The 1970 movie, Love Story, produced a memorable catchphrase: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” While that line had its day, many people have rightly criticized this statement. Never telling someone you’re sorry when you mess up is a sure way to kill a relationship. Love moves us to express regret when we hurt someone. While I think most people would find this message easy to dismiss, the sentiment behind it is not.
To love unconditionally or conditionally? Make up your mind!
Here’s one way to rephrase this quote: “When you love someone, you’ll accept and understand that person regardless of what they say or do, because your love is unconditional.” I think that in our present age of relativism and tolerance, “accepting people as they are” would seem a cornerstone for developing close relationships. But, what exactly does that mean, anyway?
Should we really accept someone as they are no matter what they do or say? If your partner abuses you physically or verbally, should you still accept them as they are without any strings attached? If your spouse continues to act thoughtlessly and hurt you, should you shrug it off as just their way of doing things? This understanding of unconditional love sets us up for some highly dysfunctional relationships.
So what’s the alternative? One option is to say it’s okay to set conditions. But which ones? Conditional love — where we say “I’ll love you if…” — has its problems, too. Should a parent love her child only if that child does what the parent wants? Should a married couple break up when one person does something the other one doesn’t like? In a world of conditional love, relationships would become transient social transactions that we move in and out of as it suits our needs. Could you ever really call that love? I don’t think so.
There is another option: Christian love.
When it comes to loving others, Catholic Christians recognize at least three foundational principles:
1) God has created every person — regardless of how they look, act, or even smell— in His image and with a divine soul. We are created lovely. We have an inestimable value and worth because of our Creator, not because of what we do or say.
2) Jesus Christ, the Son of God, showed what real, sacrificial love is, by giving himself up for us so could have life and have it abundantly. He is the ultimate model for each of us to follow and aspire.
3) We are to love God with our whole heart, mind, and soul; and we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Given these, there is no question that we are to love others unconditionally. This does NOT mean, however, accepting each person as they are, but begins with treating everyone with honor and respect. We are to act virtuously toward everyone, regardless of how they treat us. Love is patient, kind, gentle, generous, and forgiving. Love seeks the good of others. Unconditional love, then, is a decision to treat each person as God’s creation; to treat them with honor, to act virtuously, and to encourage each person toward their divine destiny.
Recognizing Our Limits
That doesn’t mean we don’t have limits.
We are not all-powerful, all-knowing beings with infinite resources. We’re broken people who have been wounded by sin. Our feelings get hurt. We act selfishly. We get angry, jealous, envious, resentful, etc. We don’t always say or do the right thing. God gave us boundaries on our behavior to keep both ourselves and our relationships healthy. We create other boundaries to prevent our weaknesses and limitations from injuring ourselves and others.
We have many relationships, and not all of them are at the same level. They vary according to depth and level of commitment. We love God and demonstrate our love for Him by following His commands and counsels. We have a special vocation of love that is exclusive to our spouse. We act differently toward co-workers and casual acquaintances. We love ourselves, not in a self-centered way, but with the same honor and unconditional love we are to show every person.
Unconditional love is a decision to treat each person as God’s creation; to treat them with honor, to act virtuously, and to encourage them toward their divine destiny.
How can we do it all? Enter God’s grace and the Holy Spirit. He leads us to those particular people and situations meant for us. He guides us as we seek to manage life’s demands. He heals us and gives us the strength and ability to love like Jesus.
Accepting others as they are, sounds great, but when you play it out to its logical conclusion, it’s a recipe for disaster. Healthy relationships require unconditional love—but love that is defined God’s way.
Love Story is part of an ongoing series on relationships and the Christian faith.