Meatloaf, The Myth of Unconditional Love, and Covenants

I often hear the term “unconditional love” used to describe relationships with loved ones. You hear it at weddings. Yep, because we all know marriages in America equal unconditional love….

It is certainly a comforting thought isn’t it: to rest in the fact that your loved one will love you no matter what you do? Or that you will love your loved one, no matter what they do to you. Makes you feel good about yourself.

But just as the Spaniard from The Princess Bride said to the man who use overused the word inconceivable again and again, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means,” so do we with “unconditional.” Again it sounds nice, and it gives that warm fuzzy feeling that we all like, but is full unconditional love exactly what we share with our loved ones: our kids, our spouses, parents, our closes friends, pals and confidants (hopefully you got the “Golden Girls” allusion)? I don’t think it is. And I’ll explain why I think that term used to describe our earthly relationships is inaccurate at best and takes Christ out of the equation at worst.

There are conditions on how we ultimately love

Think about what the word “unconditional” really means when it is used to describe “love.” Do you really think that your love for someone else or their love for you has no conditions? 

Maybe I watch too many Dateline and 48 Hours Mystery murder specials where the spouse is ALWAYS guilty.  But without getting too morbid, do you really think your loved one’s would love you back if you regularly sought bodily harm to come to them? If you ordered a “hit” on them? If you abused them or neglected them?

I can think of several conditions that would stop me from loving, at least, in the same way.

Is Meat Loaf the only one who in essence says, “I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that?” Conditions….

At some point the person, because he/she has met terrible conditions, may move from the brother/neighbor/spouse category to the enemy category. Love would still be commanded, but it would look incredibly different.
There are FEW biblical conditions which allow us to not show marital love

Jesus only really gives one in Matthew 19: sexual infidelity. Paul gives one in I Corinthians 7:15 commonly referred to as “desertion of unbelieving spouse.” Some folks, myself included, put abuse in that category. 

Sometimes parties can work through these issues, and if both can, and are willing to, it’s beautiful. But the fact Jesus gives FEW conditions, should alert us to recognize that our love (given/received) isn’t expected to be unconditional in the strictest sense of the world.

There are conditions on how we temporally love. 

These are not conditions Jesus gives us. These spring not from scripture but from an honest recognition of our own sinful nature. I don’t unconditionally love my wife everyday. I really don’t think I do. You may think you have the best spouse, but I would disagree strongly. I do.

But to say I love the best spouse every day without conditions is incredibly arrogant. I think your everyday love for your spouse or kids has temporary conditions. How well you love is sometimes due to these conditions. If your wife has been nagging or running up credit card debt, or kid has broken out all windows of house, or husband has watched football all day, won’t help around house, told you that you looked ugly, you will struggle at that moment to love them. Let’s be honest, you might take a “love break” and yell. But let’s be honest, you didn’t love well and it was because of a condition.

Sometimes those conditions will cause a righteous anger at first (meaning you should be angry), but more often than not what that anger does is suspend your love for them temporally, or indefinitely. It is not just these big deal breakers that condition our love, it is the tone of our voice, the quality of the meal, the season of life, the honey-do list, the false expectations, etc…Conditions.

I prefer a more biblical, accurate, honest term that points me upward instead of inward: Covenantal.  

Covenantal love is far better than the fairy tale of “unconditional” love

Covenantal love binds one to the other. This kind of love involves the person saying I’m committed to you whether I feel like it or not (and sometimes I won’t feel like it-it’s real and honest). I choose to love. I may not love you today, or do a very bad job of showing it today, but I’m going to repent and ask the Lord to give me love for you.

Tim Keller differentiates covenantal love from consumerism which is most prevalent in marriages and other relationships today. When I fall out of love (what a crock, it just means that the other person has stopped meeting your emotional needs-you’ve been using them!), I’m out of here. Covenantal love is committed without being perfectionistic. 

Covenantal love points us upward instead of inward

I’m regularly called to love my kids, spouse, parents, those in my congregation. But it is the height of arrogance to say that this is something I do naturally. It is arrogant of me to say, “I love you unconditionally, no matter what, do whatever you want to do to me.” Instead I recognize my covenantal obligations, opportunities and privileges to love. I go back to passages which tell me what love looks like to wife, kids, congregation (Sacrificial-Eph 5:25, not provoking anger-Eph 6:4, and sober-minded II-Tim 4:5). I’m a needy man. I need much help. If you claim to love unconditionally, you probably don’t think you need much help in this area. That’s a pretty big area to not need help since Jesus sums up the Law by saying Love God and Love Others. I don’t look inward for my commitment but upward (Psalm 121).

 Unconditional love is really only something God displays for us

Don’t pretend that you show the same kind of love to your loved ones that God shows to you. No comparison.

In Genesis 15 God makes a covenant (literally to “cut” a covenant) with Abraham but he does not require him to walk through the pieces of the sacrificed animals. Those animals cut in pieces symbolized what would happen if either party broke their covenant obligations. Abraham should have passed through it, but God realized that he wouldn’t uphold his end of the bargain. He didn’t want to have the FULL curses of the covenant to come upon Abraham or his descendents. Except one. Jesus, the descendent of Abraham, takes upon himself the curses of the covenant on behalf of those who by faith look to Him and are then included in this covenant. Jesus therefore pays the “conditions” for us. The failed conditions. Jesus’ love for us is unconditional because he exhausted the punishment for all conditions.

I don’t see how we have a right to describe our love in the same terms as his love for us.

Jesus gives us the indicative/imperative model: we love because he first loved us. Our love is imperfectly modeled and motivated by the perfect model of Christ. Let’s not pretend that we’re really good at this. But if you want to get better, here’s how. The less you look at your performance or lack thereof, and the more you see the Unconditional Love Incarnate, you’ll find conditions limiting and tempering your prove less and less effective.

Young Adults, Sex with "strings," and later marriage: Part II

This is another response to the article from my last post on Christian young adults not connecting sex with marriage, and living no differently than their non-Christian peers. 
The article, as previously mentioned, close with some questions: 
So what should a Christian parent or youth pastor do? How do they convince more young Christians to wait until marriage, or should they stop even trying?
First of all I do like these questions. I especially like the order of parents, and then youth pastors. I look back on my youth ministry days (and I’m still obviously involved in it now), and it does seem that one of the common denominators with those youth who walk with Jesus when they are young adults (and I’ve seen PLENTY who aren’t walking with Jesus now), is that they had Christians parents investing in them. They didn’t “farm” out the discipleship to the youth pastor. Instead they partnered together as a team.
And in this case, I think parents have a great opportunity to help shape a biblical sexuality. More than they think. So talking with kids about sex and sexuality is a good thing. A thing that shouldn’t be abdicated. Even the parents on the show Parenthood try do it, even though the daughter is reticent.
Pastors and other leaders in the church have a part to play as well. Last year we went through a book in a series of Little Black Books called Sex. It was well written, “down with the times,” Reformed, and helpful to produce some discussion in our 9th-12th graders. I think parents could go through such a book as well. It’s important that neither the church nor the parents run away from this issue. Silence and assumption don’t produce mature disciples. Neither does giving youth and young adults “Nike” messages: JUST DO IT! Jesus, and our laboring relentlessly with His energy produces mature disciples (Col 1:28-29). Particularly in this area.
Should we try to convince young adults to wait or stop trying? I think its a fair question to ask. Some things youth do are not necessarily sinful. Instead those things aren’t helpful. Texting 24-7 might be one of those things. But instead of saying NO, we might try to redirect, or instruct, or limit, or whatever you as a parent feel convicted. It does have an affect on their relationships, but its not something that we necessarily need to draw a line in the sand over.
But sex outside marriage is clearly outside God’s design. So we should make a go at “convincing,” them to wait. Here are some thoughts.
1.) If the marrying age is increasing now, then should it be that much of a stretch to think that the “acceptable” dating age should probably also increase? Again, dating ages are ultimately parents decisions. But instead of taking cues from culture, why not consider delaying dating since marriage is being delayed? Many folks, even those in their church, date vicariously though their kids. Obviously parents have to nip this in the bud. If that’s the case, then I think the goal of delaying dating a bit, is certainly feasible.
2.) Earlier marriage? Some have made a move towards getting married younger so that they don’t “burn with passion” (I Cor 7). I guess the jury is still out on whether or not these marriages will really make it. Paul said it was better to marry than burn with passion, but I’m not sure that he was trying to nudge us to necessarily marry early. I wouldn’t want to have put Amy through my prolonged serious depression years (she still got to experience some-she’s a real trooper), so age 26 seemed to be good for us. However, if couples are ready to actually leave and cleave, then go for it. But on the flip side, while it is better to marry then burn with passion, it is worse to marry and then divorce.
3.) Is later marriage a good thing? While it benefited us to marry at 26 (almost 27), I think our general delaying of marriage as a culture does fuel the pre-marital sex epidemic. Getting married in college, or before, may not be ideal. But waiting until everyone is financially independent, and then waiting to have kids once you are financially ready, is a recipe for disaster. Watch the movie Idiocracy for a possible result to that!
4.) Pre-marital sex does leave scars that you will deal with in your marriage. People will compare experiences. People will bring past physical and emotional experiences into their marriage beds. Youth need to learn this stuff NOW if they will escape this alarming trend when they are young adults. There are consequences to pre-marital sex which go far beyond STD’s that will bring harm into your marriage. Christ’s righteousness means that we have a Christ covered slate, not just a blank slate. But Christ’s righteousness does not level all consequences. God’s grace can curb the consequences of sexual infidelity, and redeem sexually broken folks (which is really all of us if you want to be honest), but there is reason why He says “Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live…(Deut 30:19).” Sin is death.
5.) Church is a place of sexual brokenness. If you mess up sexually, even though you may experience consequences, you can experience grace. If the church expresses grace to sexually active Christians, then there is hope for change. If sexually active young adults don’t feel the church is a place for those struggling sexually, then they won’t be showing up on Sunday. And then there will be no hope for them. They need to hear Jesus preached and applied each week and surround themselves with fellowship. Even if young folks are not broken by their sin, if they are connected to the means of grace (word, prayer, fellowship, sacraments), brokenness is possible. But if they sense a “if you screw up, you’re out,” then those will be the last words we hear.
6.) Sexual infidelity is not THE sin. It’s bad. It’s highlighted here as being a sin against our body (I Cor 6:18). Yet just before it is also counted among swindling, idolatry, greed, drunkenness, and stealing as precluding Kingdom inheritance (I Cor 6:10). Of course Paul is writing to people who are struggling with these sins. He is telling them that their lives WERE dominated by such slavery. Now they are washed free and waiting. And struggling. So we should be frustrated at the sins of others. But we must not elevate or ignore other sins in ourselves and other folks.
7.) Only grace will produce sexual healing and fidelity. Steve Brown includes a great illustration in his book Scandalous Freedom of Abraham Lincoln redeeming a slave. The slave girls says, “I’m free to leave?” Lincoln tells her, “Yes you are.” In the end, the slave wants to go with Lincoln. Experiencing grace makes you want to follow Jesus. Grace motivates and empowers you to follow God’s commands in all areas of life.

These are just some thoughts which I hope will help us think through, instead of run from, or give up, on this important issue.