Several months ago, I could tell something was “off” in my relationship with my wife. We weren’t as close as we had been before. I attributed it to busyness and stress, but God exposed my lack of unconditional love.
Then an evangelist came to our church. He preached a sermon on Romans 8:28–39. Take a minute to read the passage yourself.
“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written:
“For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”
Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The sermon was on the unconditional love of God. I remember an illustration that rubbed me the wrong way. The preacher said when he disciplines his children, he has a habit of asking them, “Does Daddy love you?” Of course, the answer is “Yes.” But next comes the trick question: “Ya, but does Daddy love you more when you are good?” The correct answer is “No. Daddy loves me just as much when I am bad as when I am good.”
Is that really a biblical way to think?
Jesus is clear in John 15:9-10 that we abide in His love by keeping His commandments.
“As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.”
However, this does not mean that God loves us less when we disobey Him. Rather, it is my experience of His love which is at stake. Notice, Jesus doesn’t say that when I disobey Him, He withholds love from me. That would be cruel. Instead, He says that when I disobey, it is as if I am walking away from His love.1
So when Jesus says, “Abide in my love,” He is referring to God’s provisional love. (That is the part I was getting.) But when Paul says, “Nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ,” he means God’s selective love. (That is the part I was missing.)
To clarify, when I say, “I was missing it,” I don’t mean I was missing it altogether. I’ve been to seminary. I know what Romans 8 means. However, an emphasis on God’s unconditional love was missing from my daily life and especially my relationships.
Here are some examples of what that looked like.
- Passive-aggressive comments – I am helping my wife bring in groceries. I had asked her to buy milk, but there’s none in the van. I ask, “Did you forget milk?” not because I am lacking information but to punish her forgetfulness.
- Withholding words of affection – On days when I come home and the laundry and dishes are done, I tell Elise how much I love her. On days when the house is in chaos, I say something like, “Been a rough day?”
- Task-oriented focus – My speech revolves around accomplishing tasks rather than knowing my wife.
These habits were weakening my marriage. And they were spilling over into other relationships too. I realized that when trying to create conversation with my children, I usually asked about how they did on their homework that day, how their piano songs were going, whether their room was clean, etc.
Unknowingly, I was sending the signal, “What Daddy cares about most is how you perform.” It is a small step from there to “Daddy’s love is dependent on your performance.” Even in the high school Bible class I teach, I often praised students who were doing well but could be short with those who weren’t trying. I was failing to internalize and live out God’s unconditional love. When I told my wife about what I was learning, she was overjoyed and told me she had been praying for me about those same things.
I am learning that when I come home from work and the house is a mess, those are the days to move closer to my wife with words of love and affection. Why? Because it is in those moments that I have the best opportunity to demonstrate to Elise the security of our relationship. 2
Dads have a reputation for being the no-nonsense, get- ‘er-done parents. We like to push our kids to perform to their maximum potential. That’s a good thing. However, beneath all our pushing of our children must flow (in the words of The Jesus Storybook Bible author Sally Lloyd-Jones) a “Never-Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love.”3 Christian Dad, has God’s unconditional love in Christ taken root in your soul? Do your wife and children know that you love them unconditionally?
D.A. Carson’s little book, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God is helpful at this point. Carson distinguishes between God’s selective love (which cannot possibly change) and His provisional love (which is conditioned upon the believer’s obedience). Carson argues that both concepts are biblical. D.A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000). See especially pp. 17–22. ↩︎
If any of this strikes a chord with you and you want to take a deep dive on God’s unconditional love, I recommend the book, Gentle and Lowly, by Dane Ortland. I have been reading through it with a friend, and it has blessed my soul. Over and over, Ortland argues that Christ’s heart goes out more (not less!) to those who are struggling with sin and suffering. Dwelling on this truth breeds assurance, because I cannot destroy a love that I didn’t precipitate and don’t maintain. Dane Ortland, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020). ↩︎
Sally Lloyd-Jones, The Jesus Storybook Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007). See John Dalyrmple’s review of the book here. ↩︎
Growing Fathers Team
Kristopher serves as as the youth and discipleship pastor at Northwest Valley Baptist Church in Glendale, AZ. He and his wife, Elise, have four young children—Anaya, Felicity, Mollie Jo, and Klayton.View all posts by Kristopher
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