situation is humanly possible.

What I see happening is that certain people who desire to fully love and accept as many as their fellow humans as possible cannot abide a wait-and-see approach with regards to certain people’s accountability for certain sins. Instead of reserving judgment of individuals while still staying true to the revealed doctrines about what is sinful and what is not, they attempt to redefine a sin as not being a sin, so that they can then fully respect, trust, and commune with a sinner even while that person is still living a sinful lifestyle. On some levels it’s a noble impulse, but I think it’s spiritually very dangerous, because God can’t fully respect, trust, and commune with someone who insists on loving sinners at the highest level instead of following God’s prophets. Yes, give all sinners unconditional concern, compassion, and hope, but let’s not respect them and commune with them in their sins. That’s the path our society is headed down, and Satan, laughing, spreads his wings. 

Another thing I want to add to this topic in general: Forgiving someone for a trespass is not the same as fully loving them—in other words, respecting them, trusting them, and communing with them. Forgiveness means we don’t hate them, we don’t insist on vengeance or punishment, and we don’t demand restitution. It also means we should give them our unconditional concern, hope, and compassion, even if they are not yet and may never become our moral/spiritual equals.

That’s how I see it, and I think it’s pretty much all in line with authentic Mormon thought, as opposed to the mainstream Christian misconceptions we see infiltrating our culture somewhat. Where do you agree or differ?

Comments

comments

46 comments for “Is “Unconditional Love” Really Possible?

  1. July 13, 2008 at 5:44 am

    That is the sort of post I really hope to see more of. Thoughtful, intelligent, and bringing depth and consideration to an LDS topic.

    Thank you.

  2. Bill
    July 13, 2008 at 7:43 am

    I believe in unconditional love. I love all of my children regardless of how good or bad they act. I think that the scriptures are clear that God loves us a lot more than we love each other.

  3. July 13, 2008 at 8:03 am

    This post seems to equate love with approval for choices, which is a pretty dangerous idea: do something to anger God and His love for you diminishes. While there are consequences to our actions, this mindset lowers the personality of God down to a angst-filled teenager. Though our emotions are clouded by our imperfect mortality, Heavenly Father’s aren’t.

    For example:

    “I love the person less because I am not able to relate with them or see eye to eye with them.”

    I guess it is a good thing that the Lord can relate to all people having “descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things.” D&C 88:6.

    “For his children who are on track to receive a telestial glory, he does not love them on this earth in terms of respecting and trusting them enough to commune with them through his spirit, and in the eternities he loves them only enough to let the Holy Ghost visit them, a benefit they earned by keeping their first estate, even if they didn’t keep their second.”

    If your teenager crashes the car because of his own carelessness and you take away his driving privledges, is it because you love him less? No, a parent who disciplines is actually showing love by protecting his child from a power and responsiblility that he isn’t ready for and may cause him serious damage. While they may not qualify for the higher blessing of the Spirit which the Lord has withdrawn (out of Love and protection), He does bless them with the Light of Christ which is given to all men (generic usage here).

    Jesus was often criticized for not just teaching to the “publicans and sinners”, but actually eating with them (ie. hanging out). Was Christ participating in their sins? Of course not. But too often we buy into the Old Testiment mindset that association implies approval – which Christ demonstrated that it does not. If any rash judgement can be made from viewing the life of Christ, it can easily be assumed that he loved the sinners more than those who had never committed major transgressions of the law. (See the parable of the Lost Sheep, the Prodigal Son, etc.)

    If a friend is bringing his or her sinful behavior or words into our home, we have every right to protect it, by asking them to stop and if they refuse, to ask them not to come back until they agree. Such an action actually shows love towards our family, but also the individual by stopping them from committing more sin. But that does not mean we are allowed to withdraw our prescence from those who sin simply because they are sinners. How can the belivers be examples of Christ if the believes always cross on the other side of the road?

    Mosiah taught “keep the commandments of God, that they might rejoice and be filled with love towards God and all men.” (Mosiah 2:4, emphasis added) It seems that the meaning was clear enough without a need for microdefining the word “love”.

  4. Howard
    July 13, 2008 at 8:50 am

    Sorry Christopher and the correlation committee, this does not fit my personal experience.

    As a young man I was excommunicated for adultery and lived most of my life as a sinner outside the church. Four years ago I had a spiritual epiphany, a powerful encounter with the Spirit. Even as an unrepentant sinner I was showered with unconditional love and it continued as I was lead through the repentance process and eventually back to church.

    Sometimes we are left alone to wander, be tested, even to fail but in my experience He continues to love us, even unconditionally.

  5. Just for Quix
    July 13, 2008 at 9:27 am

    I’m gonna chime in and say that I think Conditional Love of God is a very pernicious concept. In fact, a few months after Elder Nelson’s infamous Ensign article I spoke in my Sacrament Meeting on this very subject. I outlined several scriptures about God’s Love, and even went so far as to call out the error, and propose a more healthy alternative (which is like stating the obvious to most believers in Christ), without directly naming Elder Nelson. Many people came up to me after Sacrament Meeting and expressed thanks for my boldness and hopeful message, echoing what others on this thread so far are saying: that they believe in the unconditional Love of God.

    Why? Because splitting hairs on types of love may be interesting, but it’s academic. It is correct that trust and love are different matters with God, but to the person in need of rescue, in need of confessing their absolute dependence on God’s salvation from sin, the place to start is love. Absolute, dependable, confident and trustworthy Love of God. The sanctification of the Spirit that follows brings transformation and sensitivity to living in a way to reflect and seek toward God’s Trust by putting into action our trust and obedience in Him. Ultimately, teaching that God’s Love is conditional runs too great a risk to undermine hope and confidence in the Gift of Grace, the most foundational doctrine of the Gospel of Christ — vital to each of us sinners separated from God. Each and every one of us. The Unconditional Love of God not only is correct doctrine, but it is practical and transformative.

  6. July 13, 2008 at 9:30 am

    I think the key here is defining what “love” is. It can be understood and expressed on so many different levels that I’m afraid most of the debate here will be over semantics rather than substance.

    Since love is often mutual, or at least its potential for growth and development usually dependent on reciprocity, I think I see what you mean by saying that “highest level” of love is unavailable to those who are out of line with the Gospel—love cannot have the same growth effect when one party’s back is turned to the other.

    But from another semantic perspective, I think its appropriate to see it in a parent-child way; a parent may be disappointed or even heart broken by a child’s choices or lifestyle, but the parent may still hold genuine love for the child. This may be what you’re referring to as “compassion”, “concern”, etc., but I think in its own right, it can legitimately be called love; although it is admittedly different that the type of love that can be fostered with two cooperative parties—hence the issue of semantics.

    I had an interesting epiphany in the scriptures a while back. We often hear of “the Lord’s way” vs. “the world’s way,” and “the world” is personified as the epitome of all that is wicked, carnal, sensual, and evil. Seminary teachers will at length implore students to “avoid the ways of the world,” for it is the great abyss of darkness that will do nothing but swallow their souls. Imagine my surprise when, with this in mind, I came across the famous John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son…”

    The point made earlier that love should not equate approval I think is a good one. While we should all have reservations about exposing ourselves or welcoming influences that may be hurtful, I also feel that it is inappropriate to withhold the central embodiment of the gospel—love—from those who need it most.

    Charity, the purest of all loves, has untold transformational power, and keeping it hidden under a bushel, or sharing it only with those Zion, does a great disservice to those stumbling in darkness—whom we have stewardship over.

    Again, the semantics of which “love” we’re dealing with may undermine the relevance of some of my thoughts here, but I believe that if there is anything that will heal a sick and dying world, it is the pure love of Christ.

  7. Ray
    July 13, 2008 at 10:34 am

    To echo KC directly and everyone else indirectly, I believe that most of these discussions get derailed right from the start because of the conflicting definitions of love that each person brings to the table. I am in between meetings right now, so I have no time, but let me just say that the easiest example of this, imo, is that “love” can be seen as both a noun (a feeling or emotion) AND as a verb (“to love” or “to express / give love”). Any discussion of unconditional love, I believe, must consider this difference if it is to address the topic in its fullest.

    I’ll try to get back to this later, but I believe it is vital to this conversation.

  8. Gerry Spence
    July 13, 2008 at 11:17 am

    I think it may be profitable to examine the original conference talk / directive from correlation to see if there is a definition, distinction or assistance in the definition of ‘love’.

  9. GBSmith
    July 13, 2008 at 1:34 pm

    Why did the Correlation Committee ban the term “unconditional love”?

  10. hawkgrrrl
    July 13, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    Sorry, Chris, but I disagree quite a bit. I’m hearing two conflicting paradigms that are problematic: 1) your description of God’s loving us less smacks of our own self-loathing when we sin and has little to do with God’s actual love of us IME, and 2) your description of us loving sinners less is totally wrong-headed and in no way justified by scripture or church teachings. IMO, any time we look at another person’s sins and think they are less than worthy than we are, we have entered that slippery slope of self-justification and pride.

    So, do you think you are better than Charles Manson? Well, try to get salvation on your own, and you will quickly see that you are much closer to Manson than to Christ. We think that our current penitent state makes us better than others, but it really does not. I am pro-repentance, just anti-pride. The second half of your post is essentially a justification for pride. Being the best of the worst isn’t much of a distinction, IMO.

  11. Jeff Spector
    July 13, 2008 at 2:58 pm

    Very difficult concept to get the arms around. I do agree that the definition of Love is very fluid and operates at a number of levels. The only real approximation of God’s love that we can understand is the love we have for our children. We can be upset with them, scold them, withhold things from them, even cast them out, but we never stop loving them in the basic sense of the word. If they return, like the prodigal, having changed their behavior, we welcome them back.

    but I suppose there are instances when parent and child separate and never reconcile, perhaps losing that basic love between them. That is one thing that will never happens with God.

  12. July 13, 2008 at 3:18 pm

    ” For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

    KC mentioned this verse in #6. If I were to paraphrase this, I would say: God expressed unconditional love by preparing a plan that we may receive of the joy that He has. We may not choose the meet the guidelines of the plan but that does not diminish the love that the Father extended by putting the plan in place.

    Here is another scripture that I feel represents this plan pretty succinctly:

    “…no unclean thing can enter into his kingdom; therefore nothing entereth into his rest save it be those who have washed their garments in my blood, because of their faith, and the repentance of all their sins, and their faithfulness unto the end.
    Now this is the commandment: Repent, all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me and be baptized in my name, that ye may be sanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost, that ye may stand spotless before me at the last day.
    Verily, verily, I say unto you, this is my gospel…” 3 Ne 27:19-21

    The plan give us the opportunity to return to the presence of the Father. It must be accomplished by following the outline above. I don’t think it is helpful to mix the plan with it’s implementation in our lives. Does the fact that we cannot enter the kingdom of God if we have not been purged of our sins have anything to do with God’s love for us? I think not. But it was a means to express His love for us to set the opportunity to return to His presence.

    Speaking of this love, those who have experienced the overpowering love that comes from God, as Howard expressed, would likely tell us that there is no earthly comparison that can be made to such an event. I don’t think we humans even have the language to describe what love means in the kingdom of Heaven.

  13. wayfarer
    July 13, 2008 at 4:25 pm

    I think i have to disagree with your analysis, inasmuch as I do believe it is necessary to respect and commune with those I inadequately judge to be ‘sinners’.My children may disobey me,and consequntly the quality of our relatedness is damaged.However,I do not cease to respect them for their achievements,nor to commune with them -what would be the point of that?I think it is the quality of relatedness to our Heavenly Father that we compromise when we sin-it is not his withdrawal but our own.We lose the joy of full communion with him that can be ours when we withdraw from him.

  14. Bill
    July 13, 2008 at 4:41 pm

    “let me just say that the easiest example of this, imo, is that “love” can be seen as both a noun (a feeling or emotion) AND as a verb (”to love” or “to express / give love”). Any discussion of unconditional love, I believe, must consider this difference if it is to address the topic in its fullest.”

    I believe in unconditional love for all forms of the word ‘love’. I don’t really care if it is a noun, verb, adjective, pronoun, whatever. Maybe others disagree, but this isn’t a matter of definition for me.

  15. hawkgrrrl
    July 13, 2008 at 4:46 pm

    wayfarer – “it is not his withdrawal but our own.” This is exactly how I see it. We may distance ourselves from God and others through our sinfulness or even our apathy, but God is always there for us, ready and willing, filled with love for us. Our role doesn’t change his love, it just reveals our own love (or lack thereof). As LDS, we are covenant-making people for a reason. We bind ourselves to God and to one another in love, and bad feelings prevent the Spirit from being present. And the bad feelings people have about those who have committed sin, are in and of themselves, sinful. They take us further from God and from the Spirit and run counter to the covenants that bind us to the human family.

    As to the term “unconditional love,” though, maybe there are other reasons to discontinue its use. It’s kind of a cliche, isn’t it? Even so, I don’t think discontinuing its use should excuse any of us from fully accepting and loving our fellow human beings, just as it’s not right to assume that God only loves us conditionally and that there’s a hierarchy of deserving based on our own efforts.

  16. July 13, 2008 at 5:14 pm

    Great post Chris…

    Sorry I couldn’t read all of it. But the first few paragraphs were great. C.S. Lewis writes about this topic in his book “THE 4 LOVES”.

    I personally do not like the Russel M. Nelson article in the Ensign. I think God’s love is unconditional and ever present. It is WE who choose to accept it and really let it change our lives or not.

    I personally hope there is such a thing as unconditional love because if I fail these exams I pray my wife has it!!

    OK getting off now..

  17. Gerry Spence
    July 13, 2008 at 5:31 pm

    Reading the Ensign article made me think that not only was it poorly written, but somewhat misleading. Elder Nelson is panning the theological problem of Universalism – which isn’t a new thing in Mormon circles (I always think of the lines, ‘Yeah, lie a little, steal a little, there is no harm in this . . . etc, from the Book of Mormon). The problem is that somehow the reduced rewards are equated with a reduced amount of care and concern from God to us. The real danger is that we could then say that we are justified in our judgment of other people and a justification for not loving our fellow being.

    I don’t think this is true, because I can’t see Jesus hanging out with disreputable crowds because he loved them less.

    Perhaps I am wrong, I am reminded of the Joseph Smith Translation that changed Jesus’ words from “Judge not least ye be judged.” into “judge not unrighteous judgment . . .” I don’t see how such ideas can be reconciled with my own spiritual experience.

  18. July 13, 2008 at 5:31 pm

    As so many have already pointed out on this thread, if there are problems with “unconditional love,” then the problem is with the love and not the conditional. We have gone to far in equating God’s love with his ultimate reward. God cannot (and should not) indiscriminately distribute exaltation to all and sundry; that much seems clear and uncontroversial. What criteria he will use is unknown to us (even if we are sure that we know). But that God deeply cares about all his children, regardless of their actions, of that I have no doubt. He would be an imperfect Father otherwise, IMO.

    The failure to acknowledge God’s unconditional love is merely a failure of imagination. Just because we have been shown incapable of demonstrating such love is no proof that God cannot.

  19. Ray
    July 13, 2008 at 6:03 pm

    To make the argument for Elder Nelson’s point, although I also think it could have been worded much better:

    1) God feels love unconditionally for every single, solitary, faithful OR rebellious child – just as I do for my own children (including our “foster” children and those who simply lived with us for a while). My love for “my kids” is not restricted by biological ties; I love every kid who has used our house as a temporary, get-my-life-back-together sleeping pad unconditionally, as well. In this most fundamental way, God’s love truly is unconditional and felt for / extended to all.

    2) In the Bible, there is a STRONG theme of love being *proven* or *expressed* or *manifested in action* – that true love is MUCH more than just a feeling or emotion. (For example, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” – John 14:15) This obviously pertains to us and our requirement to do more than *say* we love God. (“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that *doeth* the will of my father which is in Heaven.” – Matthew 7:21)

    Within this concept is the central idea that “love” also includes the “rewards” of love returned – of “reciprocal love” or “covenant love”. This type of “shared love” is NOT unconditional, as it requires the fulfillment of conditions in order to receive the rewards promised by the giver’s love. The giver’s unconditional love extends the reward to ALL, but only those who accept that offer and requite their own love in return receive the full, “unconditional” gift. (the gift that includes no condition or restriction but provides ALL to the receiver)

    I am going to do a “Common Scriptures in Review” post about a NT verse on love, so I will flesh this out further there.

    Again, I think Elder Nelson’s talk could have been phrased differently, but I believe the central idea is valid – that God’s love cannot be **actualized** in our lives without adherence to the conditions He has set for us to receive “the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” (I Corinthians 2:9)

  20. E
    July 13, 2008 at 6:26 pm

    I can’t not believe in unconditional love, because of the love I’ve experienced from God. If God’s love were conditional, many experiences I’ve had in my life could not have happened, because I certainly have not “earned” them. I agree with Ray; God loves us, although some of us may not be willing to recieve that love and return it.

  21. hawkgrrrl
    July 13, 2008 at 6:31 pm

    #17 Gerry Spence – this is a good point abt the judging not unrighteous judgment. At times, such as church councils, it is necessary for some to sit in judgment. But I have always been uncomfortable with that retranslation outside of that context. Who am I to judge? If I am not called to judge a particular situation, then I would prefer to not judge individuals. It’s far better to just try to be a catalyst for good and to love them, warts and all. Or so I think.

  22. GBSmith
    July 13, 2008 at 7:11 pm

    The opening line of Christopher Bigelow’s post:

    “When I used to work as an editor at the LDS Church’s Ensign magazine, I remember that the correlation committee instructed us not to use the term unconditional love.”

    I still would like to know why the Church (Correlation Committee) is opposed to the term “unconditional love”. It seems to me to be apropos to the discussion but either no one knows or is willing to introduce it into the conversation. You can continue to split hairs about love and what it is and what it isn’t all night but I don’t see that means much without putting it into context with what the “Church” thinks.

  23. Ray
    July 13, 2008 at 8:16 pm

    #22 – Much of what we have in scriptures (especially the later OT prophets and the NT epistles) is presented in opposition to whatever “incorrect” idea within their societies the prophet or the Church was facing at the time. Personally, I believe the attempt to distinguish between the love God feels for His children (unconditionally) and the fruits of that love (received conditionally) is a response to the growing idea that we receive the full fruits of God’s love solely by confessing His name and acknowledging His love.

    In my own words, this idea posits that God wants us to praise Him – to tell Him how wonderful He is – and that if we do so we receive His ultimate reward. The Church doesn’t view God in this narcissistic way and has made various statements to that effect for years without getting the message across, so Elder Nelson attempted to draw the distinction in his talk. He attempted to show that such an ideology is not just a harmless idea but actually takes people away from the effective, transformative power of God’s love.

    Iow, the move away from the term “unconditional love” was a move NOT away from the core idea of how God feels about His children but rather away from the bastardized definition that has become prevalent in much of our current society.

  24. July 13, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    I’m not sure how I feel about this. I like to think God loves us unconditionally, but the righteous are favored (See 1 Nephi 17:35. I appreciate your thought, but I’m going with the idea that God loves all of us unconditionally, but bestows greater blessings on those who follow His Son.

  25. GBSmith
    July 13, 2008 at 8:50 pm

    Ray, thanks for your response. I remember trying to explain Elder Nelson’s talk to people when I was home teaching back then. It caused no small bit of concern. It would be nice if it could be revisited. One of the things that gives people hope is the belief that God is willing, like the father in the prodigal son, to take them back. And His hope, I think, is that we’ll love him enough to accept his love and forgiveness unconditionally.

  26. Matt Thurston
    July 13, 2008 at 10:05 pm

    I don’t have time to craft the kind of response this topic deserves. Suffice it to say, I tried to give your ideas a chance, but red flags and alarm bells kept going off. The God you describe sounds petty and legalistic. I don’t think I could love a God whose love was conditional. Is this suppossed to motivate me? If my own dad’s love was conditional, based on my ability to do what was right, I think it would crush me. The sad thing is many parents do just that. They dole out love as a carrot, and withhold love as a stick.

    Although most will dismiss him as an angry ex-communicant, I think Paul Toscano makes some good points in his response to Elder Nelson’s “conditional love” talk: http://mormonalliance.org/newsletter/jul_2003.htm

  27. hawkgrrrl
    July 13, 2008 at 10:56 pm

    Matt Thurston – interesting. I went out and read the article, and the first word that came to mind as I read the scriptures quoted as evidence of conditional love was “proof texting” – thanks to Jeff Spector’s recent post. Paul Toscano also uses this word in his letter. On the whole, I think his letter is a thoughtful and useful response, more like my own perspective as I read the Ensign article. That makes me slightly uncomfortable as a TBM, but I felt that his letter was written with humility and hope. Here is a part of Toscano’s letter I thought worth repeating here:

    “Years ago, Church President Harold B. Lee, in a private interview, cautioned me not to accept any new teaching from any Church leader, even the president of the Church, unless it met four tests. President Lee said such a teaching must be (1) consistent with scripture, (2) consistent with the teachings of the prophets living and dead, (3) consistent with the promptings of the Holy Ghost, and (4) consistent with human experience. I fear that your new teaching that God’s love is conditional passes none of these tests. It is not consistent with the teachings of the prophets because no Latter-day Saint has ever before heard any Church leader assert that God’s love is conditional. The doctrine is inconsistent with the Holy Ghost that has prompted numerous Latter-day Saints in both talks and testimonies to bear witness of God’s unconditional love. And the doctrine does not accord with the experiences of the vast majority of the Saints of the Church and the people of the Lord everywhere.”

    So although I would personally not be comfortable “correcting” those above me in the hierarchy of the church, I did agree on the whole with Toscano’s perspective rather than the content of the article. Using Lee’s 4 proofs, I would have to say that I agree the article didn’t meet any of the 4 proofs, with the possible exception of #1 (if proof texting is applied).

  28. July 14, 2008 at 7:54 am

    I think Elder Nelson’s talk and this post bring important thoughts to the table which I think are largely misunderstood, probably because of the limitations of language to discuss these things. Love is not merely a one-way emotion. True love, whether between mortals or mortal and God, is a two-way conduit. Perhaps God’s love is unconditional in the sense that all of His children are loved, but in my experience, love means nothing to me if I don’t feel it. If I have done things which cut me off from feeling the love of God, then that love is meaningless and might as well not exist. I like to put it into the analogy of Plato’s cave. If we leave the cave but walk around in black shrouds, we never see or know the sun.

    All the experiences related to show that God’s love is unconditional demonstrate what happens as a person begins to cast off the shrouds of sin and feel the love of God. The more we allow ourselves to feel it, the greater blessings we enjoy. It is true that He never stops caring for us and wanting us to experience His joy. His love, however, is meaningless if we do not avail ourselves of it. In this sense, it is conditional. In order to be loved, we must allow ourselves to be loved by living up to certain conditions.

    Just my take on it.

    • Dagan Dalton
      March 8, 2015 at 9:16 am

      Amen

  29. July 14, 2008 at 9:17 am

    #27 Hawkgrrl–thanks for this comment. I recall President Lee’s teachings on this subject. I appreciate revisiting his counsel through your comment. This will provide me with a few hours of study.

  30. Bob Cox
    July 14, 2008 at 9:20 am

    Since we view God as a Divine parent it is only natural to project onto him our version of what parenting is about. I believe in unconditional love. God’s love is availabe to everyone at every time. I worry that your discussion of god’s conditional love will leave someone feeling alone and unloved in the very moment when they are most in need of God’s love.

    As for God’s presence, when is a parent not willing or able to be present with a child in pain? Sins are the spiritual equivalent of a broken leg. Personally I believe that God is always there, and always loving us. Perhaps even holding or carrying us when we are spiritually suffering. The problem we sometimes face is that we are howling so much about our pain that we don’t notice God’s presence there. If we will calm down and “be still” we will sense God’s presence.

  31. no-man
    July 14, 2008 at 11:14 am

    I agree with hawkgrrrl (10) that the second half of your post justifies Mormons in judgmental pride that puts them above their brothers and sisters. By your logic, they are practicing being gods and goddesses by withholding love from the unworthy. I find that this judgmental streak in the church is what is driving me away from it. The heavenly stratification of Celestial-Terrestrial-Telestial is dumbed down in our human experience to a competitive mindset in which we must excel, to end up “above” the less valiant. That leads to subtle moments in which we actually rejoice when others fail, because that validates how much better we are. As long as there’s someone lower on the ladder, we feel safe.

    I can’t conceive of Jesus buying into your explanation, and can’t picture a God that would create a mortal experience for the purpose of sifting through his children to find the “best” ones with whom he can live eternally, shutting the rest of us out because we’re not good enough. That is the Mormon viewpoint, and while it motivates some it can’t possibly help the rest of us. It ultimate means there are winners and losers to this mortal game we’re playing. So God’s work and glory then becomes “immortality and eternal life for only the cream of the crop”?

    The author’s assertion seems really twisted to me: “Any time anyone treats anyone else—including his or her own self—contrary to the gospel, I love the person less because I am not able to relate with them or see eye to eye with them. Ideally I would still feel unconditional concern, compassion, and hope for such people, including my own family members who misbehave, and I may even be able to minister to them in some ways, but I would not be able to fully respect them, trust them, and commune with them unless and until they truly improved enough to warrant it. And of course I would not expect people who are more righteous than I am to love me as much at this higher level as they could if I deserved it more.”

    What did Jesus do, but spend time communing with the unworthy and doing everything possible to teach them and bring up to a “higher” level? If I take your words at face value, I’m going to judge those around me, decide who is worthy of my respect, trust, and communion, and — what, toss the others aside?

    Mormons tend to see this life as an individual sport with individual winners. I believe God wants us to bring as many as possible along with us rather than see individuals “win”. It’s like the funeral I recently attended, where an honorable Mormon man was praised for all the holy things he did, and in the audience were his children and grandchildren, very of few of whom are active in the church and most of whom are struggling with addictions and completely broken families. How does he see himself in the Celestial Kingdom when the family he leaves behind is a complete train wreck?

  32. Matt Thurston
    July 14, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    Well said, no-man.

  33. hawkgrrrl
    July 14, 2008 at 2:20 pm

    no-man: I too dislike this tendency in people, but I can’t say that it is a common trait among Mormons I know. It is a trait I have certainly encountered, but not frequently. But I avoid associating with self-righteous twits.

  34. Ray
    July 14, 2008 at 5:19 pm

    no-man: I echo hawkgrrrl. There certainly are Mormons who are like what you describe, but to say that it is common among Mormons . . . I just don’t see that.

    In fact, there are a couple of assertions about Mormons and our beliefs that simply are wrong – and fit orthodox Protestant theology much better. For example:

    1) You said: I can’t conceive of Jesus buying into your explanation, and can’t picture a God that would create a mortal experience for the purpose of sifting through his children to find the “best” ones with whom he can live eternally, shutting the rest of us out because we’re not good enough. That is the Mormon viewpoint, and while it motivates some it can’t possibly help the rest of us. It ultimate means there are winners and losers to this mortal game we’re playing. So God’s work and glory then becomes “immortality and eternal life for only the cream of the crop”?

    Are you saying there are no “losers” as a result of mortality? Are you saying salvation and exaltation are universal? If so, you are much closer to Mormon theology than to orthodox Protestant theology.

    Mormonism allows for VERY few “losers” (the Sons of Perdition), because everyone else “wins” in the sense that they are rewarded with higher glory than they had prior to mortality and everlasting life in the presence of a God. Orthodox Protestantism, otoh, condemns billions to everlasting separation from God. Which of these theologies posits “eternal life for only the cream of the crop”?

    2) You said: Mormons tend to see this life as an individual sport with individual winners. I believe God wants us to bring as many as possible along with us rather than see individuals “win”.

    Mormons posit that exaltation CANNOT be obtained individually – that it has to include at least a couple, and that we cannot be exalted without working to exalt others (particularly our kindred dead). Orthodox Protestantism, otoh, defines salvation explicitly as an individual reward. The difference is stark and obvious.

    I agree with your concerns about interpreting the idea of conditional love incorrectly and ending up moving away from God, but I can’t agree that your descriptions represent common traits within the Mormon Church – and they certainly are not Mormon doctrine.

  35. John Nilsson
    July 14, 2008 at 9:02 pm

    “Is ‘Unconditional Love’ really possible?”

    “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”

  36. DavidH
    July 15, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    Blessings are conditional, God’s love is not.

    “Unconditional love” has been banned from correlated teachings for the same reason “free agency” has. I think the Brethren are concerned that we focus too much on the “free” aspect of “agency”, thinking that our choices are without consequences, and that we are not fearful enough of sin if we focus on the unconditionality of God’s love. These may be legitimate concerns.

    Our detractors might speculate that these wording matters are meant to increase Church members’ feelings of obligation and shame when failing to measure up (when we fail to measure up, God loves us leass)–i.e., to increase the likelihood of compliance with the commandments. This might also be a legitimate concern.

    I would be interested what other words are now de-emphasized in the Church (apart from “inactive” and “genealogy”). I would hope that, following Elder Ballard’s talk, the word “guilt” will also be banned.

  37. July 15, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    I’m a little disappointed that a lot of the comments reflect an inability or unwillingness to acknowledge that there are different modes and levels of “love,” whether or not you agree with me that some of these levels can be unconditional while others can only be conditional. Ah, well. I certainly haven’t seen any comments here that make me want to revert to using the term “love” as an all-or-nothing generalization.

    Cliff #3 wrote: “If your teenager crashes the car because of his own carelessness and you take away his driving privledges, is it because you love him less? No, a parent who disciplines is actually showing love by protecting his child from a power and responsiblility that he isn’t ready for and may cause him serious damage.”

    While the “love” in this case does continue unbroken, I argue that it is downgraded from the conditional trust-and-communion level to the unconditional concern-and-hope level. If conditions are again met through repentance, the love can go back up to the trust-and-communion level again. But you are using the word “love” as a blanket term and a catch-all.

    “But that does not mean we are allowed to withdraw our prescence from those who sin simply because they are sinners.”

    I didn’t say this at all. God does this, but I specifically said we shouldn’t. Even if we can only feel concern and hope for a person, we can still choose to associate with them and minister to them. Of course, it’s usually never as simple as an on/off switch. We might respect, trust, and commune with a person in some areas in which they meet our conditions for giving that level of love, while at the same time in other areas we may be able to give them only our concern, compassion, and hope, because we don’t agree.

    GBSmith #9 wrote: “Why did the Correlation Committee ban the term “unconditional love”?”

    I don’t remember being given an explanation, or if I was, it was very brief and I have forgotten it. But if you do a search at lds.org, you’ll find that the term doesn’t appear in church magazines from a certain point onward, except on occasional times when a general authority uses it, which is their prerogative.

    Jeff Spector #11 wrote: “I suppose there are instances when parent and child separate and never reconcile, perhaps losing that basic love between them. That is one thing that will never happens with God.”

    Um, what do you call outer darkness? Spiritual death?

  38. hawkgrrrl
    July 15, 2008 at 4:05 pm

    Hmmm. I think it’s far more helpful to ask myself if MY love of God is conditional – am I placing distance between myself and Him because I either only love Him when things are rosy or more likely, I only turn to Him when I really need something. The distance between each of us and God is determined by our actions and attitudes, not by God.

  39. Anonymous
    April 23, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    Chris Bigelow seems to me to just be playing word games in his zeal to argue against unconditional love. Here are the things he says God is unconditional in:

    Concern
    Hope and desire that we will return to him
    Sadness if we don’t
    Benevolence
    Compassion

    Put all that together, and I don’t know how you come up with something that doesn’t equal love. Bigelow’s list of things God is unconditional about isn’t an alternative to love, it’s a virtual definition of love. If anyone is bandying about the word “love” loosely, it’s Bigelow.

    But I do appreciate the information he gave us about the apparently official attitude the church has toward the concept of “unconditional love.” If the correlation committee is giving out official instructions not to use that term, then this phenomenon is not restricted to one article by one apostle (Russell M. Nelson’s article about God’s unconditional love). Or maybe the policy came about because of that one article–can’t contradict the apostle!

    It explains a lot, this dread the church seems to have of people misunderstanding what unconditional love means. It takes no great mental effort to understand that unconditional love doesn’t necessarily mean unconditional acceptance of any behavior we choose, but even this simple explanation isn’t enough for them. They’d rather add one more influence that makes us frightened of a wrathful, judgmental God than risk any chance their iron grip (speaking of things made of iron) on the members is weakened.

    It doesn’t surprise me Bigelow makes the argument he’s made. He’s demonstrated publicly and willingly by the things he’s written that he’s one wrath-of-God, hellfire-and-damnation kind of guy. Neither Bigelow nor Nelson nor the church invented that concept of God–it’s been around for a long time. Lots of religious types seem to get nervous if the average believer starts thinking God loves him unconditionally.

    Me, I find it difficult to believe that I have more character than God has, because I sure seem to love my kids with something that approaches unconditionality.

    • Jim Pegram
      September 11, 2016 at 8:27 am

      After doing a search of the term “unconditional love” on the Internet, I’ve found that it originated in the “free love” generation of the 60’s and in psychological circles. A “feel good term” that makes us “feel good all over” but as I study the New Testament, the Savior was pretty clear with his thoughts about sin eg., “neither do I condemn thee, now go and sin no more”. Getting back to the Father is not a zero sum game competition between us mortals. We often fall into the adversaries trap of comparing ourselves with others sort of a spiritual sibling rivalry, when it is us as individuals that the Father sees and our own personal devotion and faith that matters however that is manifested. There will be a judgement day for a reason, on that I think we can all agree.

  40. May 18, 2011 at 4:18 am

    Lovey-Dovey
    Love is not what is ordinarily understood by the word. The ordinary love is just a masquerade; something else is hiding behind it. The real love is a totally different phenomenon. The ordinary love is a demand, the real love is a sharing. It know nothing of demand; it knows the joy of giving. The ordinary love pretends too much. The real love is nonpretendious; it simply is. The ordinary love becomes almost sickening, syrupy, drippy, what you call “lovey-dovey.” It is sickening, it is nauseating. The real love is a nourishment, it strengthens your soul. The ordinary love only feeds your ego—not the real you but the unreal you. Give, share whatever you have, share and enjoy sharing. Don’t do it as if it is a duty–then the whole joy is gone. And don’t feel that you are obliging the other, never, not even for a single moment. Lover never obliges. On the contrary, when somebody receives your love. you feel obliged. Love is thankful that it has been received. Love never waits to be rewarded, even to be thanked. If the thankfulness comes from the other side, love is always surprised—it is a pleasant surprise, because there was no expectation. You cannot frustrate real love, because there is no expectation in the first place. And you cannot fulfill unreal love because it is so rooted in expectation that whatsoever is done always falls short. “Become a servant of love, “I am not saying to become a servant of somebody whom you love, no, not at all. I am not saying to become a servant of a lover. I am saying become a servant of love. The pure idea of love should be worshipped. Your lover is only one of the forms of that pure idea, and the whole existence contains nothing but millions of forms of that pure idea. The flower is one idea, one form, the moon another, your lover still another….your child, mother, father, they are all forms, all waves in the ocean of love. But never become a servant of a lover. Remember always that your lover is only one tiny expression. Serve love through the lover, so that you never become attached to the lover. Love knows compassion but no concern. Sometimes it is hard, because sometimes it is needed to be hard. Sometimes it is very aloof. Whatever the need, love is considerate–but not concerned. It will not fulfill any unreal need; it will not fulfill any poisonous idean in the order. For example; you will not fulfill the ego demands–that means you are poisoning your beloved. And, ego’s can be very demanding. 

  41. Tecstauffer
    December 29, 2011 at 7:41 pm

    I am married to a mormom lady and we are having a difficult time with our marriage.  Here it is from the beginning.  She says I don’t love her unconditionally.  I talked and asked other women out on dates before I married this lady.  She now has found out because I didn’t erase the emails.  Since our marriage, she and I have gambled.  She has accumulated 30,000 or more in debt from quick cash places.  Pawned wedding rings, championship rings, computer, car title(s), taken money, and racked up thousands of dollars of credit cards.  Now we owe the IRS money because she didn’t report her gambling winnings.  I have since filed for divorce.  I came back but spent a night out and took pictures of a bartender and asked her for a ride home.  She refused.  I admitted this to my wife.  She and I now use language not appropriate for anyone.  I need help, can anyone give me the direction we need.

  42. esmith
    October 30, 2012 at 2:37 pm

    You make some interesting points, but I am taken back by your line “even if they are not yet and may never become our moral/spiritual equals.” Jesus says don’t try to pluck the mote out of your neighbor’s eye when you have a beam in your own. I believe the beam is pride–the pride of thinking you are spiritually superior to someone. We should never, ever say sin is okay, I agree with you on that, but when someone sins, we should respond with the compassion of someone who knows they are just as much a sinner. As you point out, we are all judged based on our circumstances and knowledge. Based on your situation, you may have received more blessings and therefore are held to a higher standard than this “sinner” you benevolently though condescendingly show “unconditional concern” for. Thus, you are now a sinner. Haha, now I’m a sinner for judging you for judging!

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