Is God’s Love Unconditional?

Yesterday, Elder D. Todd Christofferson spoke in the General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) about God’s love and brought up the point of calling His love unconditional.

As I thought about his talk after, I realized that I don’t want a God who loves unconditionally or who saves everyone out of love. For example, a heaven full of unrepentant pedophiles, terrorists, or people engaging actively in other damaging behaviors obviously wouldn’t be a holy place. I want a God who has boundaries and rules and keeps order in His kingdom. I want to be surrounded by people who love God and are willing to abide by His laws.

Now, when I speak of heaven not being heaven if its full of the unrepentant, I’m not talking about people who temporarily slip into sinful pursuits. I’m not talking about people who are confused and don’t know the truth and subsequently do wrong things. I’ve been in both these situations. We all have. I want a God who is merciful to these kinds of people—people like me—people with good hearts, who want to do good but who mistakenly do wrong or mess up over and over again out of weakness and human frailty.

But the difference between these people and ones like those I mentioned earlier is that these people are willing to repent or according to God’s knowledge will in the future become willing to repent and to live God’s ways. God is omniscient, He knows who will and who will not be willing to repent (although this is a topic for another day, its important to note that in my church we believe that one reason He still sent us here to earth despite knowing what we’d choose is because we still needed to be given the agency to make the choices we would by our natures and desires make, he was not going to pre-punish us). So that’s why He doesn’t just exercise immediate judgment when we mess up and sin. He knows us.

He sees into our hearts, and He knows we will repent. But he also can see the hearts of those who will never repent, who will keep doing evil things forever, and a good God would not allow those people to live with Him forever, desecrating His holy kingdom and harming His other children, even if He loved them.

In psychology classes you often learn about 4 main parenting styles—authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, and neglectful. The style resulting in the healthiest development and adjustment for children is authoritative (not to be confused with authoritarian which has a really similar name but is a totally different and more negative style). Authoritative parents are highly supportive and loving, but have high expectations and clear rules with consequences. One of the parenting styles with very poor outcomes for the children is the permissive style, where the parent attempts to just be supportive and affirmative and accepting, without making demands or having consequences for bad behavior. One definition explains of this type of parent: “She presents herself to the child as a resource for him to use as he wishes, not as an ideal for him to emulate, nor as an active agent responsible for shaping or altering his ongoing or future behavior.” The outcomes for children raised by parents using this style have been found to include poor emotional regulation, antisocial behaviors, and low persistence for challenges.

From what I read on social media and hear from people, I’ve found that there are a lot of people in the world who expect God to be like this—a resource in time of need, but who doesn’t have rules or expectations and doesn’t want to help us become our best selves.

It’s so interesting and confusing to me how some people expect God to exhibit this poor parenting style that results in poor outcomes.

Just as good, loving parents have rules which, if not followed, result in children not receiving privileges or other “blessings” (for example, “clean your room or you can’t go to the movies”), God has blessings which have prerequisite behavior on our part. It doesn’t diminish His love to have rules with consequences. And we believe in my church that His laws are all for OUR benefit. We don’t always understand His laws or the reasons for them. Sometimes they don’t make sense to us (for example, what is so wrong with same-sex marriage, we may wonder?).

But just because something is unexplainable by us doesn’t mean its unexplainable (Something Elder M. Russell Ballard said in General Conference  today). Our sense and logic is based on the culture that has shaped us, and what makes sense differs from person to person and from culture to culture. God’s sense, logic, and reasoning is above mankind’s sense. He has an eternal viewpoint. He knows more than we ever could with our limited mortal understandings.

He does ache, just as any parent would, when we choose to disobey His rules out of misunderstanding or rebellion. But if He is to be a trustworthy Parent, He must abide by His righteous laws. Just as I wouldn’t think of a parent as loving who permitted and accommodated and facilitated their child’s drug abuse and pedophilia by allowing him or her to stay in the home and influence and harm their other children, I just can’t think of God as being loving or good if He welcomes eternally unrepentant people into His Home.

But I know He welcomes those who are willing to repent, even if they don’t yet know how. God will help us repent. As previous prophet David O. McKay has said: “The purpose of the gospel is … to make bad men good and good men better, and to change human nature.”

“Yea, and as often as my people repent will I forgive them their trespasses against me.” (Mosiah 26:30)

“if ye will repent and harden not your hearts, immediately shall the great plan of redemption be brought about unto you” (Alma 34:31)

“… The Atonement … can wash clean every stain no matter how difficult or how long or how many times repeated.” President Packer’s last Conference talk.

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