My adorable nephew has reached the age where he takes a certain pleasure in testing his parents. It may be sneaking into off-limits rooms and cabinets. It may be making a mess. It may be riling up the family dog. It may be waking up from his nap to “read” book. It may be making a horribly high-pitched noise constantly when he’s tired. Whatever it is, I think that little toddler is enjoying testing my sister, brother-in-law, and even me, his godmother/aunt when I’m around.
As aggravating as it can be, testing limits is a natural part of growth and development. A toddler’s defiance means he or she is learning to be independent, how to make decisions, how to explore the world.
Yet, that child-like quality of testing limits is something that we never quite lose even as adults. Rock City’s song “Locked Away” featuring Adam Levine of Maroon Five on their new CD What Dreams Are Made ofhypothetically explores the limits of a romantic love. They sing, “If I got locked away,” “if I couldn’t buy you the fancy things in life,” “if I didn’t have anything,” “if I showed you my flaws,” “if I couldn’t be strong,” and in true pop song fashion, “if you knew I wasn’t ballin’ ”
Essentially, Rock City is asking: “would you stick around?” The duo, brothers Theron and Timothy Thomas, wrote the song after their mother faithfully stuck by their father during a 5-year prison sentence. At its core, the pop song is essentially long ballad of hypothetical limit testing, constantly asking the subject, “would you still love me the same?”
Testing limits is natural. When we are self-conscious about a relationship, we often test limits hypothetically or actually to determine the its quality. The lingering question of mankind, from the toddler to the oldest adult, is: is the love I’m given in this relationship unconditional?
As humans, we make mistakes, and our relationships suffer because of those mistakes. Our relationships with our parents, siblings, family, friends, co-workers, children, even our significant other are all imperfect and can be an incredible source of hurt. Sometimes people have given up on us, used us, mistreated us, even within those relationships where love is intended to be unconditional.
It’s not difficult to think of a relationship in your life where love has been conditional. I’m sure thinking of that relationship is probably uncomfortable and painful. A part of us knows certain relationships, like the relationship between parents and children, spouses, good friends, are meant to be unconditional. Reality tells us they are not, so we question the love present in the relationship and possibly even test the limits of it.
But for love to be love, does it have to be unconditional?
Depends on the kind of love you’re talking about.
As a language, English lacks adequate verbiage to describe various kinds of love. The love one has for pizza, pandas, and the Packers is the same word to describe the love of a mother for her child.
Do I love pizza? Yes, but if the pizza is bad, I do not love the taste of the pizza. My love of pizza is dependent on the quality of the pizza, but even when the pizza is awful or just OK, I still love pizza with a certain affection that I don’t have for other kinds of food.
Probably. That’s how us English speakers talk about love. “I mean, I love her, man, but I don’t love love her.” At least, that’s how I picture dudes talking about girls. They probably actually use football metaphors. “I mean, I love her like I love Jordy Nelson, but I’m going to spend the rest of my life with one Packer player, I’d pick Aaron Rodgers, you know?”
Dearest hodge podge, non-sensical English language of mine:
Could we have not just established even two different words for conditional and unconditional love? That would have been would be helpful. Everyone crying over a relationship where the other said “I love you” and then displayed only conditional love would benefit greatly.
Thanks for considering my proposition.
The Broken Hearts Club
Venerable Fulton Sheen in his book Love, Marriage And Children describes ways how humans love one another: with utilitarian, romantic, democratic, and humanitarian love.
- Utilitarian love is based on a mutual usefulness to each other. When the mutual usefulness ends, so does the relationship.
- Romantic love is based on the pleasure from the other person. When the thrill of the relationship is done, so is the relationship.
- Democratic love is based on equality and mutual respect. This love expects return from loving the other, so if the other is deemed unworthy of love, the relationship crumbles.
- Humanitarian love is based on a love of humanity in general, but it is essentially loving at a distance. When a person is close and flaws are seen, the relationship crumbles because love can no longer be in the abstract but concrete.
Ugh. Just reading through that list I feel like I’d be singing a hypothetical ballad about if someone would love me the same.
- In utilitarian love as soon as I stop being useful, I will not be loved the same.
- In romantic love as soon as I stop being new, mysterious, and otherwise attractive, I will not be loved the same.
- In democratic love as soon as I stop adequately returning the favor, I will not be loved the same.
- In humanitarian love as soon as I show my flaws and otherwise became an annoyance, I will not be loved the same.
Is a precarious mixture of utilitarian, romantic, democratic, and humanitarian love all I can hope for? Is all love conditional? Is hoping to be loved, actually loved for who I am, in good times and bad, in sickness and health, unrealistic?
Sheen writes of something better than utilitarian, romantic, democratic, and humanitarian love: unconditional Christian love. Christian love is based on the unconditional love of Christ Himself. In every relationship, Christians are called, challenged, even commanded to Christian love.
Sheen quotes Christ who told his disciples:
“This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.”
At a glance, “love one another” is nothing new. Philosopher after ethical teacher after religious leader has taught basic charity, but Christ says “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.” The words surrounding “love one another” deserve careful examination:
“This is my commandment“:
Commandments evoke an ideal, like the 10 Commandments given to Moses which gave a new ideal of living to the Israelites. They had to choose to change, choose to live by new rules, choose a higher, more divine way of life.
By calling love a commandment, Christ explicitly says love is a choice. Love is capable of being commanded, that is it something of the will, a choice rather than a passive effect of labile emotion. As Fulton Sheen wrote “Love, then, is not a gush but a virtue; not a spasmodic enthusiasm, but an abiding relationship of service, affection, and sacrifice.”
By calling love a commandment, Christ is telling us that we can always choose to love, even if we feel the exact opposite. I doubt Christ had butterflies in His stomach, peace in His heart, a smile on HIs face as He lovingly sacrificed Himself on the cross for us. Yet, He chose to sacrifice, chose to love, even when His feelings did not match perfectly His actions. Which brings us to:
“As I love you”
Christ willingly bore a cross, physical pain beyond all comprehension, humiliation beyond all embarrassment, spiritual suffering beyond all persecution in sacrifice for the very people who crucified him, humiliated him, abandoned him, and would do so in the future. And that’s the ideal He commands us to.
Christ loves sinners as they are. So much of love demands change, a return, a guarantee, a condition for love to be given, but that is not how Christ loves us.
As St. Paul succinctly wrote:
“But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”
Christ loves us when we are unworthy. What more can prove His unconditional love? Change is not and has never been a prerequisite for His love. We can do nothing to earn His unconditional, freely given, constant love, but we can reject it. He died and gave His love as an invitation, not a commandment. He only asks for love with the hope that us sinners change for the better, for our better. Christ loves us for the our sake, not His own, and is given without expectation of return.
Yet, when we love Christ, when we follow Christ, when we model on whole lives on Christ, He commands us to love as He does in every relationship.
To quote the infamous WWJD bracelets of my youth, what would Jesus do? If hypothetically Rock City came to up to Christ after committing whatever hypothetical deal-breaking atrocities they could imagine, singing, “would you still love me the same?” what would His answer be?
It is simply impossible to love a person the same when a relationship faces a challenge. An argument, an injury, a change in comfort/security, any change in relationship requires a change in the love we give. When relationships hit a rough spot, we have a choice to love the other person more or less. The same love is not going to suffice.
So, would Christ love more or less?
Christ loves us more, no matter the offense.
As St. Paul wrote a little further in his letter to the Romans:
“…where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more.”
In our hurt, in our difficulties, in our darkest moments, Christ never abandons us. Instead, He gives us the grace, the overabundant grace, to persevere, even when it seems impossible. His love for us is truly unconditional, meaning nothing on this earth can separate His love from us. Even when we reject Him, His love remains.
As St. Paul wrote even later in his letter to the Romans:
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Christ’s love is unconditional. If you can think of any condition that would prevent Christ from loving you, you’re wrong. Christ’s love not only remains but abounds.
Our relationship with Christ is limitless, unrestricted, unconditional, but our broken human relationships often teach us that every relationship has its limits.
If hypothetically Rock City came to up to you after committing whatever hypothetical deal-breaking atrocities they could imagine, singing, “would you still love me the same?” would your answer be more or less love?
As a Christian, the call is more love. We established that. Yet, in real life, when we hurt others and when others hurt us, are we do we love more or less?
We are called to love and be loved more, but we often give and receive less love.
My heart sank writing that sentence. I can easily think of a handful of people, people whom I love dearly, who I am not giving enough love to. I can also easily think of a handful of people, people whom I love dearly, who I am not receiving enough love from. I know I ought to love them more. I know I ought to be loved more. Yet, we both settle for less, and it breaks my heart.
As broken, fallen, sinful human beings, we give and receive less love than what Our Father hoped for us. Our love both given and received is often conditional. Yet a part of us knows we need, want, deeply desire more, because that very imprint of Our Father’s unconditional love is eternally written on our hearts.
Yet, here on earth, every relationship is tainted by a lack of love, even our relationship with our Heavenly Father. Lack of love in our earthly relationships can even further taint our relationship with our Heavenly Father.
I think of my own relationship with my earthly father. I won’t lie. It was rough as a teenager. I was a brat. He was stubborn. As much as he otherwise tried to show me love in his own ways (that I’ve come to learn to notice and appreciate now) during that rough time, I was convinced my dad only tolerated me. Hearing the words “Father” anywhere in Mass, in prayer, in the Bible, wherever, echoed painfully hollow.
It was not until I started to find love hidden in front of my eyes in my relationship with my earthly father that I could better understand the love of my Heavenly Father.
Just recently, my dad (in his own way) was showing me just how much he loved me by sitting next to me on the couch when I came home for a visit. He asked me about everything from my job to what I had eaten that week without any distractions.
After a small pause in our conversation, I asked the question that buried deeply inside every woman, an answer we never doubt as a little girls but come to doubt as an adult. I asked him, “Dad, am I lovable?”
“Infinitely so,” he replied without hesitation and with a small smile.
And that, that, is exactly what Our Heavenly Father says. We are infinitely, unconditionally, perfectly loved. Even when our earthly fathers, our earthly mothers, our siblings, our children, our family members, our friends, our neighbors, our colleagues, anyone and everyone says and acts differently, says and acts that their love for us is conditional, Our Heavenly Father says we are unconditionally loved in every moment of every day of our lives.
Whew. I’m so glad I’m loved no matter what, yet that call to love other unconditionally sounds exhausting, Jesus. Am I really called to love every person unconditionally like Christ?
Yes. Unconditional love is the call of each one of us, dear Christian.
We are called, challenged, commanded to imitate that kind of unconditional love of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Now unconditional Christian love does not mean you are required to be best buddies with every single person on earth. That would be impossible. You need to sleep. You need to relax. You need to take care of yourself before you can take care of someone else.
Even Jesus, true God and true man, was never best friends with every living human being while He was on earth. With all his followers, Jesus had His 12 closest called the apostles. Even within the 12 apostles, He had 3 even closer to Him: Peter, James, and John. Jesus went off alone to pray. Jesus told people off (for their good and out of love of course). Being a Christian does not mean you become a doormat but a missionary.
And what’s our mission? Giving a taste of that unconditional love of the Father.
What about that utilitarian business partner who gives you a discount on scrubs because you advertise for them?
Yup. You’re called to love them with Christian love, even when they take your discount away or demand more advertising.
What about that romantic interest who gives you butterflies, makes your heart skip a beat, makes you feel things you’ve never felt before?
Yup. You’re called to love them with Christian love, even when the butterflies die, your heart resumes its normal rhythm, and the thrill is gone.
What about that democratic co-worker who we have a great work relationship and treat each other with great respect?
Yup. You’re called to love them with Christian love, even when they start stabbing you in the back.
What about that humanitarian love you have for the elderly who you love because each one reminds you of Morrie of Tuesdays with Morrie?
Yup. You’re called to love them with Christian love, even when it turns out that old man is actually a creep, that old woman is more feeble than you expected, and the whole population has more needs that you can handle.
(I have countless nursing stories to back up the fact that not all elderly people are cute nor sage like Morrie. We as a society as a whole tend to love them with a humanitarian love. You try wrestling an 80-something year old grandma who turns into a gremlin when she sundowns from her dementia. That humanitarian love crumbles preeeeeeetty quickly and has been a challenging place for me personally to learn Christian love. This New Yorker article is good commentary on our stereotyped thoughts on aging. Anyway, I digress.)
Even if our love begins as utilitarian, romantic, democratic, or humanitarian, we are commanded to Christian love.
We do not have to be best buddies with everyone, though. Again, that’s impossible. Despite not being best buddies with every person, Jesus loved and loves every single human person perfectly in heaven and in His time on earth.
Loving someone with Christian love does not necessarily mean having a traditional unconditional relationship. It’s being open to the opportunities for authentic connection and genuine Christian love around you. That might be smiling at the post man, waiting patiently in line at the grocery store, complimenting someone you dislike, etc. etc. Jesus often stopped during in His ministry to encounter those around Him. Just on the way to the cross, He stopped to comfort the weeping women. If Jesus can stop to comfort the mourning while carrying a heavy wooden cross, being beaten by soldiers, and slowly hemorrhaging out, surely I can muster a smile as I wash the dishes after a long day at work.
Let’s keep in mind: if God forbid, you’re in a verbally, emotionally, or physically abusive relationship, you do not have to stay nor tolerate the abuse. It is not OK, it is not normal, and most importantly it is not what your Heavenly Father desires for you. Keep in mind that Jesus left hostile situations throughout His ministry when the Pharisees and their various posse tried to kill Him. You can too. You are asked to love said abusive person via forgiveness, but even in scientific definitions of forgiveness you are not required to be in contact with the person. (For further reading, try Dr. Robert Enright who has pioneered the study of forgiveness). When in doubt, ask those you love and trust if something in that relationship seems wrong and accept what they say with an open heart and mind, knowing everything they say is being said out of love for you.
My prayer for you, dear reader is this: May you know in every fiber of your being that you are infinitely loved both in heaven and on earth. May you model your love on the unconditional love of Christ. And may Our Heavenly Father give us all the peace to accept the relationships we cannot change and give those relationships into His Ever-Loving Hands, the courage to love more when we are tempted to love less, and the wisdom to know the difference.