I've been doing some thinking lately on conditional love. Usually when one is putting those two words together, they're saying "unconditional," rather than what I typed. In an ideal world, that's the only kind of love we'd have. Parents wouldn't abandon kids. Relationships wouldn't fall apart. Teachers would treasure the children in their care. Unconditional love sounds great, but it's hard to keep up.
The concept of conditional love has been on my mind a lot lately, because of all the horrible things we see in the news these days. I know it can be overwhelming at times. Honestly, sometimes my grief for the loss of life people are experiencing around the world is almost outweighed by disgust brought on by things like online comment sections. I try to avoid them, but sometimes they show up. Right now I have many friends, family, and acquaintances who seem to have forgotten their Christian principles and traded them for outrage, anger, and bigotry. "Turn the other cheek" and "pray for your enemies" have been exchanged for "bomb the **** out of them" and "not in my house." And I'm not even going to get into what the Bible says about specific issues like immigration, poverty, and how to treat those who don't share our beliefs. I am by no means perfect, but I feel like I am at least making an attempt at behaving like Jesus asks us to. I try not to hate other people, and if they are living a life that is not in line with my beliefs, I make an effort to treat them with dignity. The Bible says that people will know we are Christians by our love. And, second only to loving God and keeping his commands, we are instructed to love others. Love them more than ourselves. Love even when it's difficult. When they don't love back. When they are talking about hurting us or actually hurting us. There aren't any clauses that say "love one another.....unless you're dealing with someone who's different than you." Nor does the Bible say "only love Christians." We are supposed to love unconditionally. It's really, really tough, but God wants us to try. If he didn't, he wouldn't have told us to do it in the first place. Remember the verse that people like to use when faced with a challenge, or that's thrown onto motivational posters? God works everything together for the good of those who love him. The interesting thing is that the verse doesn't end there- there's another phrase that doesn't always get stamped on mugs and tote bags. It ends with "and are called according to his purpose." God is working things out that we are called to do. It doesn't mean that every situation is going to end happily, at least from our point of view. But it does mean that if we are following God's will, and following his instructions, he's working everything out. And one of those "purposes" is for us to love, and to be the hands and feet of Jesus.
Now, I don't know if it's been a while since you've read the New Testament, but not everything Jesus said was sunshine and roses. He got pretty sassy sometimes. He could be condemning in his speech, and it can be cringe-worthy to read about him scolding the apostles and the religious leaders of his time. The man wasn't afraid to speak sharply when the situation called for it. He flat out called the apostles stupid at least once. But have you ever noticed that Jesus usually doesn't talk that way to the regular, everyday misfits and screw-ups he comes across? The bleeding woman snatched at his clothing as he made his way through a crowd, and while he did ask "who touched me?" he didn't follow with "how dare you?" The rich prince acted like he was ready to follow Jesus, but couldn't bring himself to give up his possessions (follow a command) and live an uncomfortable life- and when he walked away, Jesus didn't scoff or holler after him "your loss!" He didn't even speak harshly to his good friend Martha when she not only wouldn't sit down and hang out with him, but tried to tattle on her sister, Mary, for not being a good enough hostess and help her out. He didn't shy away from telling the truth- when he spoke to the woman at the well, who had been married five times and was shacking up with her boyfriend, he didn't say "boo you whore" (thanks, Mean Girls), he said "I know what your deal is. If you want something better, you need to put that away and follow me." He wasn't a meek little lamb, but he spoke with grace. And love. Unconditional love.
If you are a Christian, you are called to love other people unconditionally. You are to be Jesus in the flesh to those who need him. Representative of Christ, of the living God, the creator of the universe, who loves you just as much as he loves your neighbors who mow the lawn early in the morning, as much as he loves the Muslim family eating at the table next to you in the restaurant, as much as he loves the gay couple appearing in the Cheerios ad. God's love is unconditional, and his mercy is a gift available to everyone, should they choose to accept it. He isn't just our heavenly father, he's the PERFECT father. He loves as a perfect parent would- unconditionally. My mom used to say something really weird when I was a kid- that she'd still love me if I grew up to be a serial killer. She'd be really disappointed and would hate my actions, but I'm still her child and she'd still love me. That's unconditional love. And if my mom can do that, as a human with flaws and limitations, how much more does our heavenly father love us?
Sadly, I've seen some really upsetting instances recently where love was offered and then threatened to be taken away when the recipient didn't live up to the giver's expectations. It feels particularly distressing that this conditional love was offered in the name of charity. Charity should be love in its purest form, a selfless act of giving. In a perfect world, we wouldn't help others to make ourselves feel good, or to look better in the eyes of our neighbors, or to get a refund on our taxes. I know that's why some people do it. But I would hope that when other human beings are involved, not just an anonymous donation of funds, that the heart of the giver would be extending unconditional love. And it drives me absolutely batty when that's not the case. Since most of what I talk about here is sponsorship related, you can bet that's what I'm talking about now. It makes my stomach a little upset when I read or hear people complaining. Now, there's definitely a time and a place to provide feedback. It's good and helpful to notify a department of a technical issue. It's fine and acceptable to ask about a situation if something seems amiss. But what I don't understand, and what I think is completely unacceptable, is threatening a child (or the people who care for that child) with the cessation of support when you just don't feel like you're getting enough in return. It hurts my heart and my head to read things like "I've been writing to this kid for four months and he barely told me anything in his letter. I'm starting to think this is a scam." Or "I've been writing to my child for two months now and have yet to receive a letter. If this situation does not improve, I'm considering cancelling my sponsorship and choosing a child who will show more appreciation." (That is lifted almost word for word from a sponsor posting on a support forum.) How about "I sent photos, cards, and coloring pages to my kid- all he said was thank you! He barely mentioned it. I'm pretty fed up." Or "I bothered to go visit my child and he didn't say anything about it in his next letter. I've never experienced anything so ungrateful."
Maybe the people who say these things think it's acceptable because the person they're helping- their sponsor child- isn't right in front of them, the way that people are awfully bold behind a keyboard and are willing to say things in print that they'd never let out of their mouths. Maybe sometimes there's a sense of superiority inherent in western sponsors, a discrimination of sorts based on geography and economic advantage. Maybe people really are that mean. I'm not sure what the answer is. But can you imagine if this attitude was applied to other situations? A woman volunteers at a soup kitchen. The silence of the recipients begins to bother her. "I'm spending my Saturday free time here, handing out a soup, and I don't even get a thank you? I'd even take a comment on how good it tastes!" By the end of the day, she decides never to return- or at least, she'll visit the shelter on the other side of town, where she's heard the visitors to the kitchen are more vocal about their appreciation. Or here's another a man begins donating clothes to his local charity shop- they're all in good shape, average sized, and still moderately stylish. He heard about the shop's need for donations when attending a company retreat, and decided to do a little spring cleaning and weed out his closet. He leaves the drop-off area feeling good about himself, and his decision to help in this way. A few weeks pass by and he decides to break routine and visit the inside of the shop, rather than the drop off area. He's fairly impressed by what he sees, but makes a mental note of how things could be run more efficiently. As he approaches the men's department of the shop, he sees a familiar jacket. And then a shirt. And a whole mess of ties, haphazardly dropped into a plastic bin for display. So many items that he gave from his own collection, neglected by shoppers! And the prices they're asking for the ties is just a travesty. Don't they know that he paid good money for those not a year ago? They definitely deserve to be sold for more than a dollar a piece. Angrily, he gathers up an armful of what was formerly his clothing, vowing never to return. "Next time these will go to someone who appreciates them," he snarls at the shop employee, who has nothing to do with pricing or the fact that some of his items haven't been sold to properly appreciative customers- she's just in charge of ringing people up.
If these situations seem pretty far-fetched to you, here's a more personal one, from real life rather than my imagination. An elderly woman with no grandchildren of her own doted on her great nieces and nephews more than a great aunt might have. She carefully selected gifts for their birthdays and for Christmas, and even made little goodie bags for other holidays throughout the year- candies and pencils, sometimes a little stuffed toy. But after a while, she noticed that one little boy in particular never offered the same expressions of gratitude as the other kids. He said "thanks," but it didn't really sound like he meant it. And he wasn't always so excited about the gifts she brought. She put a lot of time and effort into selecting them, and she was on a limited income, but she considered the sacrifice worthy. She loved the children, after all. But month after month, she grew increasingly irritated with the boy. The other kids were always so excited to receive her gifts, and he wasn't as impressed by them. The annoyance turned to bitterness in her heart. "If he doesn't appreciate what I do for him, I just won't do it anymore," the woman thought to herself. So she stopped bringing presents, and she stopped sending cards. She didn't stop to think about the situation the boy came from- parents who were never there for him, a family that was constantly on the move, planting ideas in his head that everything was temporary and might be left behind if they needed to leave at the last minute. Abandoned by his parents and left with relatives at a young age, surely a lasting impression was left on the boy about adults and their treatment of children. It had to have affected his behavior in at least some small ways. Many of us would try extra hard to make a connection with a child like this, to be sure they knew they were loved and valued. But the woman decided instead that she would cut off this branch of her family tree completely. After she stopped sending gifts to the boy, she pretended like he didn't exist. She stopped talking to his parents. When he grew up, she refused to acknowledge his children, or his marriage. Her bitterness overwhelmed her heart, and she found herself avoiding more members of the family, just in case the boy, now a man, was visiting. Or would visit. Or call. In the end, she missed more family functions- weddings, funerals, and everything in between, big or small- because....a child didn't show proper gratitude. Love was offered conditionally. And those conditions weren't met.
You will never hear me say that once you sign up for something, you have to continue it until the day you die. If you lose a job or find yourself in dire financial straits and have to cancel a sponsorship, I get that. It really stinks and I'm sorry, but I get that. If a sponsor child discontinues the program and you decide to start supporting another organization instead, I get that too. Or if you got caught up in a fit of excitement and requested too many correspondents, and now find yourself overwhelmed and need to give up some of your kids, that also makes sense (though I hope everyone would enter into a commitment like that cautiously, so as to not become strained and burned out.) But I will never, ever understand those people who choose a child to love, and then take that love away because they got bored. Or the child wasn't meeting their (adult) expectations. Can you picture an adult telling, say, a four year old, "I'm not talking to you anymore because what you had to say wasn't interesting enough." Or cutting off an eight year old- "you know what? I worked hard on those coloring pages I sent you. If you aren't even going to mention them, I'm going to pick another kid instead." I feel like the kind of people who jump to that reaction have some issues of their own that probably need to be worked out. They certainly aren't attempting to represent Christ in a situation where that's really their sole purpose- to be the hands and feet of Jesus here on earth. Where does "love your neighbor as yourself" fit into that attitude? Or "welcoming a little child" in Jesus' name? Or what God considers to be "pure and faultless" religion, caring for the widows and orphans? How about giving "generously and without a grudging heart?" The righteous giving and not holding back? Do you think people who love conditionally fall into the category of people who are considered generous, who are blessed because they shared their food with the poor? What about the one who shuts his eyes to need- we know that he will be cursed. And we for sure that we are supposed to give in secret- the implication being that if we are doing it secretly, our motives and intentions are honorable and we're not doing it for recognition. We're not supposed to ask for anything in return when we give. And we're told multiple times that what we give will be given back to us- we reap what we sow, and if we're not sowing much, we won't get much in return. We also know from scripture that if we aren't loving, we're not really Christians; if we don't love others then we don't know God. And if we're confused about what love is, we know that it is patient and kind, it doesn't brag, it's not resentful, and it's selfless. Does conditional love fit those requirements? No. Conditional love isn't love at all. Those who say they love but attach strings to it aren't really loving, are they? And self-sacrifice is an act of love. If we are sacrificing- giving charitably- while bragging, or being selfish, or resentful, then we are acting in disobedience to God. Acting outside his will. And acting outside his will is, well, sin. Such a heavy word for an act that some people probably don't even realize they're carrying out. But, to paraphrase Neil deGrasse Tyson, the great thing about the truth is that it's still the truth, whether we believe it or not.
I want to challenge you to take some time this week and think about how you love- whether it's loving someone face to face, like a spouse, child, or family member; loving someone with an action, like making a donation or giving up something we want; or loving from a distance, as is the case with child sponsorship. Is your love unconditional? Are you withholding love from someone because your flesh is drowning out the holy spirit? If you call yourself a follower of Christ, are you really doing all you can to love as he did? I know I fall short of Jesus' expectations of me. Sometimes my desire to be funny overwhelms my desire to love as Christ loves us, and my tone goes from charmingly humorous to venomously snarky faster than I realize. No one is perfect. But we don't excuse other sins by saying, "well, no one is perfect." We have to hold ourselves to higher standards. We have to at least make an effort. And hopefully, in the end, everyone around us and in our circle of influence- from coworkers to parents, sponsor children to that random person we run into in the grocery store who tests are patience so very well- hopefully all of them will know we are Christians by our love.