What “Unconditional Love” truly means for a Christian

Heart Shaped Tree

This is a post that I have been trying to write for a very long time, but I’ve been seriously struggling with it. I hope that this attempt will finally be successful, or at least move me forward in what I am trying to say! (After writing it, I can tell you it has taken me 6 hours to write this post – actually, no, 7 hours – or at the very least, 6.5! I think I’ve finally expressed what I wanted to say, but I might need to edit it somewhat! After preliminary editing it has come to 8 hours – seriously!!!)

And it’s all about lurve! Well, actually no, it’s actually about love, which is quite different! (And as I write this I realise that Valentine’s Day is only 3 days away!) It just happens to be a coincidence that I am attempting this post just now, so close to Valentine’s Day – yeah anyway!

So. This is what I have been thinking about love for a long time, but struggling to express (I’m sure that once the post is written I will ask myself why exactly I ever struggled to write it!)

People talk a lot about relationships and love, that relationships should be founded on love, about being in love with their partners. I believe that many relationships face problems because what many people hold up as love does not correspond to a true, that is, a biblical understanding of love. I also believe that when you build your relationship on a faulty understanding of love, then that often results in a relationship that will be flawed to some extent.

(As I am writing this, I am suddenly understanding just why I have struggled for so long to write this post!)

What the Bible teaches:
When the Bible talks about love, specifically unconditional love: this is so radical – it is not in relation to marriage at all. Not in the slightest! If you don’t believe me, check out the definitive chapter in the Bible that talks about Agape, that is, the Christian concept of unconditional love: 1 Corinthians Chapter 13 – yeah baby! If you read it through, you will see that marriage is not mentioned once, or any other kind of exclusive relationship between a man and a woman. If you want context, you can also read the preceding chapter, 1 Corinthians 12. There it is talking about the unity of the body of Christ, likening the Church (that is the worldwide population of Christians from the disciples of Christ till the end of the world) to a literal living body, talking about eyes, smelling, hearing etc. Nothing to do with marriage or exclusive romantic relationships at all. And then the following chapter, 1 Corinthians 14 talks about interpreting the Christian phenomenon of speaking in tongues (and yes, I definitely do, thank you very much – that is, speak in tongues!) – and prophesying – which in the Bible sense is more about boldly declaring truth to the church than foretelling the future – so yes I do that too. In all these chapters, nothing whatsoever is mentioned about marriage.

So this is what is so radical about the Bible teaching on “unconditional love”, compared to the way people apparently talk about unconditional love now. Unconditional love is a commitment to grace, kindness, patience, gentleness and lots of other things that you are supposed to demonstrate to ABSOLUTELY EVERYBODY. Not just your spouse. Or your children, or your family, or your friends. Absolutely everybody. That is what makes it truly unconditional. Now this is a Christian doctrine, so admittedly these commandments are targeted towards Christians. However it is undoubtedly from the Bible that the world, in particular the Western world, gets the concept of “unconditional love”. So if the world at large is going to use this Christian doctrine, then I’m just explaining that this is what the Bible actually says.

And yet this is the way most people in my experience tend to talk about unconditional love: “I’ve fallen in love with you so I’m going to offer you unconditional love.” (That in itself makes that “unconditional love” conditional on my being, or remaining, in love with you.) Or something similar. Now of course we should offer unconditional love to our spouses, as we should offer unconditional love to everyone else. And then it is unconditional, but it remains a choice. In that you have to choose whether or not to obey the Bible

However, what this means is that if unconditional love is a constant that you offer to absolutely everyone, then the choice of marriage is not based on “love”. (Perhaps all this might seem to be an issue of semantics, perhaps someone out there is saying well of course I automatically show dignity and kindness and respect to everyone but when I am talking about loving my spouse, I am talking about something that goes beyond that basic respect I show to everyone!)

Here is one thing: love is unconditonal, but marriage is not. Marriage has to be conditional – it just has to be! What this means in practice is this: whether you are in a romantic relationship with an individual or not, whether there is the slightest possibility that you could ever be attracted to them, or consider them romantically, as long as they are a human being you are demonstrating that Biblical level of care and consideration to them. If they are a feasible romantic partner, then while you are investigating them romantically then you carry on acting with grace, gentleness, kindness, patience. If you decide not to go ahead with them romantically, then you communicate that with love as defined in the chapter, and your ongoing interactions with them continue to be defined by gentleness and grace, perhaps through a filter of prudence. If you do go ahead with them then once again gentleness, kindness, patience, grace etc. If for any reason (that is a good, biblically valid reason – eg the Bible does not specifically mention domestic violence but I am absolutely sure that that is a legitimate reason to get out) you have to break a relationship with someone after you have married them then that also needs to be handled with patience and kindness and grace during the process and afterwards. So in this way the relationship that you have with someone might be conditional based on their behaviour but the 1 Corinthians 13 love, or Agape that you show them remains truly unconditional in that it is not dependent on the relationship you have with them. The only proviso I would offer is that pragmatically you might have to temper your loving actions with prudence. Sometimes it might just be prudent not to respond to someone. Or prudence might dictate that you need to cut someone out from your life completely. However you need to constantly check your heart and make sure that your actions are originating from a true determination to grace and kindness and gentleness, not just a feeling of anger and vindictiveness, calling itself “prudence”.

NOT ABOUT FEELINGS!
Because obeying the Bible is a choice, this is not about your feelings! Your feelings will often direct you to different choices. If you are feeling angry, for instance towards your spouse, (or your ex-spouse!), then being kind or gracious or patient might be the last thing that you want to do. But as Christians we often – constantly – have to bring our feelings under control to obey the Bible. So you might think to yourself “This is how I’m feeling! However this is what the Bible says! The Bible is the Word of God – I will obey the Bible!” I think moving forward this will be a helpful exercise for myself: to specifically identify how I am feeling. “This person did this. The way they acted makes me feel like this. However, this is what the Bible says: “love, forgive”” (Reminding myself: “Tosin, you of all people know that this is unconditional, because you’ve just written a very long preachy post about it!”) “So what am I going to do?! How am I going to treat this?! I am going to obey my God and obey His Bible, and I am going to love and forgive!”

As a result of writing this post, I am going to have to take some serious time to deal with my own heart, to realign my own behaviour with this Christian doctrine of Agape.

CONDITIONS OF MARRIAGE
I’ve just said that marriage is conditional, but it is also unconditional, once you are married. As Christians once we are married, we are to stay married. However that is not technically about unconditional love, although it must surely be related. It is more about marriage being a covenant and symbolic of the love between the members of the Godhead and also between Christ and His Church. As Christians our marriages are not merely contracts, rather they are covenants, unbreakable expressions of eternal commitment as God Himself made to His people throughout the generations. Wow. When God was making His covenants with the Children of Israel He would talk about thousands of years, and thousands of generations: Psalm 105:8:

He remembers His covenant forever,
The word which He commanded, for a thousand generations,

Not merely a thousand years but even a thousand generations (of people)! Those covenants are still in force today! 2000 years after Christ walked the earth, The Jewish people are still God’s special people, even with the advent of the Church. (Sadly, the Church has often gotten this wrong, thinking that we have replaced the Jewish people. We haven’t! As the Apostle Paul says in Romans Chapter 11, we as the Church have been grafted into the olive tree of Israel, but it remains their tree!) That is how powerful and unbreakable God’s divine covenants are. But even with that, God still made biblical provisions for times when marriages might need to be broken. But largely, the Biblical model is that once you get married, you stay married.

This then, is how marriage is conditional: in making the choice to get married in the first place. And these are the kind of factors that are legitimate to consider: the kind of factors that everyone chooses anyway! Are we compatible in terms of age, outlook, values etc? Are we close, are are friends, are we going in the same direction? I believe that what many people mean when they talk of love in a romantic sense is sexual attraction and desire which believe me, will be very important in my own marriage! Besides that I believe that the other major component of love the way many people talk about it is this: I deeply value who you are, and what you stand for. You are worth a lot to me, I think that you are deeply precious, even beyond the deep fundamental value that all human beings have. And that is also important too! I believe that all these things are extremely important and to be candid these are the kinds of things that people seem to consider anyway in marriage.

And yet. The reason why I have written this post and even wanted to write this post for so long is relating to what I am going to discuss next.
There are three aspects to this:

1. Needing to “win your love” to get decent behaviour
This topic can be a bit confusing because the term “love” can cover a range of different things. I don’t know whether as human beings we confuse ourselves because we use the one word to describe at least two distinct things.
Some people, including too many Christians, seem to act this way: that I have to “win your love” – that is, I have to prove to you that I am a deeply valuable person, or prove to you the way I live my life corresponds very closely with your fundamental values before you will treat me with basic respect, kindness or dignity – that is the agape that anyone should be able to expect from you as a Christian. So if you are failing to treat me with agape, it must be because there is a failing on my part, that I have not worked hard enough to win your respect or something else from you. But remember that the whole point of agape is that it unconditional for absolutely everyone. So technically I do not have to win it. I do not have to “prove myself”. Now there is definitely a place for winning respect, of course there is, but that tends towards deeper human relationships. If I have to do anything to win basic human dignity from you, to get some kindness, some patience, some grace – then you don’t get it. You simply don’t get it. “It” meaning the very simplest and most basic Bible teaching.

So for instance, of course Christians should be kind and sympathetic to refugees. For the mere reason that refugees are fellow human beings! (As it happens, the Bible has a very soft spot for refugees – because God Himself does!) That does not mean that you need to allow everyone into your country. Perhaps some people will need to be sent back. But the question of whether or not to send them back is not what I am discussing here! What I am saying is in the interaction with them, whether or not they will eventually need to be sent back, or alternative arrangements will need to be made, treat them with kindness, gentleness, compassion, as if they were human beings, because they are! If they are hungry, which they will be, after crossing the ocean for two days, give them food! Even the poorest country can afford this, and I know the UK certainly can! Don’t just sit there and watch people drown, when you can prevent it! And have some empathy for the situations that people are fleeing from. Imagine how you would feel if you were going through that. Imagine the immense frustration, the fear, the horrors that people have experienced.

So when you hear supposed Christians venting spleen against refugees, talking about them as if they were subhuman – then you know that at the very least, this supposed Christian doesn’t get it. In fact I would go so far as to say that this supposed Christian is so ignorant of basic Christian teaching as to not actually qualify as a Christian. If you like jump up and down until the second coming of Christ because your jumping up is probably the closest you will get to Heaven! It is deeply frowned upon to tell someone that their faith is invalid because that is being judgemental which you are not supposed to be as Christian, but let me be candid with you, someone like this is simply not a Christian, no matter what other doctrinal excellence they might demonstrate.

And guess what, to prove my point 1 Corinthians 13 literally says in the first 3 verses “If you don’t know this, if you can’t get this as a Christian, you don’t know nothing!” Actually it says “you are nothing”. It is so fundamental to the Christian gospel. It is just like when Christians fail to grasp that absolutely everyone has an extremely high value in the sight of God which is also an utterly fundamental Christian doctrine. If you purport to be a Christian but you don’t know this, then trust me, you’ve missed the entire message of the Bible.

And it is not just refugees, of course. We’re also talking about homeless people, people living in poverty, disabled people, people of different ethnicities, people who experience hardships through no fault of their own AND people who are fully responsible for the hardships that they have endured! And then of course also people who do have money and who are living comfortably, or who are in a position of relative power. But of course, society tends to automatically look favourably who are in a position of financial comfort or power, and they can often use their own existing resources to get what they need, so they tend to need less external help.

[To be honest Tosin this all sounds a little left-wing! I’m really sorry to break it to you, but because God cares about everyone, with a huge emphasis on poor and disadvantaged people then the Bible is automatically left-wing – Sorry! I don’t want to automatically write off the faith of people who might disagree with me, (at least not in this instance!) so what I would ask you to do is to read the Bible with an open heart, and with a sincere commitment to humility. I would ask you to read the Bible to see what it actually says, not what you expect it to say. And then I challenge you to come back to me and tell me that I am wrong. Does not even common-sense dictate that if there is a loving God out there then of course He must care about the poor?!!! But I digress!]

But it is not just about the relative financial or societal privilege that people might or might not have. I have personally been in situations where people, usually male, seemed to suggest that the reason why they have treated me with disrespect is because I have failed to win their respect. And this has often been when I have deeply invested myself to treat them with respect. And I can’t help thinking that for many of these men, they equate “treating a woman with basic respect” with “falling in love with her” so that if a woman has won their romantic love, then yes, they will be kind, and patient, and everything else, but if she has not won their love, then they feel entitled to treat her anyhow they wish. And then the way that many people (men) talk about love seems to reflect this. I’ve had men say to me before “Tosin, I know you are not the type of girl….” And I think to myself : “No-one is “that type of girl!” Every single woman you meet should be treated with utmost respect, no matter what kind of past she may have had, whatever mistakes she may or may not have made, how her life choices or circumstances may be viewed by society!” But I don’t tend to say that out loud, it just helps me to understand a bit more about the man talking; after such statements I tend to give those men a very wide berth. If as a Christian, you behave this way: that the reason you don’t treat me with respect or dignity or kindness is because I have not “won your [whatever you think you have that is available to be won: love, respect etc]”, then trust me you don’t know nothing. Regardless of romantic feelings.

Or you get men who seem to suggest that because their feelings are sincere then they are not going to give you the run-around, or try to use you, sexually or otherwise. The implication being that if their feelings were not sincere then they would be more than happy to give you the run-around, or to use you, and they would feel completely entitled or justified in doing so. This does not tend to be directed towards me, but I tend to pick up this drift from what I read online, from discussions with guys, some Christians, some not Christians, what they laugh at, the punchlines to their guy “in-jokes”.

Sometimes, even supposed Christians have told me: “Tosin, I’m a guy!” as if that is supposed to justify everything. And then they actually do try to use it to justify everything, from beating their wives – seriously – Christians I tell you! – to cheating on their wives or girlfriends, to sexually using someone before marriage without any intention of getting married. Let’s be pragmatic. The Bible categorically says that sex should be reserved for marriage, Hebrews 13:4. And yet we know that Christians are human beings so they we can get carried away and start enjoying one another sexually prematurely, that is, before marriage. When we are talking about two people who are heading towards marriage, then you can think well, at least they will eventually get married. Who knows, and frankly who cares, what percentage of Christian couples may have nibbled a little at the forbidden fruit before marriage?* Many of us, emphatically including myself, (despite my sincere determination for sexual purity and relentless carefulness around men) have broken sexuality and all the mistakes we make are between us and God, and we all have to depend on God for cleansing. I don’t know about you but I am definitely not in a position to be pointing fingers at anyone else sexually.
As an aside I remember once when I went to a Christian musical gathering, full of young, attractive, well dressed Christians, many of them single. And the place was literally pulsating with young, vibrant energy. And I simultaneously thought to myself, and asked myself a question: “Hmm!…?!” (If you don’t get what I’m trying to say there, I don’t want to spell it out!)

BUT. There is a difference between failing to live up to God’s standards and our own, and deliberately, shamelessly pursuing what God has categorically told us is sin.

And to think that some supposedly Christian men deliberately pursue pre-marital sex, so it is not a matter of accidentally falling into it; leading women on sexually with promises of marriage that they have no intention whatsoever of fulfilling. And then if the woman were to get pregnant, then they would just leave her by herself, just like that, to deal with everything, even to the point of becoming a single mother. And then they wouldn’t even provide for their babies! And these men even call themselves Christians. Some of these men even call themselves pastors! Seriously?!

Candidly speaking, we know that for some men, if the women they were sleeping with were to get pregnant, even if they did not previously have serious intentions of marriage, still they would do the time-honoured “decent thing”, they would marry these women, they would provide for their new families. For other men, even if they chose not to marry the women concerned or they could not marry them for instance because they as men were already married to other people, they would at least have the decency to provide for the chilren that they have conceived, and ideally too the mothers of these children.

For these men at least we can be grateful (as long as they would be reasonably decent husbands and/or fathers). But to think that so many don’t?! To be fair I don’t have any statistics which I can reel off, but just knowing what I know of churches and “Christians” I’m sure that the number of men who “don’t” must be significant.

2. How many people act when they are no longer “in love”
This for me is something that demonstrates the points I have made in the previous section. I read so many articles on relationships: In truth, I read so many articles on pretty much everything. At the moment Coronavirus and climate change are right up there with relationships, also the fact that many ordinary people are struggling with in-work poverty. Oh, who am I trying to kid?! I read pretty much any article I can find online on pretty much any subject! As long as the headline seems vaguely interesting, of course. Man, paywalls are my enemy cough – Telegraph! (Actually… I’ve just done a trawl of my usual websites, and it is actually more like 1% of available articles that I read, which of course is very different to 100%. But to me it still feels like loads!) But my point is that I often read about relationships that have gone wrong, and what happens in the aftermath of a broken relationship. And I am unfailingly amazed, negatively, at the way so many spouses behave when they decide that they no longer want to be married to one another – especially if there is a lot of money at stake. Many ordinary couples,and by ordinary I mean people of average income, when they are divorcing, seem to go out of their way to be gracious and considerate towards one another, and to make sure that their children maintain a positive view of their ex-partner, and they co-parent, and they are supportive of one another’s new partners and lifestyles and it is generally really impressive.
The cutest stories, though they are rare, are those ones where the ex-spouses get on so well after divorce that they eventually get back together. But those stories tend to be the stories of ordinary people.

And yet it seems that when there is the slightest whiff of any significant wealth all human consideration seems to fly out of the nearest window. The pettiness that rich people seem capable of demonstrating to their ex-spouses is beyond belief. In many of these cases of course the financially stronger spouse will be the husband. It always seems that their overriding determination is to make sure that their ex-wives end up with as little of their wealth as possible. Preferably nothing whatsoever. Seriously?! We’re often talking about men who are extremely wealthy, who can definitely afford to give their ex-wives a couple of million (pounds or dollars or whatever), even in some cases tens of millions, without it making the slightest significant dent in their own extreme wealth. And yet they often seem to begrudge them even that.

And here is the unbelievable kicker: this seems to hold true even where there are young children involved. Some men who are multimillionaires, even billionaires, would apparently prefer to watch their own children growing up penniless – literally penniless, on benefits – just for the sake of spiting their ex-wives. No matter how much you may have grown to hate this woman, as a father would you not say “Just for the sake of my children, give her a few million pounds”?! So often I read these stories and I am left utterly dumbfounded, gasping out loud for shock – even Christians are not that bad!

And invariably I will think to myself “So what happened to all the love that you were professing for this woman?” The endless serenades, the exquisite vacations, the beautiful gifts, the expensive jewellery. Admittedly there are of course many (many many many) things that could have gone wrong in a marriage. Undoubtedly in many cases, the anger felt will be legitimate or understandable. Many men may be totally justified in thinking that their wives never had any real consideration for them, but simply used them for their wealth. So I do have to acknowledge that someone’s disaster of a marriage leading to a catastrophically bitter divorce is not necessarily indicative of the basic human consideration that he might ordinarily show people. Some of these men may genuinely be the loveliest, kindest most gracious and compassionate people, ordinarily speaking, and perhaps they just went through hell in their marriage and their wealth is the one thing that they have that they can use to retaliate. And that is so human. Surely any of us can empathise with that. And the same is true of women too. It just occurs to me now that this is not just about divorce battles. How about those stories of siblings who are battling for parts of their parents’ estate, and some siblings will literally want to claim every last penny for themselves and leave their siblings with absolutely nothing. And those stories which to me are beyond belief – beyond even gasping – where grown up children are battling against their own parents and would literally throw their own elderly, frail parents out onto the streets. To be homeless and penniless. And it appears that where women are the ones with the power, women too can be just as heartless as men.

What I am trying to say is this: on one hand, in many cases, if we were sufficiently well-informed of what was happening in each case, we might be able to look into these cases, whether they involve bitter divorces or relatives arguing over family estates, and empathise with the people who initially may have appeared to be heartless. But in many other cases even if we were to know all the facts of the case we just cannot conclude that this person is anything other than a heartless brute.

All of these cases might concern the souring of love in some way or another. However I would like to take the focus back to divorce cases as this is the one instance where both parties should have chosen one another mutually and freely. So in those cases, where you have people who have irrefutably behaved terribly, I think we can conclude that for many of those people, the initial kindness that they showed towards their spouse was conditional on their romantic feelings, so that when the feelings evaporated, so did the basic kindness and human decency. And while some wealthy men involved in bitter divorce battles might be genuinely lovely, I am confident that many such men are not lovely. The Bible says “ruthless men retain riches”. (But a gracious woman retains honour – natch!) – Proverbs 11:16. Let’s be candid and pragmatic. I am sure that for many wealthy men the way they got rich in the first place was by sheer ruthlessness, trampling over other people, willfully ignoring the dignity of other people in their determination to “win”. Would it be such a surprise then if such a person acted with that exact same ruthlessness towards his ex-wife when he decides he no longer wants her, or when she has the audacity to leave him, sometimes even letting that be extended towards his own children?

And these are often the people that other people, even Christians, hold up as exemplars of “success”. No. Just no. No matter how much money they have accumulated. This is not success on God’s terms.

3. A man who gets all this:
It is an extremely important criterion for me in choosing my husband to make sure I marry someone who “gets” all this. Remember that a “Christian” who does not get this is to all intents and purposes actually not a Christian at all. There is a difference between people who don’t get it at all, and people like me who do get it but might be struggling to implement it, perhaps because of legitimate anger. Please, please take my word for it that most so many Christians I have met don’t get this at all. Which means that most so many “Christians” to all intents and purposes are not actually Christians, and therefore can be disregarded for marital purposes. Because sincere Christians are so rare – long story short, I am a little scared of saying this out loud because it seems so momentous but all the same I am starting to taunt myself with the possibility that I might know who my husband is to be. I need to pray so much regarding this. I am the kind of person who wants God to confirm with utterly unmistakable signs. And you know, I have kinda made an idiot of myself a number of times in the past. (She laughs happily, naughtily, remembering her own unbelievable boldness!) And while I defiantly maintain that I stand by all my actions and I am proud of everything I’ve done, I really do not want to make an idiot of myself this time, and I simply cannot afford to be wrong about this individual! I cannot even begin to express to you how much I cannot afford to be wrong!

So I really really need to pray, like I’ve never previously prayed before in my life. I pray that God would very quickly show me whether I am completely wrong so I don’t unnecessarily waste my time. And if I am completely wrong -then man, I just feel completely exasperated at that thought. These thoughts of marriage and whom to marry – or not – consume so much energy that after investing all this effort in prayer to find out whether this individual could be “the One”, if it is not to be him after all, I would rather just take a break from thinking and praying about it, beyond writing for this blog and focus on other things for a month or two. But on the other hand, if in the biggest miracle of my life after ongoing salvation, (where my life has already encountered so many miracles,) it did turn out to be him, even if it turned out that he could be the one, I would sincerely be beyond ecstatic – as well as feeling like the biggest idiot on earth – no exaggeration!

[[[[If you still think that all this is a matter of semantics, then can I invite you to do Tosin’s Week of Love Challenge? OK, let’s call it Tosin’s Week of Agape, (pronounced A-gapay), to cut out all confusion! What I want you to do is to read 1st Corinthians Chapter 13, and then for a week, challenge yourself to treat absolutely everyone you meet with that level of consideration, patience, kindness etc as defined in that chapter. And of course, this includes your spouse, if you have a spouse – and better yet an ex-spouse, if you have one! If necessary (hint, it probably will be necessary!) read the chapter at least once a day for the week, just to keep yourself fresh in what it says and to remind yourself what it says. And then, if you think you’re doing well, halfway during the week, extend the remit to people that you think about, people that you read about, people that you communicate with from a distance. Practise thinking loving and gracious thoughts towards absolutely all of them, as lavishly and as abundantly as you can. This is what we should be doing as Christians. If you are a Christian this should not be news to you. And yet I know that it probably will be news to most of you because I’ve been around enough of you to know that practically no-one truly acts in this way. Including myself too much of the time, to my shame – usually when I am re-infuriating myself or ranting about the litany of horrors I’ve experienced from supposed “Evangelical Christians” or various churches.]]]]

*By the way this is not a proviso I am making for myself. For me there needs to to be at least a wedding dress and a church and any other legal niceties before certain things can manifest. In fact I think I might give myself a safe clearance of at least a week after the wedding, just to make sure I genuinely am married before you know – wink wink! My sexuality may be as broken as anyone else’s but I still like to adhere to Christian standards where I can! My advice to every woman remains what it has always been: if a supposedly Christian man tries to persuade you or convince you to sleep with him before marriage then he is not who you want to be with. Seriously ditch him. You might be able to find in him a reasonably decent husband in him if you do eventually get married. However, this is not the same as holding out for someone who will be a genuinely outstanding husband which I believe is what every woman truly needs and should hold out for in marriage.

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