Have you ever given your heart to someone you believe you love, only to have your overtures rejected - time and again?
What about the predicament of a child wrestling with a competitive sibling who has no sense of fair play, a frustrated parent struggling to love a moody adolescent, or an adult son or daughter caring for parents who need more help than in the past?
It's all too easy to tie yourself in emotional knots from which there's no obvious escape - unless you pause to reexamine a phrase that has saved me many a heartache. It is unconditional love, which I'm learning really means to love someone without reservation - in God's way.
Most people long to enjoy this kind of love. They suspect it's something they can receive only by giving it to others, but it keeps eluding their grasp, especially when they're hurt or angry. It hovers in a landscape contoured with "whys," "whens," "ifs," and "buts."
Unconditional love doesn't require you to delve into family traits of character - or anyone else's family history. It accepts that even those who love you deeply and consistently may not meet your every need, or always be at your beck and call.
It's the sort of love that remains loving no matter what human conditions try to tell you. No matter how many complications arise, it stays firmly anchored. It doesn't accept cop-outs relating to temperament or genes or astrological influences.
The Apostle Paul gave what I've found to be the most helpful definition of unconditional love. He didn't use that adjective, but summed it up in pertinent phrases such as, "Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self.... Doesn't force itself on others ... [a]lways looks for the best" (I Cor. 13, Eugene Peterson, "The Message").
Unconditional love is called for in dozens of situations - in friendships, marriage, family affairs, parenting. It also heals tense situations in the supermarket line, the office, the classroom, the polling booth, or the sports field. When understood and practiced, it's a life-changing power that can never be wasted, bent out of shape, or lost.
I've found that to understand unconditional love, you have to begin with the essential nature of man as divine Love's reflection. Patiently and tirelessly pray to know that people's deepest spiritual aspirations for truth, beauty, and love - which are all derived from God - will be revealed at just the right moment for them and for you. Every act of unconditional love on our part is a link to God, who is Love itself.
Agreed, sticking with people isn't always easy - least of all, those who have been the source of inner turmoil, loneliness, rejection, or abuse. But if we fail at first to love them in the way we know in our hearts we should, do we simply take the blame for inadequate effort and give up? Or do we begin stocking up with God's love, which is always available, never inadequate, never exhausts itself, never withers nor decays.
Religion writer Max Lucado points out in his book "A Love Worth Giving" that God's love is different from ours in that it doesn't depend on its recipients. He says that individuals have no "thermostatic impact" on God's love for them.
God loves us not because of our goodness, he adds, but because of His goodness, kindness, and faithfulness toward us. No wonder the Apostle John wrote: "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us" (I John 4:10, New International Version).
This prompts the question: "Do I treat people the way I'm discovering God treats me?"
I have found that the less focused I am on the response I receive from others, the freer I am to connect with the pure, healing love that flows in a steady stream from God. When my heart is consistently filled with gratitude for God's love for me, it's much easier for me to show a more expansive love toward others - without conditions.
I make strong demands on love, call for active witnesses to prove it, and noble sacrifices and grand achievements as its results.
Mary Baker Eddy
(founder of the Monitor)