Conditions of Love

Not in heaven do we learn to love God, but here on earth.

— Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Everlasting Life

A couple weeks ago, I posted the following question: “What are the consequences of conditional love?” I have been contemplating this question in attempt to better understand Jesus’ call to love unconditionally. I was surprized, but I should not have been, on where it lead me.

I want to quote several reader’s comments to this question about conditional love here because they are the first steps into understanding:

There are many consequences to conditional love. Disappointment, letdown, divorce, heartbreak, etc. I lived in a world with conditional love, and I’ve lived in one without. I much prefer the one without. — Liesa

The effects of conditional love are all around us…for such quality is what man generates. Everything about us sets boundaries, for it is the world into which we are born. … — Jim

The worst consequence is that it adversely affects our relationship to God, since it’s very hard to conceive of unconditional love if we’ve never experienced it. — TSO

Each of these comments touch upon different aspects of the conditionality of our love. Liesa’s comment is directly related to the near after-effects of conditional love—the fact that others will disappoint us and we will disappoint them. Jim’s comment is more along the lines of why—because we live in a fallen world separated from God; it is our human nature. And TSO’s comment is about the long-term effect—it keeps us separated from God and from each other.

TSO’s comment also sheds light on a discussion I had with an atheist back in March. This particular atheist did not understand unconditional love. In fact, he said that “[unconditional] love is not just insulting, but a bad thing” because it is “an insult to love that comes from earned appreciation.”

Why? Why do we love conditionally? Is our source of love for others solely based on “earned appreciation”? Or is love merely deepened by appreciation? What is in us that prevents unconditional love? (Note: These questions assume that unconditional love is the goal. If you do not believe in this goal, read on.)

In a nutshell, conditional love is the result of a long chain of reasoning coupled with emotions:

conditional love

lack of indifference




Conditional love is based on the lack of indifference. We want to be different. We want the people we love to be different. We want to be special, to be separate. In our selfishness, we crave to be the most important, or at least one of the most important things in another person’s life. We want to segregate the ones we love from the rest of the world in a vain attempt to elevate our own self-esteem, and in turn, feed into their self-esteem. This desire to be separate, to be special to someone else stems from a sense of pride and a need for attention. Ah! The need for attention.

TSO recently posted this excerpt from Tony Hendra’s book Father Joe that addresses our need for attention. There is a hidden connection to conditional love:

Fr. Joe: Needing attention is a powerful force in the world, isn’t it?

Hendra: Absolutely. Most people would think of it as a very natural need. Almost a right.

Fr. Joe: By “natural” you mean “morally neutral”?

Hendra: Touche.

Fr. Joe: Without God, people find it very hard to know who they are or why they exist. But if others pay attention to them, praise them, write about them, discuss them, they think they’ve found the answers to both questions.

Lack of indifference is based on judgement. Judgment is a decision over something or someone as being better or worse, more or less. Someone is judged as being more acceptable, more appropriate, more lovable than another based on their differences. Judgement, as Jim noted above, builds boundaries and borders between people. Mother Teresa once said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” Judgement limits us; it leads to restrictions instead of to freedom.

The criteria used for such judgments is based on our notions of utility. What is useful to me? How does this person make me feel? How do I make them feel? Do I feel accepted, noticed, important? Is the love reciprocated? Is there a level of intimacy, a connection between two hearts? (Please do not confuse the word intimacy with its comtemporary connotation with sex.)

I do not want to diminish the importance of these feelings. They help us decide who we are going to be close to, who will be our friends, companions and lovers. These decisions of utility usually involve our emotions, the “warm fuzzies.” But, decisions based on utility tends to force us to view people as objects, not as persons. Objects to be used. Objects to be manipulated. Objects to be abandoned, ignored, discarded.

And finally, notions of utility are based on fear. We use people to avoid our fears of being alone, unwanted, unnoticed, and unimportant. We want to avoid being hurt and/or abandoned. Fear devastates our ability to trust, to love, and to open up to others. Fear builds a wall around our hearts and constricts our growth from being fully human. Fear breaks the possibility of a connection between two human hearts before it even has a chance to reach out for the other. And in a most depressing twist of irony, fear actually diminishes what it tries to protect and preserve.

Philip St. Romain, in Reflecting on the Serenity Prayer, sums up conditional love best:

Accepting the limitations of our human condition is not an easy matter. Every one of us has been raised in a world of conditional love. We are taught in many ways that our value as human beings depends on what we can do, what we possess, who we are, or how we look. This developmental milieu leaves our minds constantly on alert for ways to meet the conditions by which we can obtain love and acceptance. We become committed to creating these conditions for ourselves, even if it means becoming dependent on others to do it for us. All these factors contribute to the selfishness and willingness in everybody. It is the way we compensate for very deep feelings of fear and shame, which are emotional consequences of being loved conditionally or of being rejected and abused outright.

Let’s be realistic. We cannot be intimate or close with everyone. We cannot, and dare not risk, our most intimate, personal feelings and secrets with just anybody. But, unconditional love, agape, does not call us to that. Unconditional love is not an emotion. William Barclay wrote, “Agape has to do with the mind: it is not simply an emotion which rises unbidden in our hearts; it is a principle by which we deliberately live.” The key word here is deliberate! Unconditional love is not about feelings. It is about the will. Who do you will to love? Who do you will to serve? Why do you choose deliberately to love some but not others? What are your conditions?

Jesus calls us to remove those conditions, whatever they might be, and love your neighbor as yourself, unconditionally. (You do love yourself, don’t you? You do serve yourself, don’t you?) You choose to love others by serving them, giving yourself to them, not as servants, but as someone worthy of respect and dignity, just like them. Each of us carries the spark of the divine in our souls. To disrespect another disrespects the divine in them, and ultimately disrespects ourself since we are all connected together through Christ.

To finish Jim’s quote from above, he writes that the prescription to avoid conditional love is Jesus. Jesus is the only way for us to step out of ourselves and move outward to others, to love and to serve.

…Only Christ “in” us can produce “agape”. Only He can fulfill us in many areas: joy, peace, compassion, and the list goes on. Too often we try to “re-create” ourself in Him rather than allow Him to re-birth Himself in us, therein the distinction of whether we actually possess the Kingdom of God or whether it possesses us….

Thanks to Liesa, Jim, and TSO for the quotes.

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