Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Conditional Love: The Greatest Of All Lies

It pains me to have to write this post. Ten years ago, one of the leaders of a major Christian church asserted that God's love is not unconditional.

If you have to ask which church he belongs to, you probably haven't been paying attention.

That's right. Sadly, it was our very own apostle Russell M. Nelson, who, in February 2003, wrote an article in the LDS Church-owned Ensign magazine titled "Divine Love." In it, he declares: "While divine love can be called perfect, infinite, enduring, and universal, it cannot correctly be characterized as unconditional."

Of all religions to succumb to such a bald-faced lie, the last one that should fall victim to it is Mormonism. Remember Mormonism? That branch of Christianity that rejects the cruel, fear-based heaven/hell dichotomy? The one that teaches we are all eternal beings, with no beginning and no end, having been literally crafted in the image and likeness of God, dwelling with him before being born on Earth? The one that promises eternal progression paved by a God willing to give us all that he has, whose work and glory is "to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man"?

Well, turns out that, in spite of all those incredible things, we can still reach a point where God will throw his hands in the air, fed up with our sinful ways, and love us no more.

Sure, we in the modern church may still preach some of the positive things about God, but it seems we don't really believe them anymore. The man upstairs has morphed from the loving father Joseph Smith testified of into the cliche, Old Testament literalist, bearded bully just waiting to smite us the second we fall off the mark.

And now we have a doctrinal position put forth by one of our leaders that isn't exactly going to clear up such misconceptions.

To be fair, Nelson correctly identifies God's love as perfect, infinite, enduring, and universal. Taking just these parts of his message, one can rightly envision the God of love Mormonism espoused from its inception. But there's a glaring characteristic of God's love that Nelson doesn't just leave alone--he turns it completely upside down. He theorizes:
While divine love can be called perfect, infinite, enduring, and universal, it cannot correctly be characterized as unconditional. The word does not appear in the scriptures. On the other hand, many verses affirm that the higher levels of love the Father and the Son feel for each of us—and certain divine blessings stemming from that love—are conditional.
The words "follow the prophet" don't appear in the scriptures either, but that doesn't stop the Church from teaching it as the ultimate gospel truth. Using the scriptures the way Elder Nelson does here is always a dangerous game, and I'll tell you why.

It's important to remember we do not believe scriptures are infallible. Even the Book of Mormon acknowledges the possibility of "the mistakes of men" within its covers. We also do not believe that there is any way to interpret scriptures but through the Spirit. In Temple and Cosmos, Hugh Nibley wrote, "We don't have a professional clergy--a paid ministry that gives official interpretation of the scriptures--as we've always said we don't. There's no office in the Church that qualifies the holder to give the official interpretation of the Church. We're to read the scriptures for ourselves, as guided by the Spirit." Not even the folks in upper management can take the place of the Holy Ghost, no matter how much we'd like them to, since it's so much easier to just leave the thinking to them.

You may recall that in Joseph Smith-History, the Prophet observed that "the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling [questions] by an appeal to the Bible" (JS-H 1:12). And such a condition is still prevalent today, even in the restored Church. Without the Spirit, scriptures are just words on a piece of paper, from which the reader is free to draw conclusions based on any number of preconceived notions, past experiences, or partial understandings of contexts and definitions. Scriptures are man's best attempt to transcribe spiritual inspiration into imperfect written language. This is why we must tread carefully before we use isolated verses from even the most inspired of works to prove a point, especially a point that goes counter to our innate understanding of God and principles that were consistently taught by the Church from the pulpit as recently as 1994.

That being said, let's have a look at the scriptures Nelson references. I've separated them into three parts based off the kind of argument being made for God's alleged conditional love. And yes, I'll be asserting my own personal interpretation of their meanings--just as Elder Nelson has. Through the Holy Ghost, that personal revelatory relationship anyone can have with God, it can be revealed to you what is correct.
"If ye keep my commandments, [then] ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love." (John 15:10)
• "If you keep not my commandments, [then] the love of the Father shall not continue with you." (D&C 95:12)
These two verses point to conditionality alright, but it isn't God's love that is conditional. It's our ability to abide (to remain or reside) in it. In other words, when we reject God by disobeying or ignoring him, we are shunning his love. We are not allowing it to work within us. But that does not mean God doesn't love us any more. If that were the case, then he wouldn't love any of us, according to the parameters Nelson believes these verses have set. None of us have kept the Lord's commandments fully our entire lives; so according to this mindset, once we sin, his love for us is no more. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, we go through life in a pattern of ebbs and flows. There are times when we are quick to repent and come unto Christ, and there are times we are not. But that doesn't mean God has left us during the dark times; it means we have left him.

• "If a man love me, [then] he will keep my words: and my Father will love him." (John 14:23)
• "I love them that love me; and those that seek me … shall find me." (Proverbs 8:17)
• "He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him." (John 14:21) 
• The Lord "loveth those who will have him to be their God." (1 Nephi 17:40)
Nelson appears to use these four verses not for what they say, but for what they don't say. He is inferring that since the Father loves those who love him, then he must not love those who don't love him. But that is a false conclusion. These verses are entirely focused on the relationship we can have with God if we keep his words and seek after him than they are about the fate of those who do not do such things. If God really doesn't love those who don't love him back, why on Earth would he send his Son to die for the sins of all mankind, knowing most would reject his message?

• "God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him." (Acts 10:34-35)
Frankly, this example is just plain weak. We're not even talking about love here. We're using the much more subdued verb "accepted," which can mean many things, including "approved." I don't have to be a parent to know that I can disapprove of something my child does without losing my ability to love him.

Nelson also goes on to quote multiple verses about the conditional nature of blessings. On this, we pretty much come to agreement. But it's a moot point. Being blessed by the Lord and being loved by the Lord are completely different things, and he unnecessarily conflates the two throughout the piece.

It's also worth noting that even these scriptures don't take all situations into account. For example, one of the verses Nelson quotes, Mosiah 2:22, reads, "if ye would keep his commandments ye should prosper in the land; and he never doth vary from that which he hath said; therefore, if ye do keep his commandments he doth bless you and prosper you." Smack dab in the middle of King Benjamin's grand sermon--one of my favorite sections of the Book of Mormon--this verse and the many like it still don't tell the whole story.

Context, context, context! Read the next two verses to see what I'm getting at:
"And now, in the first place, he hath created you, and granted unto you your lives, for which ye are indebted unto him. And secondly, he doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you; and therefore he hath paid you. And ye are still indebted unto him, and are, and will be, forever and ever; therefore, of what have ye to boast?" (Mosiah 2:23-24)
It is strongly implied in Nelson's piece that those who follow the commandments will be blessed by the Lord temporally--notice his tithing example and the fact that he uses the verse with the phrase "prosper in the land." But in the follow-up verses, which outline two different ways we are blessed, it sure looks like "prospering in the land" might not be what it may seem on the surface. King Benjamin explains that: 1) we are blessed in that we've been created and simply have life; and 2) we are "immediately" blessed in that God "hath paid us" for following him. The tone here is that we are paid spiritually. "And ye are still indebted unto him"; he's talking about the atonement, and everything that goes into it, which just so happens to be for all mankind.

The reason I bring this up is because there is a tacit belief among the church that God will give us stuff--wealth, health, etc--for following the commandments. That's not always the case. What he gives us is spiritual in nature--instant and direct access to the Atonement, which has already been paid for all, and made available to all. If more understood this, maybe they wouldn't leave the church because they felt ripped off by being faithful followers for years and not having any tangible blessings to show for it. The immediate blessings of which Benjamin speaks are spiritual. The Lord can bless us temporally, and often does, but it would go against the purpose of life for him to always bail us out of every trial we face, no matter how well we follow his commandments.

But I digress. Back to the main point.

Later, Nelson writes:
Why is divine love conditional? Because God loves us and wants us to be happy. "Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God."
I'm left scratching my head on this one. I just don't see how happiness being our objective and divine love being conditional are related. I absolutely agree that the path of virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, and holiness leads to happiness, but it is only while being guided by the Lord's unconditional love are we even able to approach that state. The incorrect implication, as discussed earlier, that God only loves us when we keep the commandments, is a mockery of the atonement. It is only through the atonement--the ultimate expression of God's perfect and infinite love--that we are able to find the eternal joy we are all seeking, not through our own personal ability to keep all the commandments. A lost soul who has rejected or ignored God while living a life of sin is just as much entitled to that love than the super righteous commandment keeper who stayed awake for all ten hours of General Conference. To imply one is loved more than the other runs completely counter to the essence of Christ's teachings.

To be more succinct, it is because divine love is unconditional that we are able to find the happiness God wants for us all.

Understanding that divine love and blessings are not truly "unconditional" can defend us against common fallacies such as these: "Since God’s love is unconditional, He will love me regardless …"; or "Since 'God is love,' He will love me unconditionally, regardless …"
These arguments are used by anti-Christs to woo people with deception. Nehor, for example, promoted himself by teaching falsehoods: He "testified unto the people that all mankind should be saved at the last day, … for the Lord had created all men, … and, in the end, all men should have eternal life." Sadly, some of the people believed Nehor’s fallacious and unconditional concepts.
In contrast to Nehor’s teachings, divine love warns us that "wickedness never was happiness." Jesus explains, "Come unto me and be ye saved; … except ye shall keep my commandments, … ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven."
This section irritates me the most about this article, because it can easily lead the reader to conclude that if he's been "bad enough," God doesn't love him anymore and there is no reason to repent. I'd like to ask Elder Nelson if he could give me a hypothetical example of someone who is no longer loved by God. What sin could we possibly commit to eternally detach ourselves from the love he already admits is infinite, perfect, enduring, and universal?

In reality, the myth of God's conditional love doesn't work when you apply it to either side of the veil. In this life, as long as you're still breathing, you can still repent. You can still access the atonement. It doesn't follow that you can begin down those paths absent God's love.

In the life to come, Mormonism teaches a rather universalist view of salvation. Eventually, everyone who has lived on this planet will be given some degree of glory, save the few sons of perdition who have had a perfect knowledge of God and still rejected him. But I submit that God still loves every single one of them. Does Nelson believe that God would glorify--even to a telestial glory--any of his sons and daughters he doesn't love? Let's remember the telestial kingdom will be comprised of those who were "liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers" who suffered "the wrath of God on earth" and "the vengeance of eternal fire" (D&C 76:103-105). Yet these people will still be saved! Elder Nelson can't pin that teaching on Nehor. Hell, even the sons of perdition await a fate that the "end thereof...no man knows" (D&C 76:45). And then there's all the evidence that ultimately we can progress between kingdoms, but I won't go into that here.

The point is, everyone's situation will be accounted for by the love of God. Some will experience extremely difficult and painful repentance processes, whether in this life or the life to come, but God will never, ever, ever, ever leave them. It is against his nature. Let me illustrate by plugging a powerful book I recently read.
A New York Times bestseller, it's called The Shack, written by Wm. Paul Young. It's about a man named Mack struggling with the brutal murder of his 6-year old daughter, and the healing process he undergoes while spending a weekend at a cabin with God. Even though it may espouse a few ideas counter to LDS thought, I highly recommend it, not necessarily as an exposition on doctrine but as a parable on charity and forgiveness. The underlying message is one of God's unconditional love for every one of his children.

In one part, while talking to Mack about sin, God says, "I don't need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It's not my purpose to punish it; it's my joy to cure it.”

Boy, that last part sure sounds like Moses 1:39, doesn't it? That verse doesn't say that it's the Lord's work and glory to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man--if they behave themselves, or if he deems them worthy, or if they attend church every Sunday. There are no caveats to his work and his glory. Of course we can only be glorified inasmuch as we allow ourselves to be, but don't get God wrong--his purpose is not to punish sins, but to cure us from them. He wants us all to return to him because he loves us all unconditionally.

Another point I'd like to make is that God is pretty straightforward in regards to his expectations for us and our fellow man. We are commanded to not only love him with all our heart, might, mind, and strength, but our brethren as well. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ invoked: "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" (Matthew 5:44). Wait a second, we're supposed to LOVE our ENEMIES? How the heck are we supposed to do that? Well, for starters, we can't do it on our own. We must tap into the Christ consciousness, the pure love of God he has for all creation, which will allow us to see others the way that God sees us. The idea that he asks us to love those who hate us while at the same time not following through himself is nonsense. For "God is love" (1 John 4:16). I imagine it's difficult--nay, impossible--for God's defining trait to be dependent upon our minuscule little actions. The funny thing is, because of God's infinite love, our minuscule little actions can take on supreme importance in the eternities.

One final hypothetical for you to consider. Imagine a member of the church who has been inactive for years stumbling upon this talk by Russell Nelson. Perhaps she feels a hole in her life, and has a desire to seek out the Lord again. She turns to back to the Church which she remembers claims modern prophets and apostles commune with God, to whom he make his will known. She is intrigued by the title "Divine Love," and ends up reading the entire thing.

Do you think this article will leave her with a positive impression of the Church of her childhood? Or will she see it as just another futile call for obedience that will hopefully allow us to "qualify," as Elder Nelson puts it, for the blessings of eternal life?

Let me close by invoking The Shack one more time. God reveals to Mack a truth about our relationship with God that puts our entire lives in perspective:

"You... were created to be loved. So for you to live as if you were unloved is a limitation, not the other way around... Living unloved is like clipping a bird's wing and removing its ability to fly... A bird is not defined by being grounded but by his ability to fly. Remember this, humans are defined not by their limitations, but by the intentions I have for them; not by what they seem to be, but by everything it means to be created in my image. Love is NOT the limitation; love is the flying. I AM love."

When it comes to God's infinite love for us, it cannot be limited. It cannot be conditional. Then it would cease to be infinite. It is my hope to all who read this that, if nothing else, they know that God loves them no matter what. Don't believe anyone, regardless of any claimed authority, who tells you otherwise.

2 comments:

  1. So, rhetorical question here. Why was this talk not pulled or modified before publication? Great post, BTW. Thank you. -Enoch

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    1. Because Nelson has seniority, Enoch. Junior apostles do not correct their superiors. It just isn't done.

      And lest we forget: Russell Nelson, demonic champion of false doctrine, is next in line to be President of the Church.

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