The need for love is embedded deep in the psychology of the human soul. We all long to find unconditional love and acceptance. But we also sense it’s complicated.
Narcissists and Empaths
Narcissists have extremely low self-esteem, convinced they are unlovable. Love will not come from others, so they have to find a way of giving it to themselves. Their whole life, their emotional survival in this world, depends on the only belief that works for them. They convince themselves that they are amazing. Then they impose this view of themselves on others, and woe betide you if you destroy their illusion.
Empaths also have low self-esteem, but believe that if they are good, nice understanding and always pleasing to others, people will give them the love they crave. Empaths rarely confront others or speak up for themselves for fear of rejection. Deep down, they are fearful and often resentful that their approach does not fill the emptiness within.
Neither of these options come close to unconditional love. Most of us tend towards narcissism or empathy. Taken too far, both these tendencies call for help from an experienced counsellor. Both relational categories are different expressions of the fear that lies in the core of our being – the fear that we are unlovable or deeply incompetent. They focus on performance and projection of self in the hope of attaining and maintaining what ends up as a mere illusion of love.
Agape describes love freely offered and can only be freely received.
The Bible uses a particular word for the love of God. ‘Agape’ is the kind of love which depends entirely on the giver. It bestows love on another who could never be deserving of it. This is why we often call God’s love ‘unconditional’. It is also why people do not immediately embrace it. First, you have to admit that you are entirely undeserving of the love God gives you. The Bible word for this is ‘grace’.
The situation becomes even more confused when you examine beliefs about love both in contemporary culture and in some parts of the Christian community.
The message, “God loves you” is open to misinterpretation. What does it mean in popular culture?
“If God loves me, he will give me what I want, he will never judge me, he will not demand anything from me, but will make my life work for me, the way I want it to. He certainly will not condemn me because I refuse to love him.”
Expressive individuality is the new cultural norm. My freedom to be myself, to follow my own feelings and desires, even if it means I disregard Bible teaching about what is right and wrong.
Some Christians focus on the unconditional love of God. He makes few real demands, certainly not radical demands. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this‘ cheap grace’. But grace is not cheap. It’s absolutely free! Free to us, but it cost God everything. It’s this grace that changes us from the inside out.
Others emphasise the conditionality of God’s love. God will love you if you do the right thing. Only then will he accept you. Brennan Manning, speaks of the shallowness of this point of view. In his book “The Furious Longing of God”, he talks about the life he once lived. He was always among the poor and performed many impressive works of charity. But far from accepting this as praiseworthy, he explains that it was all about trying to earn God’s love. Then, he discovered the free grace of God. And that really changed him. He saw that God does not want good works as a means of gaining his love. Good works are the consequence of a love received not the cause of that love.
How can we resolve this confusion? Is God’s love conditional or unconditional? Perhaps God’s love is both conditional and unconditional, depending on what aspect of his love we are talking about.