Feeling judged can be a terrible experience. It can activate a deep sense of vulnerability that can make us frightful and/ or aggressive. Consequently, there are plenty of evils that come about as the result of our fear of judgment. The thoughts of being judged can cause us to resolve the dissonance between positive views about ourselves and the actions we fear are being judged by minimizing, denying, covering, and reframing, causing us to develop unrealistic views of ourselves and our behaviors. In the opposite direction, the fears of judgment can make people panic so as to give in and accommodate, often times unthinkingly putting themselves into abusive circumstances. The expectations that people will judge us can cause us to being overly aggressive or under assertive. The dread of being judged can spark conflicts that can spiral out of control. Judgment is a cause of a lot of problems in our social and personal lives. In response, love can be a needed panacea for such dreadful feelings. To know that God does not discard us due to our sins, but is reaching out to us can encourage us so as to prevent discouragement from following Christ out of a sense of impossibility and failure. Trusting in God’s love and concern for us can transform begrudging obedience to genuine expressions of the heart. Love is a needed response to a world that so readily dehumanizes, intimidates, objectifies, and degrades people.
However, there is a theological problem in how we commonly express the nature of God’s love. To help people resist the fears that come with judgment, either from God and/or from other people, it is a common inclination to speak about God’s unconditional love. At first blush, there is something good about this: as Moses and Israel discovered after the episode of the Golden Calf, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” (Exodus 34:6-7a) God’s to forgive such a blatant disregard and dishonor of Him after His hand reached down and dramatically and powerfully redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt expresses something about the ultimate heart of God: YHWH is deeply concerned about and strongly committed to human life and well-being. This confession about God’s nature recurs with variations throughout the Old Testament, making it a critical apart of Israel’s understanding of God.
However, that God is slow to anger and deeply committed to the well-being of people is different from a love that has no conditions. This is not Israel’s confession about God. God’s initial response to the Golden Calf idolatry was to wipe Israel from the face of the earth. Only as Moses intercedes and takes responsibility and concern for Israel’s well-being, does God’s fury abate and love springs forth. In the face of injustice and idolatry, the prophet Hosea speaks forth God’s coming forgiveness and redemption. But, that doesn’t prevent Hosea from speaking about God through the metaphor of a jealous husband who punishes and disregards here adulterous wife. This isn’t just true about Israel’s understanding of their own relationship to God; their understanding about God’s justice precludes an “unconditional love.” Psalm 5, a psalm of trust in God’s power to deliver, speaks of Gods abhorrence of evil and wickedness, saying that God “hates evildoers” (Psalm 5:5b) and that “YHWH hates the murderous and deceitful.” (Psalm 5:6b). The psalmist’s trust is grounded upon this divine hatred, that God will deliver the psalmist from his own wicked enemies in rejecting and destroying them.
Let me state something that should be obvious here. The actions of God described here is not a “love” for the recipients of God’s judgment. If we were to find a human person doing such things, we would be up in arms to call this love. Perhaps we could find some reason to justify such feelings, but no one in their right mind would call this “love.”
So let me state something very honest and straightforward here: to say that God loves unconditionally has many negative consequences associated with it. As well-intended as it can be to address the pains of judgment, it is the wrong pedagogical method that can backfire. The clearest way we witness this is the tension many people experience between the Old Testament and the New Testament, thinking God is wrathful in the OT but that God is pure love in the NT. Not only is this a dramatically false dichotomy that overlooks plenty of content in both parts of the Bible; it can foster a Marcionist tendency, where we think the God in the OT is compatible with our understanding of God derived from the New Testament. One unintentional consequence of talking about God’s “unconditional love” is the fostering of heresy.
However, this isn’t an inevitable consequence. Another option is to rationalize away these discourses in the Old Testament. One can engage in hermeneutical gymnastics to explain why what appears to be God’s extreme wrath, judgment, and even hatred really isn’t hatred. This will make us poor readers of the Bible. But that isn’t my greatest fear. My greatest fear is this: that we somehow rationalize in such a way that we say these extremes forms of judgment are love, that we risk planting in the mind of people that love includes such extreme forms of judgment. This is a condition for the formation of abusive relationships.
Now, there is one way to connect God’s furious judgment with love: it is a protective love of God that brings fearsome judgment down on those whose actions and ways of life threaten the well-being of others. But this isn’t about the recipients of wrath being “loved,” but those who protected by such judgment being loved.
There is also an untended psychological consequence of the rhetoric of “unconditional love”: it can breed narcissism for people who do not have dangerously low self-esteem. People can come to believe they are not to be held responsible for their negative actions because God loves them. In this instance, love becomes defined by approval, and to disapprove is to cease to love. To be clear, this is more a fault of the ambiguous ways the word “love” is used more than on the word “unconditional,” but it is the hazard that comes by using such a strong word as unconditional with an ambiguous word.
Having said this, let me clear: our way of talking about God should emphasize God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy over and against God’s judgment. This is the response of Paul in Romans. He presents the narrative of the judgment of the wicked in Romans 1:18-32, only to criticize those who think in such a narrative with hypocrisy in Romans 2. Instead, his argument climaxes within the first section with a narrative of trust in God’s faithful love in Romans 8:31-39. We should remind people beset with condemnation and fears of judgment that God is slow to anger. Struggling with sin is not a condition of God’s rejection. God is not waiting to smash people down for every single sin. God is not wanting to cast the whole of the world into pits of everlasting judgment. This simply isn’t God.
But God’s love isn’t “unconditional.” Rather, God’s love is a persevering, suffering love, that endures much dishonor and rejection, that at the end, wants the best for all of human life, not just the saintly few (or zero).
Besides the empathetic motivation in talking about “unconditional love,” which is an understandable and even noble motivation, let me suggest there is another, less noble motivation: many talk about God’s “unconditional love” to compensate for their own lack of love, which may itself engender feelings of being judging. It is easier for people to say “God loves you and will never judge you” than it is for ourselves to love and show grace and mercy to people, including to difficult people. “Unconditional love” can be an unconscious way we shift responsibility on God for addressing the fears of judgment, rather than ourselves embodying God’s love in the way we relate to people. This has the net effect of actually being a way of manipulating another person’s emotions, rather than it being a genuine expression of our feelings for someone.
But this contrasts with the way the Gospel conveys God’s love through ambassadors who embody God’s loving character, much as the Apostle Paul speaking embodies God’s righteous character in his forgiving love that opens a doorway to reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 5-6. The Gospel’s pedagogy is through concrete expressions of God’s forgiveness and love, in which people experience love. It forms Christians to embody a way of life so that through their actions, which are formed by the Holy Spirit in conformity to Jesus Christ, other people can taste and see that the Lord is good.
So, my suggestion to Christian leaders and teachers. So, stop talking about God’s “unconditional love.” Not only does it have potential theological, spiritual, and psychological problems on the people we teach, but it wrongly compensates for our own failures to love. Instead, embody God’s righteousness in your own life; be formed with the mind of Jesus Christ; let the Holy Spirit transform you. Let this be how people overcome their fears of judgment; let this be the way that perhaps people will open their hearts to taste and see that the Lord is good.