Radio talk-show host Dennis Prager recently wrote a column about some thoughts he had on the subject of love (see here). Two of his points stood out to me:
3. That is one reason the notion of “unconditional love” is foolish. The fact is, we all earn love, and it is a good thing to have to do so. What possible good purpose can the belief that your spouse loves you unconditionally — i.e., no matter how you act — serve? If we believe our spouse loves us no matter what we do, what would motivate us to be on our best behavior at all times? Why be kind even when we are in a foul mood? Why work to stay attractive if he will love me no matter how much I neglect how I look? Why continue to pay attention to her — like regularly calling her from work — if I know that even if I ignore her, she will continue to love me?
Unconditional love is not a good idea. I don’t know where it originated, but I am quite certain it’s relatively recent, a product of an age that has put primary importance on feelings. With the possible exception of a parent’s love for a young child, unconditional love is not a good idea among people, and it’s probably not a good idea concerning God’s love for us. I am familiar with no biblical basis for the notion that God loves us no matter how much cruelty and evil we engage in (God’s love of His Chosen People, Israel, is specifically depicted as conditional upon Israel’s behavior), or for the notion that God loved Adolf Hitler and Mother Teresa equally. Frankly, I would be disappointed in such a God. It renders Him a love machine whose love cannot be affected by our behavior, not a loving being who is affected by how we act. It renders His love amoral. And it prevents us from growing up.
4. “God is love” is a half-truth. God is many things, and love is only one of them. One can just as accurately say “God is punishment” or “God is justice” or “God is truth.”
Certainly, Dennis brings a Jewish perspective on God’s love. But what about that? Do we need to alter or expand our Christian perspective of God’s love given Dennis’ perspective?
Well, this past week I was at a Christian conference and heard two ministers say something that pertains to this topic. First was a lady from Costa Rica who is now a Canadian citizen and assists the government of Canada in negotiations with other governments.
One time when she was in Brazil she had to meet an important judge in the Amazon region. When he came into the room where she was, everybody bowed in his presence in a way that showed great respect. When she told him she needed the help of another official who had put off meeting with her, the judge walked to the man’s office, who upon seeing the judge bowed down and immediately agreed to give the woman whatever assistance she needed. Everywhere she went with the judge, doors were opened, people moved out of the way and bowed down. When they determined that the laws of Canada and Brazil conflicted preventing the project she was negotiating from going forward, the judge simply declared that he would order the laws of Brazil to be changed.
The lady said that God impressed upon her that He wanted her to meet this judge for a reason. We seldom see a true sovereign ruler on Earth, and with our Western mindsets we just don’t grasp what it means to be sovereign. God was telling her that she needed to realize that He is not just a loving Father God, He is also a ruling sovereign judge and king.
This was an important lesson for her because of what she related next.
She said her 11-year old daughter suffered a seizure one day. They rushed her to the hospital but they couldn’t stop the seizures that lasted over an hour and a half. At the end the doctor told her that one of the worst possible things had occurred and her daughter had contracted cerebral palsy. Having had a relative with that, she could clearly recognize the familiar appearance on her own daughter.
But she said she had just been to a church retreat where they spoke a lot on the love of God and how much He is a loving Father. For whatever reason, she simply couldn’t shake the feeling of how much God loved her and she couldn’t stop smiling — even in the face of the tragedy of her daughter.
The doctor thought she had snapped and stopped talking to her. But she kept feeling God’s love and so she prayed that God would heal her daughter. By the next day, all signs of the palsy left. The doctor was so surprised that he ran lots of tests until he was convinced she really was back to normal. He kept saying how he couldn’t get over what had happened and he took pictures of the girl because it so impressed him.
The mother said she asked God why He had put her through that horrific experience and she said God impressed on her that He had been drawing the doctor to know Him, but the doctor had a block. So, God used her daughter to help the doctor see that there is a real God.
Now would a loving Father do such a thing? No. But a sovereign God would.
And that’s the point. Christians too often constrict God to a God that can only function as a loving Father. But of course He is more than that.
The second minister I heard at the conference is a pastor from Indonesia who now lives in California. He mentioned that when Bible translators begin on a new language they almost invariably begin with John 3:16 and then proceed to the story of the prodigal son. And isn’t the story of the prodigal son one of the central pictures we have of God’s amazing love for us — no matter what we’ve done?
Now, there is a condition in that story. The prodigal son had to return to the father.
But the prodigal son had it right. After what he had done, he no longer deserved to called a son. Justice demanded that his son-ship be forfeited. But there is something greater than justice and that is God’s mercy.
The prodigal son did not merit mercy. The mercy was solely a gift of the father’s heart of love for his son.
We can walk away from God’s love. We can leave on our own accord and end up in desolation. But even at our lowest point, we have the option to make a choice, the choice to return to the Father. It is when we chose to return that He sees us from afar and runs out to meet us not even giving us the chance to confess what justice says about us. God’s love outruns His justice. His love calls for dignity to be restored to us — a ring on our finger, a robe to cover us and sandals to shod our feet. His love calls for a celebration, a party, a feast.
But wait. Look, for somebody isn’t too happy with all this love and mercy.
Somebody has been living his whole life doing what is right, being good, doing what the law instructs he should do. And what has he gained for all this? Has the father given him even a goat, let alone the fatted calf?
The father entreats him to come in and join in the celebration for the one who was lost but is now found, the one who was dead but is now alive.
But he doesn’t even want to call the prodigal his brother. He is angry and doesn’t share the father’s heart. In fact, for all his obedience to the father’s commands, he doesn’t seem to even want to be with the father. He seeks feast and merriment with his own friends — apparently apart from the father.
Now, who do you think the father loves more? Or does he love his sons equally?
In one sense the father’s love is equal for his two sons, but in another sense his heart has clearly been gladden by the one who finally made a choice to return, and his heart is torn by the one who while being obedient and living in the house, hasn’t chosen to share the father’s joy, or heart of mercy.
For me, the obedient son represents the Jewish Pharisees. Obedient for sure, but not ones who move the father’s heart. The prodigal son represents all those who have fallen short, and especially gentiles like us. We have squandered our inheritance — our gifts and the resources He has granted us. We have lived outside the law — living the way we saw fit. We have become lost and dead — deadened even to our plight.
And yet one day we wake up, come to our senses and say it would be better to be God’s slave than to live in our misery. And so we chose to return and to our utter amazement God has been watching and waiting for us. He takes us in as if we have always been his children. He gives us more than what even the obedient son has come to expect.
And it’s all because we come to our senses and return. And from that perspective we are able to see what the obedient son cannot. We have the gift of seeing God’s rich mercy and grace. And it changes us.
Suddenly that’s all we talk about. His love has been so great that we see little else. It’s our hope. It’s our marvel. It’s why we know we can trust and believe in Him.
And yet He remains sovereign. He remains a God of justice — a God to be feared — exactly the Father the obedient son knew.
Could it be that the perspective of both sons are needed? Could it be that we (Jew and Christian) have been looking at two sides of the same coin? Could it be that His justice can only be understood when we see His mercy — and His mercy can only be understood when we see His justice?
Unconditional love? Not exactly for the prodigal had to return, he had to come to his senses. But God’s ability to forgive and restore relationship is incomparable.
“God is love” a half-truth? Well, for me God’s love is what BOTH His justice and mercy flow out of. It is the basis that makes both work as one. It is His essence. And yet His sovereignty means He is not bound by what we think that love will look like.
The obedient son didn’t think the Father should show the amount of mercy He did. Neither did the prodigal. They were both wrong. It seems nobody really comprehends the heart of the Father or the richness of His mercy. But at least the prodigal experienced it — and that opened his mind to what the obedient son couldn’t get his heart or mind around.
Not only were both sons wrong about the Father’s mercy. They were both wrong about His sovereignty. Both thought justice would demand the Father behave differently. But again, the Father is not bound by our conception of justice. He is sovereign. Truly sovereign.
And full of love. Thank God.
What is your perspective? I’d love to hear!