Recently, a pastor posted an article about how he would treat his kids if they turned out to be gay. His four promises to them were: he won’t keep his kids’ sexuality a secret, he’ll pray for them (but not for God to change them), he’ll love them, and he accepts that if they turn out to be gay, they are gay already. He never once mentioned either how God feels about homosexuality or that he would try to help his kids to restrain their behavior. One friend of mine commented that the man demonstrated unconditional love like Jesus had for everyone he met. When I read through this short piece, by a fellow pastor, I kept waiting for the twist at the end, but it never came. Of course, in this short sample of his thought, it is hard for me to discern what he thinks about the subject at large. It seems like he knows that the Bible condemns homosexual sex, yet he, himself, believes it is not wrong. If this is the case, then he is simply a non-biblical Christian or a liberal Christian—someone who takes some of what the Bible says while ignoring other parts with which he or she disagrees. Another possibility is that he really does believe the Bible is right but thinks the best course of action is to love the sinner unconditionally, regardless of the sin. I want to assume that this is the case for my purposes here, and put some thought into the question of what unconditional love is and whether or not it should have any limits.
Honestly, I’ve never been too comfortable with the phrase “unconditional love” because I can’t find it in the Bible. In fact, the word “unconditional” doesn’t make a single appearance in any of the versions I own. So, where does this idea come from, and what does it mean? One thought ably expressed by one mega-pastor in a sermon I attended in New York City is that “You can smoke anything that can be smoked, and God will still love you.” He continued, “You can sleep with all of Brooklyn, and God will still love you.” Perhaps he based this idea on the oft quoted text, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16), which he must have thought meant God loves people no matter what. I have to admit, there is an incredible attractiveness to this idea. No matter what I do, God still loves me. I like the sound of that. It’s an idea that finds expression in many contemporary worship songs. Even so, is this really true? Is this really what the Bible teaches? The simple fact is that God is not only a loving Father, but He is also a just judge whose job it is to punish wickedness. This is why He sent a flood to wipe out humanity in the time of Noah, why He obliterated Sodom and Gomorrah, and why He sent the Israelites to eliminate the Canaanites. Yes, God is love, but He is also “holy, holy, holy” (Isaiah 6:3)—the one who will judge every person who has ever lived. According to Jesus, most of these people will suffer the ignominious end of a fiery hell resulting in the extinction of both body and soul (Matthew 7:13-14; 10:28). Furthermore, the Bible is abundantly clear that sinful behavior is precisely what will exclude someone from God’s love on judgment day. For example, consider these texts:
1 Corinthians 6:9-10
9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.
19 Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, 21 envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
5 For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.
7 “He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. 8 “But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
These four Scriptures make crystal clear that God takes our behavior very seriously. After reading these verses, I cannot help but balk at the statement that God’s love for me is unconditional. It sure seems like there are conditions. Now it is true that regardless of what I’ve done in the past, I can find forgiveness from sin if I cry out to Him in genuine repentance. Yet, once God has delivered me from something, I need to continue in that salvation instead of going back to the old way like a dog returning to its vomit. “For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment handed on to them” (2 Peter 2:21). In this case, the last state is even worse than the first (2 Peter 2:20).
Unlike God, we are not called upon to administrate cosmic justice. In fact, I believe God does call us to love others unconditionally. I base this on the saying of Jesus, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27). If we are to love not only our friends and family, but also our enemies, then it sure sounds like God calls us to love people unconditionally. In other words, people’s behavior does not determine whether we love them. This brings us to the next question, “What is love?” Is it merely being considerate to people, helping them when they are in need, and generally being nice to them? In order to answer this, let’s consider two hypotheticals: sawing off someone’s leg and depriving a child of play time. In the first case, most people would probably say it is exceedingly unloving to maim someone. However, if it is because gangrene has infected the limb and will indubitably cause death without an amputation, then suddenly it does seem loving. In the second case, depriving a child of playing on the trampoline may seem unloving. After all, jumping is wholesome fun and good exercise to boot. Nevertheless, if I tell my child he cannot play until he finishes his homework, then I’m actually training him in the virtue of delayed gratification, which will help him greatly in life. In both of these scenarios, the act seems mean or unloving until we grasp the scope of the situation. The person who causes physical or emotional pain is actually demonstrating love because he is acting for that person’s good (and not just the good of that fleeting moment, but his or her ultimate good). It would be good for my son to jump on a trampoline, but not if that means he neglects homework. It would be good for someone to have two legs, but not if keeping the infected one will kill him or her.
This really brings us to the nub of the whole issue. Sometimes a great chasm lies between being nice to people and genuinely loving them. Niceness has its place, and as children of God, we should default to kindness; however, that is not the end of the story. Let’s return now to the example of the pastor who wants to love his potentially gay children unconditionally. If the Bible’s statement that “neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals…will inherit the kingdom of God” is true, then this would have massive consequences on what this pastor should decide to do. If he plans merely to be nice to his children without ever trying to help them to live without committing homosexual sins, then he is not demonstrating love to them. True love is doing what’s best for someone else even when it hurts, when it causes pain, or when it puts the relationship in jeopardy. What would he rather have: children who fight their temptations and choose celibacy so they can serve God or children who embrace a behavior resulting in the loss of eternal life? Even if his children completely rejected his counsel and would not have anything to do with him, this would not change the fact that he truly loved them. On judgment day, they would not cry out to him from the flames through clenched teeth, “Why didn’t you tell me? You were a pastor; you knew we were wrong, and you comforted us in our sin rather than telling us the truth!” Such a chilling scene helps us gain clarity on what true love is.
Let us consider the example of Jesus himself. Many times we find him reaching out to the needy in tender compassion. He touched the leper; he defended the woman who washed his feet; he hung out with the chief tax collector. When his disciples tried to shoo away the children, he rebuked them and embraced the children who wanted to come to him. Kindness permeated his ministry. At the same time, he often engaged in tough love. He called the Pharisees “blind fools” (Matthew 23:17); he reproved Peter with the words, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23); he overturned the tables of the money changers. In these cases, was Jesus playing the hypocrite? Did he neglect to practice what he preached about loving his enemies? I don’t think so. Jesus was expressing love toward these people. Sometimes, the best course of action is confrontation. If someone was lulled to sleep with the deceitfulness of self-righteous religiosity or some other sin, Jesus had no problem sounding the wakeup call. Those who responded, like Peter, found forgiveness and restoration; those who did not, like many of the Pharisees, will lose out on the Kingdom of God on judgment day.
Sadly, what passes for love today is only surface level. Jesus said, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matthew 5:46). This is the most shallow and easiest kind of love. It merely reciprocates. However, Christian love, the love Jesus called his followers to practice, is so much deeper. We are to express love even if we do not like the people, even when they threaten to end the relationship, even if it causes them pain in the short run. This true love is what Jesus expressed at all times, and it is precisely the kind of unconditional love God calls us to exude day in and day out. May God equip and strengthen us to love others regardless of their behavior but to adjust how we demonstrate love so that it matches the need of the moment.