The Conditional Love of God

I am going to deviate a bit today from studying President Nelson’s General Conference talks since an Ensign article that he wrote has been the focus of quite a lot of attention this week as a result of what appears to be a renewed focus by General Authorities on its core message

In February 2003 then Elder Russell M. Nelson published an article in the Ensign entitled Divine Love. The core purpose of this article is to emphasize that while God loves us with an “infinite,” “enduring,” and “universal” love, his love is also in certain respects “conditional” because  “the higher levels of love” and  “certain divine blessings stemming from that love—are conditional.”

I have seen a lot of very intense reactions to this article. Some people suggest that if God’s love is conditional that means that he does not really love us or that his love is abusive in that it is exerted in a coercive way to compel us to obey.

The danger of making parental love conditional on compliance is something that I am very sensitive to. In my complex relationship with my father, I felt sometimes like if I did not do what he wanted he would not love me. Threats that he would disinherit me or cut me off were a part of our relationship even before I began looking into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and intensified after that. As a father I am very committed to making it clear to my children that I will never ever do that to them.

And yet I am comfortable with the way that President Nelson describes the love of God as not “unconditional” in nature.

Understanding why requires first exploring the history and origin of the concept of “unconditional love.” It also requires us to seek an accurate understanding of the nature and character of God.

  1. The Origin of the Concept of Unconditional Love Shows how it May Run Contrary to the Restored Gospel

As someone who grew up in the 1990s, I have always heard the term “unconditional love” and seen it is an embodiment of the concept of a love that endures regardless of trials and circumstances.

But the origin of the term helps to reveal how in many respects it is antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I am really grateful to Philosopher Jeffrey Thayne for introducing me to this history which I think explains what President Nelson means with great clarity. I am going to quote from a yet unpublished manuscript on worldviews that Thayne has shared with me.

The concept of “unconditional love” originated from Carl Rogers and humanistic theories of psychology.

Rogers believed that the source of most emotional trauma or pain was that “the threat of judgment from others create a split between our real selves (how we see ourselves in reality) and ideal selves (the version of ourselves that we are trained to thin of as ‘ideal.’” This dissonance creates “incongruence” which leads us to “put up facades that keep our truest selves insulated and hidden from the world” and results in “self-loathing” The way to escape from this “self-loathing” and to experience relief would be to “allow[] ourselves to think, feel, and experience all of our thoughts, emotions, and desires without shame.” As we do so we will achieve self-actualization and freedom. 

Rogers originated the term “unconditional positive regard” to describe the therapeutic approach that could best bring about this process of “self-discovery and growth” The therapist must not “impose any therapeutic recommendations upon the client” and must instead affirm unconditionally.

As Rogers’ ideas gained popular acceptance the phrase “unconditional positive regard” was shortened to “unconditional love” and became part of our popular culture and psychology.

Before Rogers the term “unconditional love” was used rarely and primarily in religious writing to refer to the kind of love that Heavenly Father has for us. 

Here is an example from a British sermon from 1880 

But the term exploded in popularity after the 1980s peaking in 2013 and came to replace or supplant other terms such as “infinite love.”

The concept of “unconditional love” therefore may stand for the concept that we must approach others with a complete absence of judgment and must affirm their choices as they engage in “self-discovery and growth.” Unconditional love is commonly used in this way with regard to parenting approaches that minimize or eliminate any type of punishment or discipline. 

As President Nelson clearly and powerfully explains, God’s love is absolutely not unconditional in this sense. God is not content with leaving us on our own process of “self-discovery and growth.” Indeed, left alone that “self-growth” leads to endless misery and damnation. God’s love is conditional in that he wants a particular outcome for us. He sees our divine potential and who we can become. And he is willing to impose “therapeutic recommendations” upon us in order to achieve that end.

I love how Thayne puts it: “Unlike a Rogerian therapist who imposes no expectations on the client, our God — a being of infinite, pure, abiding love — has tremendous expectations of us and an agenda for our lives and eternity. God does not intend for us to remain as we currently are. And most importantly, the agenda God has for us is not one that we might, as we currently are, choose for ourselves.”

President Nelson succinctly explained why Gods love is conditional: “Because God loves us and wants us to be happy. ‘Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God.’”

As President Nelson warned, the permissive concept of “unconditional love” is “used by anti-Christs to woo people with deception. Nehor, for example, promoted himself by teaching falsehoods: He ‘testified unto the people that all mankind should be saved at the last day, … for the Lord had created all men, … and, in the end, all men should have eternal life.’  Sadly, some of the people believed Nehor’s fallacious and unconditional concepts.”

In contrast to Nehor’s teachings, divine love warns us that ‘wickedness never was happiness.’”

The negative reaction to President Nelson’s talk stems from the fact that the original meaning of the phrase “unconditional love” today has come to be conflated with a variety of concepts that are absolutely true. 

By contrast, for someone of President Nelson’s generation, this use of the term “unconditional love” would not have seemed commonplace or synonymous with eternal love as it did for me and many others. Instead, President Nelson likely witnessed as this term entered the public consciousness and was linked to practices and traditions that President Nelson would have opposed.

President Nelson’s article attempts to disentangle how the different uses of this term have become conflated. Hence, why President Nelson emphasizes that the love of God is “infinite,” “enduring,” and “universal,” but not unconditional.

Elder Christofferson similarly elaborated on this concept with great clarity in October 2016:

“One of the terms we hear often today is that God’s love is ‘unconditional.’ While in one sense that is true, the descriptor unconditional appears nowhere in scripture. Rather, His love is described in scripture as ‘great and wonderful love,’ ‘perfect love,’  ‘redeeming love’and ‘everlasting love.’ These are better terms because the word unconditional can convey mistaken impressions about divine love, such as, God tolerates and excuses anything we do because His love is unconditional, or God makes no demands upon us because His love is unconditional, or all are saved in the heavenly kingdom of God because His love is unconditional. God’s love is infinite and it will endure forever, but what it means for each of us depends on how we respond to His love.”

Gods love is “unconditional” in the sense that “unconditional love” has become synonymous with God’s love being “eternal,” “infinite” or “enduring.” It is not “unconditional” in the sense that God unconditionally affirms us and our path regardless of the consequences.

2) A Proper understanding of God’s Character Helps us Place his Conditions in Context 

A lot of the hurt I have seen stems from people conflating their experiences dealing with the imperfect and flawed love of other human beings with the kind of love that God has for us. 

In considering the love of God for us, we should therefore keep in mind certain eternal truths.

  1. God’s whole purpose and his work and glory is bring to pass our immortality and eternal life (Moses 1:39l
  2. God does nothing save it be good for mankind. (2 Nephi 26:33)
  3. God so loved the world that he sent us Jesus Christ to die for us (John 3:16)
  4.  God weeps when even his most sinful and rebellious children suffer (Moses 7:37)

We need to get it into our minds and hearts once and for all that we have a Heavenly Father who loves us beyond measure and will do whatever it takes to help us return to him and inherit all that he has. We should therefore have no doubt that whatever conditions or limitations God places on his love or his blessings, he acts solely with the desire to help us ultimately return to him.

By contrast, people will impose conditions out of fear or hatred or misunderstanding. While some of my father’s reaction to my conversion stemmed from his worry for me and fear that I would be hurt as a result of my newfound faith, I could not have the same level of certainty that he was acting out of pure love for me and that his conditions were directed at my long term good. I know that he did the best he could. But he was operating based on his own biases and fears. God’s conditions are not that way at all. We can be absolutely certain that his goal is our eternal well-being. We can rely fully on him and in him. 

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