Unconditional love

I am being followed. Not by the intelligence services. Not a stalker. But, almost anywhere I go, he’s there. Watching, listening, taking account of everything I do. I know who’s doing it. I even know his name. It’s Mac. He’s been after me for years.

Mac is my dog. We have two dogs, but Mac is my follower. If I walk across the room, he comes too. When I sit down, he lies nearby. If I go to my home office, Mac joins me. (He’s here right now.) When I go to the bathroom, Mac would be there too, except I refuse him entry. But he’ll wait just outside for me.

I’ve no idea why he’s so devoted. He just is. My companion, day after day after day.

I read something today that seems to give Mac a higher love and loyalty rating than God. Here it is:

As long as you praise the lord and love him with all your heart and repent your sins, he will always love you with his unconditional love.

Within 27 words, the writer has managed to contradict himself. I don’t suppose he realises it, but what he’s said is: ‘Here are the conditions to get something which has no conditions.’

The conditions he specifies are what you must do to be loved by God. ‘As long as…’ introduces three requirements: you must praise the Lord; you must love him with all your heart; you must repent of your sins. Fulfil these, and you get ‘unconditional love’ from God. That’s contradictory! You can’t lay down conditions to be loved and also call that love unconditional.

The writer’s sentence is what most would call a quid pro quo statement. ‘If you do this, I’ll do that.’ In other words, you give something, you get something. If you don’t give, you don’t get.

A troubling truth is that quid pro quo language is common. We are told it, and we tell it. When I was young, the run-up to Christmas would be peppered with warnings from my parents: ‘You’ve not been at your best this year… Santa won’t bring you presents unless you’re a good boy.’ Conditions. I confess I passed on equivalent warnings to my children, and not just at Christmas. Statements like: ‘If you don’t tidy up your bedroom, you won’t get to watch your favourite TV programme’. Conditions.

We’re bombarded with messages which say that to be popular you must have great social skills, be clever, and perhaps above all look good. An appalling example is the song Keep young and beautiful. According to the lyrics you must get rid of body fat, and take care of your charms to be in someone’s arms. The refrain is: ‘Keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved’. So, if you’re old and wrinkly, no-one will love you. As someone increasingly old and wrinkly, I’m disturbed. Actually, we should all be offended.

But the song, and much advertising, fits with the self-esteem deficits most of us have, consciously or subconsciously. Somewhere inside lurks the dark thought: ‘No-one’s going to love me unless I deserve it’. That’s damaging logic for human relations.

It’s even worse logic when applied to our relationship with God, because our efforts to earn acceptance will never be enough.

So it’s just as well they don’t have to be. God doesn’t love anyone, not even the best of the saints, because of their goodness. He has loved us long before we knew it, thought about it, or reacted to it. I’ve always been moved by the sentence in Romans chapter 5: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (v.8) Nothing about Jesus’ sacrifice depended on a religious background, a meritorious life, praying a lot, reading the Bible from cover to cover, or anything else we might have believed would impress God or merit his love. Which is just as well for me, because I could never have earned it.

At least the writer of the contradictory sentence included the two important words: ‘unconditional love’. That is the right description of God’s love. There’s no quid pro quo. We don’t give something so God will give something. We don’t go half way to God so he’ll come half way to us. God is one hundred per cent the giver. He comes all the way to us.

Absolutely it’s essential that we receive that love, surrender our lives, and follow him wherever that takes us on life’s journey. But his love is utterly and simply just given. Wonderfully unconditional.

‘Okay Mac, it’s time for lunch,’ I say. And off we go…