Conditional Love Is Back

The recently announced LDS doctrine of conditional divine love comes from President Nelson’s 2003 Ensign article “Divine Love,” in which he stated: “While divine love can be called perfect, infinite, enduring, and universal, it cannot correctly be characterized as unconditional.” No additional commentary was added until the October 2016 General Conference, when two apostles, citing President Nelson’s article, restated the doctrine. It is rather more nuanced than it first appears and I expect some local leaders and members will misconstrue and misapply this new doctrine in unfortunate ways. So pay attention. This is important.

First, from Elder Christofferson’s talk “Abide in My Love“:

There are many ways to describe and speak of divine love. 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.

Second, from Elder Renlund’s talk “Repentance: A Joyful Choice,” in which he counsels against ideas that prevent us from repenting:

Yet another way [we avoid repenting] is to think that our sins do not matter because God loves us no matter what we do. It is tempting to believe what the deceitful Nehor taught the people of Zarahemla: “That all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, … and, in the end, all men should have eternal life.” But this seductive idea is false. God does love us. However, what we do matters to Him and to us. He has given clear directives about how we should behave. We call these commandments. His approbation and our eternal life depend on our behavior, including our willingness to humbly seek real repentance.

So here’s the tricky part. While affirming that God’s love for us is conditional, they nevertheless reaffirm that God always loves us. Later in his 2003 Ensign article, President Nelson states: “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.” And later in his recent talk, Elder Christofferson states: “God will always love us, but He cannot save us in our sins.” In other words, divine love is, in fact, unconditional.

So what is conditional? Higher blessings and exaltation, according to President Nelson: “[T]he higher levels of love the Father and the Son feel for each of us — and certain divine blessings stemming from that love — are conditional.” He goes on to relate the distinction between unconditional and conditional blessings to the LDS terms salvation and exaltation: “Thanks to the Atonement, the gift of immortality is unconditional. The greater gift of eternal life, however, is conditional.” Elder Christofferson illustrates conditional divine love in similar terms:

Some will argue that God blesses everyone without distinction — citing, for example, Jesus’s statement in the Sermon on the Mount: “[God] maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” Indeed, God does rain down upon all His children all the blessings He can — all the blessings that love and law and justice and mercy will permit. And He commands us to be likewise generous: “I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.” Nevertheless, God’s greater blessings are conditioned on obedience.

So let me summarize in two or three sentences the new LDS doctrine of conditional divine love: God loves all men and women, saints or sinners, unconditionally, and the blessing of salvation or redemption from death will come to all men and women. However, higher blessings, including exaltation, are conditional and come only to those who are obedient and keep the commandments.

A better label would be: unconditional divine love, coupled with conditional higher blessings like exaltation. As for content, it is really nothing new, just the standard LDS doctrine of perfectionism (the more obedient you are, the more blessings you get) dressed up with a new misleading label. I can easily see local leadership or local members running with the misleading label and coming up with incorrect applications (God doesn’t love LDS slackers so neither should you or I) rather than the actual substance attached to the misleading label.

In the increasingly politicized LDS Church, during an election year with the battle cry of “religious freedom” being sounded regularly, it’s a pretty good bet that those who misconstrue the new LDS doctrine of conditional divine love will draw the shrinking circle of divine love so as to exclude those who practice gay marriage, those who are gay, or those who simply support gay marriage or any other progressive or liberal issue or agenda. The whole discussion by LDS leadership, whatever it means when examined in detail, seems almost calculated to produce this result: to encourage rank and file Mormons to regard lapsed Mormons, gay Mormons, dissenting Mormons, liberal Mormons, or pretty much anyone who disagrees with their particular brand of conservative Mormonism as unloved by God and not deserving of love or kindness. Conditioning divine love on obedience is like an open invitation to identify the disobedient and unlove them.

Any other quotations from Conference that support or refute the sudden reemergence of the LDS doctrine of conditional divine love and what it means?

[For additional quotations and discussion on this topic, see Julie’s 2014 T&S post “Unconditional Love.”]

42 comments for “Conditional Love Is Back

  1. “While in one sense that is true, the descriptor unconditional appears nowhere in scripture.” This seems to be a repeat of the fussing over “free agency” we had a few years back. We note that the term doesn’t actually appear in scripture, and that human agency was purchased at a terrible price, so we stop saying “free agency.” However, the fact that we mean “free” as in “freedom to choose” doesn’t go away, and while we avoid the implication that our agency was without cost, we still mean “freedom to choose” when we say “agency.”

    Similarly, the “one sense” in which God’s love is unconditional is the literal sense, in which God loves us without condition. What these apostles seem to want to avoid is the potential, non-literal implications of “unconditional” love meaning that everyone will eventually inherit the same blessings and it doesn’t matter what you do. So, it’ll be taboo to say “God’s unconditional love” for a while, but when we say “God’s love,” we won’t mean that there are conditions on God’s love, just that we’re being careful not to imply that every blessing from God is similarly unconditional.

  2. sorry, either I am thinking too far ahead and missing the point or too slowly but can’t quite understand the newness of this doctrine. . This is the way I have always viewed divine love. Have I missed something?

  3. “If ye love me, keep my commandments.”

    “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.”

    I think the reason for the conference teaching is to be helpful to us. We err if we think that because God loves us, we can purposefully sin without a need for repentance.

  4. In some ways, Elder Christofferson’s talk is a correction rather than an amplification of then-Elder Nelson’s article. Elder Nelson spent a lot of time looking at conditional language in scripture to say God’s love *is* conditional: there are “ifs” where the “then” is divine love. By contrast, Elder Christofferson’s talk ignores that conditional scriptural language to emphasize that God’s love is perfect, and everlasting and *is* unconditional in at least one sense.

    My reading is that Elder Nelson’s scriptures are proof-texts, where it’s handy to have an “if” to show that something is conditional, but that miss the big picture (and where the little picture may not be divine love itself, but some evidence or manifestation of divine love, like “we will come unto him, and make our abode with him”. By contrast, Elder Christofferson’s emphasis on God’s perfect and everlasting love (which therefore could not be made imperfect or temporary by our own wrongdoing) is more consistent with the bigger picture, where God loves even wicked people enough to be grieved by sin (e.g., in Moses 7) — why would God care if we were “without affection” if he didn’t love us enough to want better for us?

    So, I can live without the phrase “unconditional love” for a while, but I hope Christofferson repaired Nelson’s article enough that actual “conditional love” won’t creep in.

  5. If the point is that we’re trying to protect against the notion of cheap grace, it seems to me that it would be much more straightforward to say (1) that God’s love is unconditional, which is reflected in the gifts that He offers to all creation, and (2) that the fact that some of these gifts are conditional doesn’t limit the love that motivates them any more than satisfying those conditions negates the fact that what is given is still a gift.

  6. For discussion’s sake, consider these verses that seem to support conditional love and conditional hate, all from the OT:
    4 For you are not a God who is pleased with wickedness;
    with you, evil people are not welcome.
    5 The arrogant cannot stand
    in your presence.
    You hate all who do wrong;
    6 you destroy those who tell lies.
    The bloodthirsty and deceitful
    you, Lord, detest. Psalm 5:4-6

    5 The Lord examines the righteous,
    but the wicked, those who love violence,
    he hates with a passion.
    6 On the wicked he will rain
    fiery coals and burning sulfur;
    a scorching wind will be their lot. 7 For the Lord is righteous,
    he loves justice;
    the upright will see his face. -Psalm 11:4-7

    22 “‘Keep all my decrees and laws and follow them, so that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out.
    23 You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you.
    Because they did all these things, I abhorred them.- Leviticus 20: 22-23

    This next set of verses focuses on hating the sin, but notice when it comes to the false witness–it is the person that he hates.

    16 There are six things the Lord hates,
    seven that are detestable to him:
    17 haughty eyes,
    a lying tongue,
    hands that shed innocent blood,
    18 a heart that devises wicked schemes,
    feet that are quick to rush into evil,
    19 a false witness who pours out lies
    and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.- Proverbs 6:16-19

  7. The principle is simple and reasonable.

    In order to receive all of God’s gifts, we must receive some of God’s gifts.

    God gives us our life, and our daily breath. But is we refuse the gift of life, we lose the gift of daily breath. And if we refuse to breathe, the gift of life will not long remain.

    So we must accept the gift of justification in order to receive the gift of sanctification, and we must accept the gift of salvation, in order to receive the gift of exaltation.

    Our Heavenly Parents have already given us the greatest gift: we need only accept it. John 3:5.

    And this doctrine is as old as the Book of Mormon:

    8 And there shall also be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry; nevertheless, fear God—he will justify in committing a little sin; yea, lie a little, take the advantage of one because of his words, dig a pit for thy neighbor; there is no harm in this; and do all these things, for tomorrow we die; and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God.

    9 Yea, and there shall be many which shall teach after this manner, false and vain and foolish doctrines, and shall be puffed up in their hearts, and shall seek deep to hide their counsels from the Lord; and their works shall be in the dark.

    10 And the blood of the saints shall cry from the ground against them.

    11 Yea, they have all gone out of the way; they have become corrupted.

    2 Nephi 28

  8. As a “local leader,’ I would just choose to ignore it. Honestly, just because they said it in GC does not magically make it doctrine. I find it a better practice just to love people in their sins, their imperfections and their practices, and let them discover, through example, how to make themselves better. It will likely get me released soon, but hey, that’s okay too. Gentle guidance and love are a far better way to get people to a better place, than anything else I have ever seen.

  9. I love my kids. That doesn’t mean I give them anything they want or that I can force them to be anything they don’t want to be. How is this complicated?

  10. To me the problem with teaching that God’s love is conditional is that God is supposed to be the perfect parent, our role model. Therefore, saying that God’s love is conditional suggests that we as parents (or grandparents) should also condition our love for our children or grandchildren on their obedience to certain standards.

  11. “The whole discussion by LDS leadership, whatever it means when examined in detail, seems almost calculated to produce this result: to encourage rank and file Mormons to regard lapsed Mormons, gay Mormons, dissenting Mormons, liberal Mormons, or pretty much anyone who disagrees with their particular brand of conservative Mormonism as unloved by God ”

    I’m sorry, but comments like this are hyperbolic and just shut me off towards engagement. The title of the Church’s pamphlet on gay issues is “God loveth his children,” we can discuss whether its policies unintentionally incite the opposite belief, but assuming bad faith on the part of the brethren as if they are “calculating” ways to produce a belief that God doesn’t love gays (while explicitly saying the opposite, tricky them) is a nonstarter.

  12. For some reason I suspect these Brethren are confusing the definition of “love” with “indulgence.” As a restorative, I love Scott Peck’s definition of “love:” “The will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another person’s spiritual growth.” Defined that way, God’s love for His children is clearly unconditional.

  13. To the OP, the title is misleading, as neither Elder Christofferson nor Elder Renlund teaches that God’s love is conditional. so if “conditional love is back,” it is only based on misunderstanding. Elder Christofferson teaches that calling God’s love unconditional can result in misunderstandings, such as a belief that his approval is unconditional (to paraphrase). But he never says that God’s love is conditional. Elder Renlund seems to me to be making the same point. I agree with the subsequent comments that the better approach is to clearly acknowledge God’s unconditional love (rather than avoiding the term out of fear of misunderstanding) and then clearly teaching that it is not the same as unconditional approbation.

    Local Leader, based on the definition of “doctrine,” it seems to me that teaching something in conference by an Apostle literally makes it doctrine (“a belief or set of beliefs held and taught by a church”), since it is a belief taught by the church via an apostle. It doesn’t make it true, and it doesn’t make it canon, but it seems to me that it is literally doctrine, unless we use a special Mormon definition for doctrine.

  14. You say conditional, I say unconditional, let’s call the whole thing off.

    Embedded in the arguments lies a conflicting, yet fundamentally defining view of the human condition:

    Those who cry lo conditional, seem to believe that people are inherently evil and will try to get away with everything they can and thus must be corralled into submission.

    On the other end of the love spectrum (and I’ll bet you can guess where I fall) lies a belief that:

    People do dumb, hurtful and sometimes horrible things, but eventually unconditional love will resonate with the godliness that lies deep within them and they will “come to themselves.”

  15. “The whole discussion by LDS leadership, whatever it means when examined in detail, seems almost calculated to produce this result: to encourage rank and file Mormons to regard lapsed Mormons, gay Mormons, dissenting Mormons, liberal Mormons, or pretty much anyone who disagrees with their particular conservative Mormonism as unloved by God and not deserving of love and kindness.”

    While I do agree that it is rather unfortunate that Christofferson chose to emphasize the conditional blessings rather than the unconditional love in his discussion of divine love (I am a gay Mormon, and posts like USGA’s “My Prayer for This Conference” show how much some are yearning for such a talk), I doubt that the discussion has been explicitly meant to ostracize fringe groups in the Church. Many talks have drawn attention to those who are struggling or those who are outside the conservative norm. Talks such as Elder Holland’s where he wanted to “hug that boy til his eyes bulged out”, Brent H. Nielsen’s talk in April 2015 about his doubting sister. President Uchtdorf’s talk on grace as well as his famous “doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith” champion this as well. In this conference in particular, Elder Cornish’s talk on “Am I Good Enough” captures this vein. While these talks are addressed to those in need of unconditional love rather than the ones who should be extending it, I feel like the message has gotten across. Fellow ward members have shown amazing love and understanding when I have come out to them. While there have been some negative experiences, they are few and in between. I do continue to hope that in the future, we will get more talks that encourage us to “bless them that curse you,” but in the meantime, I’m proud of my ward members and grateful for their love.

  16. I confess this seems completely a semantic issue. Everyone agrees that God’s heart outpours for those who leave him as much as those who follow him. I’m sure to this day he looks at Lucifer and cries out of his love. But love in our culture has many connotations and not all of those fit. Typically those who emphasize unconditional love the most end up adopting a theology of cheap grace where nothing we do matters so long as God loves us and we feel for him.

    A way to think about this is love within a marriage. If someone cheats, is hurtful and damaging you may still love them but need to cut them off. They turn around and say you never loved them. Are they right?

    This whole ‘controversy’ really arises purely out of ambiguities in English and contemporary culture over the meanings of love and unconditional. It’s not just Mormons discussing this either. You find it a topic of controversy among many Christian groups.

  17. I’m really surprised at the emphasis this article gives on this being “new” because this is how I’ve always understood it. There’s nothing new here. It’s not “back,” because it was never gone. Is the author perhaps new to the Church’s teachings?

    After reading through this article, trying to find what exactly is new here, it appears in hindsight that the headline is clickbait and the conclusion sounds like panicky wringing of hands, desperately hoping all those nasty local leaders don’t start hating their gay/liberal/inactive members. It’s a misleading headline (and premise) and an uncharitable and inaccurate caricaturization of local leaders, most of whom (of those I’ve ever known) go out of their way to do their thankless jobs of loving and serving their congregations.

    The summary paragraph toward the end of the article got the concept right but mislabeled it as “new” — it’s exactly what the Church has taught since the beginning (minus the political hand-wringing).

  18. I understand what Elder Christofferson is saying. I have also read widely some Christian pastors’ similar concerns about the term “unconditional” love as it refers to God’s love. Of course, our Church does not want folks to assume that we promote *cheap* grace. Grace, by every definition, is not cheap on the part of the Savior or on the part of those who accept His grace.

    To say that God’s love is conditional does not mean that we assume that God is going to send every sinner to heaven. Yet, when we describe God’s love as unconditional it shows us that God loves every sinner–and we are all sinners–and that He wants to redeem and exalt us if we choose to follow Him.

    To say that His love is conditional, I suspect, causes more harm than good. For those who already feel unworthy of His love, it becomes a reason to give up on God, the Church, and any hope of redemption. To the many members of the Church who seldom feel that they are good enough or doing enough good things, it makes them less rejected by God.

    If we say that God’s love is conditional, then we give folks permission to love conditionally. I believe that is wrong. Loving our enemies and those who despitefully use and persecute us requires unconditional love. Of course, this does not imply that we set no boundaries to protect ourselves from abusers. It does mean, however, that we do not allow ourselves to remain captive to thoughts of revenge, anger, and fear when we have been mistreated and that we forgive as Jesus forgave, turning judgment and justice to our omniscient God.

    We can find many Scriptures that show the unconditional nature of God’s love. Many parables that Jesus taught show it as well, particularly the parable of the Prodigal Son. As leaders continue to remind members that God loves them conditionally, many members feel unloved by God. I strongly believe that too little is said to Church members about how much God loves them. His unconditional love motivates us to want to be good, to follow Him, and to obey Him.

  19. I posit that, ultimately, agency is all that determines our state/status in the hereafter…exalted, saved, “living with God,” etc. Agency is inherent in every human with “the knowledge of good and evil” (to the exclusion of, or which eliminates or handicaps some that are mentally/psychologically unable during their mortal lives). It is not a *gift* from God.

    By that I mean that becoming more righteous, more good, more Christ-like–or less so, is (after all the obeying, living up to covenants, motivation, care, and love in our lives) up to us, alone. We, by our own will, must make/change ourselves to be more honest, more kind, more charitable, or less so.

    Therefore, whether or not God loves us, unconditionally, may well be highly motivational but is not what ultimately determines our state/status/level of exaltation. He cannot forgive what we don’t repent/change in ourselves. He cannot (because He is completely perfect), fail to forgive us for what we do change–thus making the concept, in effect, irrelevant for Him…He has no choice. He cannot “bless” us with eternal life, exaltation, happiness (nor punish us with less of that)–because those are *natural* consequences of the exercise of our inherent agency.

    That is not to say that we don’t really need the enormous aid that comes from all the motivation and positive psychology of good religion and its hyperbole.


  20. There were 2 elephants in the room at conference, gay marriage and the pox, and the election. Neither was mentioned, and this talk was a skirting around gay marriage. Because some claim God would not support the pox,because he loves us all unconditionally, we have talks like these.

    The question that is not addressed is why gay marriage is considdered a sin by the bretheren? The only justification I can see would be if there was a revelation to that effect, as Elder Nelson claimed, but no one backed him up, so why?

    So instead we have these talks that don’t mention the problem, but infer that God loves them less so we can too.This to me is another example of the leaders not being quite honest with us.

  21. I agree with the first part of what you say but don’t think the second part is true. Again I think there’s some fundamental equivocation over the meaning of love that leads to this.

  22. it’s a pretty good bet that those who misconstrue the new LDS doctrine of conditional divine love will draw the shrinking circle of divine love so as to exclude those who practice gay marriage, those who are gay, or those who simply support gay marriage or any other progressive or liberal issue or agenda.

    I dunno, sounds like a pretty bad bet to me. Perhaps your better at reading the tea leaves than I am, but this really sounds like you were planning on something at General Conference which would allow for more discrimination; and when that didn’t happen, this is the closest you could get.
    Elder Christofferson’s talk wasn’t anything that anyone who has studied all of the standard works hasn’t concluded before. He just pointed out (one more time), that even though God loves you, it doesn’t mean that you can avoid the consequences of your actions. There was probably someone(s) who really needed to hear that.

  23. BW what alternative term do you suggest? It’s a fairly well established term for a formal heresy in Protestantism as seen by most Protestant theologians. I’m open to any term you think better.

  24. Many years ago I came to the conclusion that God’s Love is always celestial yet we limit our ability to sense and receive that Love when we sin, and those consequences are especially Eternal–as I see it, in the Eternities God and Jesus are enjoy Celestial Love for us, and we may be receiving/sensing only Terrestrial or Telestial love, depending on where we are. By inference, in the Celestial Kingdom, if we are there, we will feel Celestial Love for our kin, even if some of them enjoy a lesser love if they are not in that kingdom with us. So I can think of “the righteous” being no more “Loved” than the wicked–simply that the righteous are able to sense and receive deeper love.

  25. and, yes, our own personal interpretations can be different that what we hear in Conference. I think one aim with these talks is to avoid common misunderstandings; yet whenever misunderstandings are corrected, the corrections are misunderstood by some also. Must be a regular frustration of Church Leaders

  26. “even though God loves you, it doesn’t mean that you can avoid the consequences of your actions”

    That’s how all of us who are familiar with the standard works and with the principle of God’s unconditional love interpreted Elder Christofferson’s talk — because we are not comfortable ditching the concept of unconditional love for the new doctrine of conditional love. But that’s not exactly what Elder Christofferson said, and it *certainly* is not what Elder Nelson said in 2003.

    Dave and other commenters have already pointed out the dangers implicit in a doctrine of conditional love, not only for our understanding of how God relates to us but also in how that can affect the relationships that some very literal-minded Mormons have with their children. After hearing that God’s love for us is conditional on our obedience, they will naturally bring that down to the next level: their love for their children must be conditional on their children’s obedience to them.

  27. The central metaphor, as I understand it is God’s arms always being outstretched for us to come to him. But we come to him by exercising faith. i.e. Alma 34:15-17 among many

    As I said the way we discuss this loosely is in terms of contemporary senses of love which is problematic for various reasons. I’d add that unconditional love just isn’t a scriptural term. Even ignoring the theological problems with it that have been debated a lot the past few decades in Evangelical thought there is a serious question about it psychologically.

    There’s something to be said for the idea that the idea of unconditional love doesn’t even arise until the 1960s and is a relatively recent bit of pop psychology. And from there into pop theology.

  28. @john f

    After hearing that God’s love for us is conditional on our obedience, they will naturally bring that down to the next level: their love for their children must be conditional on their children’s obedience to them.

    What? I find that really sad that you believe that. For that to be true, it would require parents to only be loving their children because they’re following Heavenly Fathers example, and I am not aware of anyone who loves their child because of that. My experience has been that non-modern western cultures have to teach parents very hard to not love their children if they’re children betray certain laws, and it’s very unnatural to them. So I just don’t see anyone saying “I’m going to stop loving my child because the scriptures never say that God has unconditional love for us.”

  29. The problem is that when you use the word “conditional” it’s ambiguous about whether it means the manifestations of love are conditioned (which they are) or whether the state of loving is conditional (i.e. you feel it or don’t) which is false.

  30. As I wrote years ago now, God’s feeling for me is largely irrelevant. His blessings, however, are important. If I say, “God loves me,” and I am referring to his feeling toward me, this statement is largely meaningless. So what? What we really want are the blessings. And what we can say about God’s blessings is that they are universally available to everyone. The “conditional” and “unconditional” distinction is pretty much useless. If I want blessings, I can have them. But I don’t get them without any effort. Theoretically, that is.

    Someone pointed out that God is a lot less like a vending machine and a lot more like a slot machine. There seems to be a total disconnect in mortality between obedience and blessings. There are a lot of poor, suffering righteous people and a lot of healthy, wealthy people like Donald Trump. Maybe this will all be rectified in the hereafter, but in the here and now, life simply isn’t fair, and God’s love, on a practical level, seems random at best.

  31. On the one hand certainly obedience and faith don’t guarantee a good time. The good suffer. However I do think faith obedience does guarantee blessings just not necessarily the blessings we might want. Further we can discern by the Holy Ghost exactly what blessings God is giving us. That’s a subtle but important difference.

  32. The phrase “unconditional love” is associated in popular consciousness with the love a parent has for a child, which endures even when that child does bad things. It doesn’t imply that a parent gives them everything they want, just that nothing they can do can cause the parent to stop loving the child. This trope is one of the most enduring and powerful cultural assurances in society. Even death row inmates often have mothers who love them.

    Because LDS culture uses parent-child metaphors to describe our relationship with God, it makes sense that we would naturally apply our understanding of parental unconditional love to God. It’s a simple and beautiful way of understanding God’s love.

    But then Elder Nelson came along and started riffing on works-oriented LDS theology, and somehow, the benign phrase “unconditional love” got thrown under the bus. It was probably a mistake. Elder Nelson probably didn’t stop to consider just what a bulwark this phrase is in our understanding of love in the English language. Then some natural confusion and consternation ensued.

    Along comes Elder Christofferson, who probably just wants to help clean up the semantic mess. But what can you do when a more senior apostle makes such a categorical statement like “God’s love is conditional?” All you can do is end up repeating Elder Nelson, but trying to soften and nuance the edges a bit. So you end up sounding like another works-oriented hard-liner, which probably isn’t the case.

    In the end, I think Elder Chrisofferson maybe felt like he needed to kill off the phrase “unconditional love” since it had been irredeemably sullied, and try and replace it with something “God’s love is infinite and eternal” which should mean the same thing, but unfortunately looses the cultural associations “unconditional love” has with parental love. I wonder if he is regretting it. Perhaps it would have been better just to let a few decades pass and we could covertly reintroduce “unconditional love” back into LDS parlance.

  33. Nate what you say in paragraph 1 is correct but is a very recent phenomena. That Psychology Today link in 33 goes through some of that. It largely arises in the 60’s in opposition to the parenting methods and paradigms that came before. So it’s not necessarily an enduring assurance in society and not necessarily even healthy.

    Again though even that article gets at the equivocation between showing love i.e. behavior and feeling love i.e. internal to the parent. The whole notion was popularized by the psychologist Carl Rogers with his notion of unconditional positive regard. I should note that people still defend it and it’s actually a very popular position for Christian therapists. But it really is very new.

    My sense, perhaps wrong, is that this is very much a popular psychology theory determining theology and theological rhetoric. It’s simply not a scriptural phrase. The popular Evangelical theology of “cheap grace” (still open to a different term) becomes popular around the same time culturally. Although theologically the notion goes back quite a ways – the term was coined by Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.

  34. I find this entire thing highly irritating. It seems like a slightly weird, esoteric insistence on a non-typical use of a particular word. And in that sense, it’s an odd word game that Nelson and others seem to be playing. What’s the point? I don’t get it.

    As others have pointed out, the concepts are relatively straightforward. God’s love (in the normal understanding of what that word means) is unconditional. His blessings, of course, are not. This is easy. No problem, right?

    The problem is the insistence by Nelson and others to substitute the word “love” for the word “blessings”. And so … ok sure. If we want to redefine the word “love” to mean “blessings”, then I guess we can all agree that “love” is conditional. But why make the move in the first place? Again, as others have pointed out, there’s little to gain by doing this (other than to play a seemingly pointless semantic game), but there IS the potential risk that some will interpret the talks as reinforcing the idea that God loves sinners less. Which seems to go against the very essence of what the Savior’s ministry was all about, and may produce uncharitable behavior. (So again, why risk it, on behalf of a cute word game?)

    Having said all that, one of the most interesting comments on this post is from “R” (#36) who suggests something provocative: maybe God’s “love” as it were, isn’t that relevant, ultimately, and that it’s all about the presence/absence of blessings anyway. (As R says, if God’s love simply refers to the feeling God has for us, that’s “irrelevant” or meaningless.) I happen to disagree with this perspective, but it’s an interesting one. Maybe President Nelson has the same perspective as R, which is what creates this whole disconnect in the first place.

    For my part, unlike R I happen to think that the simple knowledge of God’s “feeling” for me – – and all that knowledge implies – – is TERRIBLY important. As in the parable of the prodigal son, the knowledge that son had of his father’s love for him (and therefore, his father’s pending forgiveness) was the thing that ultimately helped the straying son choose to return in the first place. The love (or specifically, the son’s belief in his father’s love) is the thing that motivated the change/repentance, which in turn is the thing that triggered the blessings. Viola! But i’m not sure how the son works his way to the decision to return, without the knowledge of his father’s “feelings” of love toward him, and that the father’s feelings were, essentially, unconditional.

    Anyhow, here I am engaging in the very thing on the blog comments that I think is ultimately unproductive from the pulpit, in my view. (In other words, what’s good for the blogs isn’t always good for General Conference…) This seems like a pseudo-intellectual exercise that has very little potential upside and at least some risk of misunderstanding/downside among the saints’ lived experiences, in the context of redefining the use of a word like “love” in a GC talk.

  35. Going off of what Local Leader said (#10), I think that loving people in their sins is exactly the example that God gives to us. While God cannot provide certain higher blessings for disobedient children, His strategy is to love them until they come unto Him, which is the same as what we should be doing. I think that that is what the Brethren want us to do, and it sounds to me like they are pushing that in many of their talks in GC.

  36. “I think that loving people in their sins is exactly the example that God gives to us. While God cannot provide certain higher blessings for disobedient children, His strategy is to love them until they come unto Him.”

    Sometimes he humbles them until they come unto him. Sometimes he permits other wicked children to punish them with cruel acts until they come unto him. Sometimes, he cuts them off from blessings entirely and gives those blessings unto others — but always his arms are outstretched for them to come unto him.

    He loves his wayward children. But “love them until they return” might have a different meaning if you forget that he also declared:

    Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land: But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.

    So, we are to have Christ-like love in our heart and actions, and repent of our sins. Those who refuse will be devoured. We should be clear how all encompassing that love is (blessing and punishment).

Comments are closed.