My husband and I recently traveled to Iceland for a long-awaited vacation. On our last day in Reykjavik, we connected with a good friend of mine and his girlfriend, whom I was meeting for the first time. As we were walking around the city and chatting, she asked me what I did for a living. “I’m a pastor,” I responded. She stopped in her tracks and looked fairly puzzled. “That is so weird,” she said. After a brief pause, she added, “But it’s also kind of cool!”
Later I learned that the “cool” part of my being a pastor was that I didn’t look like one, at least not in her eyes. I also learned that my views on God (and God’s love for humanity) didn’t quite match what she had heard other preachers say. Toward the end of our conversation, she shared with me her thoughts on Christianity, the church, and the main reason why she has no desire to be part of any of it: “It seems like the church likes to say that God loves everyone…except for you, you, and you.”
This time I was the one who stopped in my tracks. She was right.
That is exactly the message that many churches and Christians around the world have proclaimed throughout history. And I’m not just talking about the extremism of the Inquisition or the Crusaders. I’m talking about the kind of messaging that implicitly or explicitly is shared from our pulpits in today’s world. Whether we’re talking about evangelical circles, mainline denominations, Catholics, or Pentecostals, the message of God’s love for humanity has often been accompanied by a few exclusions written in small print (and sometimes not so small!): “God loves you, he really does, all you need to do is change ‘x’, ‘y’ or ‘z’ in order to be worthy of that love.”
Some of us might read that statement and vehemently disagree with it. We might find it distasteful, or abhorrent. But if we’re honest, somewhere deep inside of us there’s a small voice that genuinely questions, or at the very least wonders, if God loves all people the same way he loves us (“us” meaning Christians, the ‘saved’ ones, the church-goers, the born-again, and so on). What about those who live in complete disobedience to God’s commands? What about those who do ‘this’ or ‘that’? If God loves all people the same way he loves Christians...what about those who live in complete disobedience to God’s commands? Click To Tweet
We might all be comfortable saying that God loves everyone, but when rubber meets the road, when we encounter those whose serious offenses we deem unpardonable, do we proclaim God’s love for them with the same candor? Do we not tend to center the person’s behavior (their sins, their lifestyles, their choices) and then articulate God’s love for them accordingly? Do we not say things like: “Of course God loves them, they just need to repent from their ways, acknowledge their sin, or (add your sentence of choice here)”?
We seem to understand God’s love as something that is heavily constricted (or restricted!) by our choices, our behavior, or our ability to properly respond to that love. But if that were the case, would God’s love be love at all? We seem to understand God’s love as something that is heavily constricted (or restricted!) by our choices, our behavior, or our ability to properly respond to that love. But if that were the case, would God’s love be love at all? Click To Tweet
The Problem of Conditional Love
The problem with this assumption is that it makes God’s love conditional. And the problem with conditional love is that it creates room for exclusion. It allows for rules and conditions to become part of what determines the nature of our relationship with God. Who among us would want to be in a relationship with someone who constantly said to us: “I love you, but…”, “You’ll have my whole heart if….”, “You will always be loved by me, unless…”? Not one of us. How do we expect people to desire to be in relationship with a God who allegedly does the same?
Relationships that involve any form of condition or exception are, by nature, contractual: if you meet the criteria, you can enjoy the benefits of the contract; if you don’t meet the criteria, the contract/benefit/offer is void. But God’s relationship with us is not contractual. It is covenantal. And while the Bible talks about different types of covenants between God and humanity, the liability in God’s covenant of love rests solely on God. God’s love for us is eternal, constant, unchangeable, selflessly-given, and there’s nothing we can do to stop God’s perfect love from flowing in our direction. God’s love for us is eternal, constant, unchangeable, selflessly-given, and there’s nothing we can do to stop God’s perfect love from flowing in our direction. Click To Tweet
The Un-Conditional Love of God
Consider the words of Paul to the Romans regarding God’s love for his creation. I find these words not just beautiful and life-giving, but also decisive and definitive:
Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? […] No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.
—Romans 8:35-39 (NLT)
The question is, why can’t we proclaim just that? The un-conditional, un-failing, and un-dying love of God? Why do we feel the need to add caveats and small print to a message that is so clear?
One of the problems, I think, is that we tend to confuse the truth of God’s love with matters of salvation. We are so hyper-focused on Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross (and what it means for our salvation) that somewhere along the way we end up sacrificing God’s love for us. The conversation quickly turns to the weight of our sin, our response to the cross, eternal salvation…or punishment and damnation.
But the moment we shift our focus from God’s love to our response to that love (or our behavior, our theology, our worthiness, etc.), we’ve automatically shifted the conversation. We’re no longer talking about God’s love.
So I ask:
Is our gospel of love truly about love?
Or is it about properly responding to God’s love so that we can fully receive it?
Or is it about something else entirely?
Why can’t we just say “God loves everyone”—with no caveats, no small print, no list of conditions or requirements to be met? Is there something we’re afraid of?
I ask those questions first and foremost to myself. As someone who preaches on a regular basis, I need to examine not just my message about God’s love, but my motivations behind it. I need to be willing to explore my assumptions, my fears, and my own understanding of God’s love for myself, Gaby Viesca. For it is out of that understanding and experience of God’s love for me that I can speak about God’s perfect and unconditional love for others.
I may never be able to fully understand God’s perfect love for us, but one thing I know: perfect love expels all fear (1 Jn 4:18), and as long as I’m a preacher of the good news, I will try my hardest to make sure my message of God’s love is life-giving instead of fear-inducing, inclusive of all and not exclusive, presenting God’s love as what it is: unconditional and absolutely perfect.
For God loves all, passionately, and unconditionally.