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“God loves you just the way you are.” I have frequently heard that said and have said it myself. The Scriptures support such a view: Jesus declared that God loves “the righteous and the unrighteous.” St. Paul wrote that God demonstrated his love for sinners, and reconciled humans to him while they were acting as his enemies.
St. John goes one step further. Instead of conditioning God’s love on the worthiness of its objects, he locates God’s love in his own unchanging nature. “God,” he writes succinctly, “is love.”
Another common Christian cliché is this: “God will never love you any more than he does right now.” This, it seems to me, is also true. If God’s love is not conditioned on the worthiness of its object, then neither is it conditioned on that object’s unworthiness. Hence, the correlate to this claim is also true: “God will never love you less than he does right now.”
These claims regarding God’s love have their place. If God’s love were conditioned on our good behavior, there would be times when it would not be extended to us, for we are not always well behaved. If it were contingent upon our character, the situation would be worse, for our character is flawed. We can only be secure if love depends on God rather than on us.
While these avowals of God’s love are true, they are also incomplete and potentially misleading. For while God loves us unconditionally, our conscious reception of that love and the personal and spiritual growth that results from it, is conditional. It is true that God will never love me more than he does right now, but my experience of that love will be relatively richer or poorer depending on what I do.
I have an infant grandchild who lives in another part of the country. I could not love her more, even if she lived next door. I would willingly lay down my own life for hers. But that grandchild has not experienced my love as fully as she would if she lived next door. It is not that my love is lessened by the distance between us, but her experience of my love is.
The same sun that is reflected in the drop of dew that lies on the flower’s delicate petal is mirrored on the surface of the vast sea, but the beauty and grandeur of that reflection differs in each. Likewise, the universal love of God comes to everyone, good and bad, but not everyone experiences it as richly as everyone else.
What bearing does this have on the statement, “God will never love you any more than he does right now”? Just this: we can think that because God will never love us more (or less) than he does currently, it doesn’t really matter what we do. If we act unjustly or unlovingly, if we are self-centered, malicious, greedy, and exploitative—so what? God will not love us any less!
Of course, what we do or fail to do makes a difference, and it is foolishness to think it does not. If I build a roof over my garden, the sun will not shine less often, nor the clouds bring less rain; but the growth of my garden will certainly be less. It is true that my bad behavior cannot stop God from loving me, but it can stunt the personal development his love brings.
In Jesus’s remarkable “Parable of the Prodigal Son,” a father’s love for his son remains constant even after the son turns away from him. The father’s love is as rich as ever, yet the son withers as a person. He loses all certainty of his father’s love.
Yet, the father’s love remains undiminished and welcoming. This, Jesus wants us to know, is what God’s love is like. We can run from it; we can reject it; we can stop believing in it; but God will just keep on loving us. And, when we come back, he will welcome us with open arms and a glad heart.
But how will we know that if we don’t come back?