Is God’s Love Conditional?

I don’t typically get upset at church. Uplifted? Edified? Bored? Sure. But it’s rare that something is said in a church meeting that gets me really riled. And yet for the past two weeks, in two separate congregations, the same thought has been expressed (in different words), and it immediately drew a very sharp reaction from me, mainly because it’s so antithetical to everything I believe about religion.

Last Sunday, it was basically the idea that once we have sinned, God never quite loves us the same way He used to. We have permanently changed our relationship to God. This is the same tired analogy of repentance, which likens us each to a fresh, clean board. When we sin, we drive a nail into that board, and when we repent, we remove the nail. But the hole the nail made is forever part of who and what we are now.

I objected (fairly loudly) when this came up in Sunday School last week. Repentance allows us to be forgiven and our sins to be forgotten. I provided scriptural evidence of this. (D&C 58:42 “Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more,” for example.) But the person who was arguing against this wouldn’t budge.

Then yesterday, a similar argument was made in the middle of priesthood class. God’s love is conditional, according to this line of thought. He loves us more the more we do the things He has asked us to do. Thus, He loves a righteous person more than He loves a sinner.

Once again, I disagreed vehemently. This time, I didn’t let the issue drop (until we ran out of time and class was over). God loves all of us unconditionally. We may choose to separate ourselves from that love by our actions and our beliefs, but that love is still there, waiting for us to return to Him and accept it once again.

But the teacher doubled down on his statement. He reiterated: God’s love is conditional, and this is something President David O. McKay was very specific about.

I left the meeting in a fair bit of a huff, and I was certainly going to go do some research to prove that statement wrong. So when I got home, the first thing I did was rush to the internet to do some research. The first statement I came across wasn’t from President McKay. It was from President Nelson, given about fifteen years ago:

While divine love can be called perfect, infinite, enduring, and universal, it cannot correctly be characterized as unconditional. The word does not appear in the scriptures. On the other hand, many verses affirm that the higher levels of love the Father and the Son feel for each of us—and certain divine blessings stemming from that love—are conditional.

Even more recently, Elder Christofferson spoke about God’s love, citing President Nelson’s remarks and continuing,

One of the terms we hear often today is that God’s love is “unconditional.” While in one sense that is true, the descriptor unconditional appears nowhere in scripture. Rather, His love is described in scripture as “great and wonderful love,” “perfect love,” “redeeming love,” and “everlasting love.” These are better terms because the word unconditional can convey mistaken impressions about divine love, such as, God tolerates and excuses anything we do because His love is unconditional, or God makes no demands upon us because His love is unconditional, or all are saved in the heavenly kingdom of God because His love is unconditional.

Those two statements took a fair bit of wind out of my sails, replacing them with confusion. At first glance, it appears I was completely off base. Was the teacher in that priesthood lesson right, after all? Does God play favorites? He loves those who obey him more than those who do not?

Those quotes I just gave might be flashy, and they might generate a fair bit of support for the “Conditional Love” side of things, but as I read the articles they come from more closely (see here and here), I saw that they simply said in different words what I had been arguing in the first place.

See this quote from Elder Nelson:

Does this mean the Lord does not love the sinner? Of course not. Divine love is infinite and universal. The Savior loves both saints and sinners. The Apostle John affirmed, “We love him, because he first loved us.” And Nephi, upon seeing in vision the Lord’s mortal ministry, declared: “The world, because of their iniquity, shall judge him to be a thing of naught; wherefore they scourge him, and he suffereth it; and they smite him, and he suffereth it. Yea, they spit upon him, and he suffereth it, because of his loving kindness and his long-suffering towards the children of men.” We know the expansiveness of the Redeemer’s love because He died that all who die might live again.

Or this one from Elder Christofferson:

God will always love us, but He cannot save us in our sins.

As I read the talks, it appeared Elder Nelson and Elder Christofferson were conflating the love God has for us with the blessings He would like to give us. In order to avoid giving anyone the impression that people can do whatever they want and still be blessed the same as anyone else, they stated that God’s love is dependent on our obedience to His commandments.

But you don’t base doctrine on sound bytes. You need to take quotes in their context to truly understand them. Otherwise, church talks would only need to be about one minute long.

I’ll restate my own take on this: I believe God’s love for us is always there, no matter what we do. We may choose to turn away from that love, and when we do, we place a limit on the blessings God might have given us, but we are the cause of those blessings being withheld, not some sort of cosmic favoritism. If we would just turn back to God, He will always be there, loving us just as much as ever.

Perhaps some of you are wondering what the big deal is. After all, isn’t the end result the same? Keep the commandments and be blessed. Don’t keep them, and don’t be blessed?

To me, it all comes down to John 13:34: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.”

We are commanded to love each other in the same way Christ loves us. If you begin to believe that love is conditional, you allow yourself the leeway to love people more or less based on your own personal preferences or moral code. It becomes much easier to dismiss people as “sinners” unworthy of your love and care and consideration, and I believe that’s antithetical to the entire message of the Gospel.

Worse yet, we are also commanded to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” If our love for others is conditional, then our love for ourselves becomes conditional as well. Our own self worth can be destroyed based on decisions or mistakes we’ve made. Again, this goes against every teaching I’ve ever read or studied in the Gospel.

I don’t mean we can go out and do whatever we want and not feel bad about it. Rather, complete repentance is always possible. Sure, you can start diving into the doctrinal deep end about Sons of Perdition or what have you, but to keep things simple: you can never screw up so much that you are out of the range of God’s love. You can always come back.

I’ve seen “religious” people in the news who judge others based on their skin, orientation, beliefs, gender, or any other reason. I’ve seen children shunned from their families. Made to feel worthless. I believe a fair bit of this stems from the thought that we can love people based on their behaviors and actions, which in turn is supported by the “God’s love is conditional” mentality.

I think there’s a balance there between remembering we are held accountable for our actions, and remembering God always will love us. The talks by Elder Christofferson and President Nelson swing to one side of that balance, and my argument swings to the other, though I think if you read both in their entirety, you’ll see we’re all actually making the same argument.

God does not love me more than He loves you, no matter what you or I might have done.

I’ll just leave this post with my personal favorite scripture, which perhaps also shows why this line of reasoning is important to me. Romans 8:35-39:

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

36 As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.

37 Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.

38 For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,

39 Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

2 thoughts on “Is God’s Love Conditional?”

  1. I think this is an interesting topic and I feel that individuals will have different responses depending on what they need at the time.

    For me, I feel that God’s love is unconditional–He will love us no matter what. But, God also maintains boundaries with us. In fact, He maintains perfect boundaries.

    This didn’t really make sense to me until I started associating with families who have members with severe mental health issues (such as conduct disorder or borderline personality disorder, often combined with other issues). Parents that have children with severe mental health issues love that child. However, because of the mental health issues, the child will do things that hurt the parents such as stealing money, spreading untrue rumors, and even physical assault. It’s a difficult situation that neither the parents nor the child could have prevented.

    To protect themselves, and often their other children, the parents set boundaries–they become more careful about what they say and do around the child. They don’t want to accidentally hurt their child.

    To an outsider, the parents may come off as cold and uncaring towards this child–but in fact they love this child dearly. They want to be able to teach their child to be better and to not hurt others, but know their child has issues which won’t be helped if they get too close. They don’t want their child to end up in jail or worse. It’s a difficult place for a family to be in, but maintaining the correct boundaries is crucial. Families often make mistakes with their boundaries, and people can get hurt because of it, but the boundaries are intended to help.

    I feel like God’s love is similar. He loves us very, very much, And it’s not like we’re all psychopaths or anything like that, but we do tend to be self-centered during much of our mortal life. God maintains boundaries with us. When we obey the commandments and draw close to our Heavenly Father, then He can open up to us a little more. As we prove ourselves more deserving of His trust, then He can loosen the boundaries. But even when we make mistakes and God has to adjust His boundaries with us, He still loves us very much.

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