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?