As I outlined in last week’s post, I’m endeavoring to reflect on the concept of unconditional love during Lent this year. I started my series by reflecting on the modern ideal and challenges of the concept of unconditional love. This week, I want to take a brief look at what the Christian Scriptures say to us about love.
The word love shows up 228 times in the NRSV Updated Edition of the Christian Scriptures. So, clearly, it was a critical term for Jesus and his early followers. It appears in 26 of the 27 books in the Christian Scriptures—surprisingly, only the Acts of the Apostles doesn’t contain the word love. What does appear in Acts, however, is how the idea of love was lived out in the early church—and the limits to that love.
Acts 2:44–47 describes how the earliest followers lived together in Jerusalem: pooling their resources, sharing with fellow believers in need, eating and worshiping together daily, and creating goodwill. However, humans being humans, problems surfaced over time. The “signs and wonders” performed by the early apostles drew others to the faith who tried to have it both ways. God punished Ananias and Sapphira when they lied about sharing all they had. Was this illustrating a limit on God’s theoretically “unconditional” love? A magician named Simon wanted to buy the apostles’ power with money, and Peter and John declared that Simon would “have no part or share in this” unless he repented.
It wasn’t just individuals who struggled with loving unconditionally. There were arguments amongst early church leaders about whether to include gentiles who came to believe in Jesus—which certainly doesn’t show unconditional love. When Paul had had enough of being persecuted by Jews, he basically abandoned them and declared he would preach only to gentiles. In this way, it appears his love became conditional—upon his own health and safety!
And here’s the primary point I want to make. The idea of unconditional love has come to mean a kind of doormat love: “You can do anything to me and my family, and I will love you anyway because that’s what Jesus did.” Yet that is not what Jesus had in mind. When a scribe asked Jesus about the greatest commandment, he gave him two: love God with all your being and “love your neighbor as yourself.” Did you catch the key in the last two words: “as yourself”? That’s not unconditional love. That’s conditional love, which recognizes that we must love ourselves first before we’re capable of loving others, and then we must treat them in the same way we treat ourselves. (And if we treat ourselves poorly, that’s not love.)
So, here are some Lenten questions to ponder. Do you love yourself? Do you love others in similar ways, appropriate to what Jesus taught? Also, what does this brief survey of the Christian Scriptures say to you about putting limits on love?