Are we to Love our neighbor unconditionally?


In our recent series on God’s love, we discussed God’s relationship with men and the question of whether God has unconditional love for all people. In this Q&A, we will address the question of whether God requires unconditional love between human beings, and if not, what does He require of His people?

We read that we must love our neighbor as ourselves (compare Matthew 19:19; 22:39; Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8).

As we are to love our fellow man AS ourselves, do we have unconditional love for ourselves?

We read that we love and cherish our own flesh and that it would be highly unnatural to hate ourselves. Ephesians 5:29 states: “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church.”

But this does not mean that we have unconditional love for ourselves. Paul said in Romans 7:15-25 that he hated what he was doing, when he sinned: “For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do… I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice… O wretched man that I am!…”

Christ said that if we do not hate others and ourselves, we cannot be His disciples (compare Luke 14:26). We explained in a previous Q&A, this means loving less by comparison (compare the parallel account in Matthew 10:37). But some have also suggested that it could refer to the evil in ourselves and in others which we must hate.

Christ looked at people with anger, hating what they were doing and what they were (compare Mark 3:5). Christ had righteous anger. Many times, we do not reflect that kind of anger, and we are warned to be careful to control our anger, even when it is justified. James 1:19-20 tells us: “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” Proverbs 16:32 adds: “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, And he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.” And Ecclesiastes 7:9 elaborates: “Do not hasten in your spirit to be angry, For anger rests in the bosom of fools.”

But there is time for righteous anger. Matthew 5:22 states the dangers we are in when we are angry with our brother “without a cause,” implying that there are justified occasions to be angry with our brother for a cause. But even then, we are admonished to control our anger. Ephesians 4:26-27 says:

“‘Be angry, and do not sin’: do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil.”

Still, there are situations when we can and should be angry with our neighbor because of their conduct. Christ gives us this instructive parable in Luke 14:16-24: “A certain man gave a great supper and invited many, and sent his servant at supper time to say to those who were invited, ‘Come, for all things are now ready.’ But they all with one accord began to make excuses… Then the master of the house, being angry, said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in here the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind.’… For I say to you that none of those men who were invited shall taste my supper.'”

Here, the master of the house [representative of God the Father] is described with righteous anger over the ingratitude of those who were invited to his supper. In Mark 12:1-9, the owner of the vineyard [again representing God the Father] destroys the evil vinedressers who had killed his son, and gave the vineyard to others. Even though these parables describe what God will do, they show that righteous anger is justified. David, a man after God’s own heart, expressed his anger over wicked evildoers in those dramatic terms, in Psalm 139:19-22:

“Oh, that You would slay the wicked, O God! Depart from me, therefore, you bloodthirsty men. For they speak against You wickedly; Your enemies take Your name in vain. Do I not hate them, O Lord, who hate You? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.”

David hated the evildoers with perfect hatred. Perfect hatred here means fully balanced, not unjustified or overblown hatred. As we explained in a previous Q&A, he did not hate the person as such, but he hated what the sinner was doing, as Paul hated it when he sinned, or one could say, he hated himself for sinning against God.

David explained in other passages that he hated the evil conduct of sinners. In Psalm 26:4-5, we read: “I have not sat with idolatrous mortals, Nor will I go in with hypocrites. I have hated the assembly of evildoers, And will not sit with the wicked.” He states in Psalm 101:3: “I will set nothing wicked before my eyes; I hate the work of those who fall away; It shall not cling to me. A perverse heart shall depart from me…”

All of these passages show that the concept of unconditional love does not apply when sin is involved. “Unconditional love” would mean loving a sinner unconditionally, no matter what the person is doing. That is the kind of tolerating, accepting, and approving wrong conduct. That is not the kind of love God speaks about. And that is not the kind of love God has for us. As we explained previously, when we live in sin, we do not stay in or keep ourselves in God’s love, either.

When Paul sinned, he had no unconditional love for himself. When others sinned in David’s presence, he did not have unconditional love for them, either.

Consider this:

Unconditional love would mean that a mother has to love the murderer and rapist of her child unconditionally; that a husband who is forced by kidnappers to observe the rape and torture and murder of his wife in front of his eyes must love those brutes and beasts unconditionally; that survivors of millions of innocent victims who were tortured and killed by the Nazis in concentration camps or who were slaughtered by Stalin have to love those loveless demonic murderers unconditionally; and the list could go on and on. Obviously, something would be very wrong with that concept.

There are of course times when we must love others unconditionally. We are to love and help others. The parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37 is a prime example. The Samaritan–despised by the Jews–was willing to help a Jewish victim of robbers without any reservations.

We are to love even our enemies by helping them when they are in need. Matthew 5:43-48 reads:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be [better: become] perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”

In this context, we could speak of unconditional love, because we do not say: I will only help you if and when you change your evil behavior. Rather, Christ tells us: Do good to those who hate you.

But even then, the result of our loving conduct towards our enemies could be that they will become ashamed of their evil conduct and perhaps change for the better. We read in Proverbs 25:21-22: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; For so you will heap coals of fire on his head, And the LORD will reward you.”

Paul adds the following thoughts in Romans 12:17-21:

“Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. Therefore ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

But this does not mean, we always love them unconditionally, no matter what they do.

We are to forgive once they repent. We always have to have an attitude of willingness to forgive upon repentance, but this does not describe unconditional love. Repentance is a condition for forgiveness. But sometimes it is good to overlook sinful conduct, even without repentance, realizing that we are not to condemn others. Proverbs 17:9 states: “He who covers a transgression seeks love, But he who repeats a matter separates friends.”

We should try to make the best of a bad situation. This may apply to a not-so-harmonious relationship between husband and wife, or between parents and children or relatives. We are admonished, as quoted above from the book of Romans, to try to live peaceably with all men. Hebrews 12:14 says:

“Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.”

Proverbs 19:11 says:  “The discretion of a man makes him slow to anger, And his glory is to overlook a transgression.”

We also read in Acts 17:30: “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked…”, but notice how Paul continues: “… but now commands all men everywhere to repent.”

Overlooking sin does not mean forgiveness. Rather: God has overlooked the times of ignorance… not judging and condemning them yet… but now He demands repentance.

Neither does overlooking sins mean, unconditional love and unconditional willingness to work with someone, for instance in business, who has betrayed us in the past and has shown no signs of remorse, or who is a cheat and a liar and an embezzler. We are clearly told in 2 Corinthians 6:14-17:

“Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will dwell in them And walk among them. I will be their God, And they shall be My people.’ Therefore ‘Come out from among them And be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, And I will receive you.’”

It is because of this incompatibility, that God gives us a physical example from the animal world in Deuteronomy 22:10: “You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together.” One reason for this admonition is because the step and pull of the two beasts are unequal.

There are other times when we must not overlook sin, which totally negates the concept of unconditional love.

We said this in part 2 of our series about God’s love towards us:

“God shows ‘tough love’ for us if there is a need for correction. He is not showing ‘unconditional’ love at that moment by saying: ‘I will let them do what they want to do, because of my unconditional love for them.’ That idea is false and related to the wrong concept that no matter what we do, we are already saved. We CAN lose our salvation (compare Philippians 2:12; Hebrews 2:1-4), and in that sense, we can lose God’s love in us when we rebel and turn against Him, while hating and despising Him, without a desire to return to Him.”

When Christ and Stephen asked for forgiveness for their enemies, that was not an unconditional request. They did not ask God to forgive them at that moment while they were still continuing to live in their sin of murder and rebellion against God, without any sign of remorse and repentance. Rather, they asked God, in effect, not to “hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60, New International Version) and to forgive them (Luke 23:34), once they would come to understanding and repentance. Jesus and Stephen knew, of course, that God would not forgive them without repentance. Peter knew this too. He later said to Christ’s murderers, in Acts 2:38: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” He repeated the same message in Acts 3:19: “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord…” Peter knew that their sins had NOT been blotted out yet and forgiven, as they had not yet repented.

Paul ordered the excommunication of an unrepentant sinner, in 1 Corinthians 5:1, 5, 9-13:

“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles–that a man has his father’s wife!…deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus…

“I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner–not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore ‘put away from yourselves the evil person.’”

However, when the sinner repented, Paul asked the church members to welcome him back, as we read in 2 Corinthians 2:6-8: “This punishment which was inflicted by the majority is sufficient for such a man, so that, on the contrary, you ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love to him.”

We also read that parents are to educate and discipline their children. For instance, we read in Proverbs 13:24: “He who spares his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him promptly.”

Parents are not to ignore the bad conduct and actions of their children. This would show a lack of love for them. They are to discipline their children, when needed. They are not to show “unconditional” love in such situations, but “tough” love.

We are also told to rebuke our neighbor, when this becomes necessary and when it is within the sphere of our influence and responsibility…again showing that the love which we have for our neighbor is not “unconditional” in the sense that we do not care and grieve about his sin.

Luke 17:3-4 says: “Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.”

Proverbs 19:25 reads: “Strike a scoffer, and the simple will become wary; Rebuke one who has understanding, and he will discern knowledge.”

Proverbs 27:5 reads: “Open rebuke is better Than love carefully concealed.”

Proverbs 28:23 states: “He who rebukes a man will find more favor afterward Than he who flatters with the tongue.”

Proverbs 9:8 says: “Do not correct a scoffer, lest he hate you; Rebuke a wise man, and he will love you.”

Proverbs 17:10 states: “Rebuke is more effective for a wise man Than a hundred blows on a fool.”

Love manifests itself in openness, not in flattery.

To properly rebuke someone is not a sign of hate, but of love—but not of “unconditional” love.

Paul admonished the Evangelist Timothy to rebuke others, if necessary.

We read in 1 Timothy 5:20: “Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear.”

We also read in 2 Timothy 4:2: “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching.”

Paul gave similar admonitions and instructions to Titus.

He wrote in Titus 1:10-14:

“For there are many insubordinate, both idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole households, teaching things which they ought not, for the sake of dishonest gain. One of them, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.’ This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, not giving heed to Jewish fables and commandments of men who turn from the truth.”

He added in Titus 2:15:

“Speak these things, exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no one despise you.”

Rebuke may also be necessary so we do not become a partaker of another person’s sin. Leviticus 19:17 says: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him.”

We must not be partakers of the sins of others, due to the incorrect belief that because of “unconditional love,” we ought to tolerate sin and just walk with the crowd, showing a friendly smiling face in plain sight of sin.

In 1 Timothy 5:22, Paul cautions Timothy: “Do not lay hands on anyone hastily, nor share in other people’s sins; keep yourself pure.”

We read in Jude 20-23:

“But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And on some have compassion, making a distinction; but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh.”

Ephesians 5:3-7 adds:

“But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them.”

Also, note this admonition in 2 John 10-11: “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds.”

We said this about God’s love towards us in part 3:

“… when we are corrected by God, it is because He loves us and wants us to be in His Kingdom.

“Hebrews 12:4-6 states: ‘And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: ‘My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD, Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; For whom the LORD loves He chastens, And scourges every son whom He receives.’”

“Verse 10 explains the reason why God corrects us: “For they [that is, our human fathers, see verse 9]  indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness.”

“Christ also tells those Church members in need of repentance in Revelation 3:19: “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent.”

When it is within our sphere of influence and responsibility, especially as parents or ministers, we ought to behave likewise, while considering ourselves (compare Galatians 6:1). If we do not do this and instead tolerate or seemingly “embrace” sin because of “unconditional love,” giving the impression that we are one of them and agree with their lifestyle, we do not show the kind of love which God requires of His people.

If our silence could be misconstrued, God gives this thundering warning in Psalm 50:16-23:

“But to the wicked God says: ‘What right have you to declare My statutes, Or take My covenant in your mouth, Seeing you hate instruction And cast My words behind you? When you saw a thief, you consented with him, And have been a partaker with adulterers. You give your mouth to evil, And your tongue frames deceit. You sit and speak against your brother; You slander your own mother’s son. These things you have done, and I kept silent; You thought that I was altogether like you; But I will rebuke you, And set them in order before your eyes. Now consider this, you who forget God, Lest I tear you in pieces, And there be none to deliver: Whoever offers praise glorifies Me; And to him who orders his conduct aright I will show the salvation of God.’’

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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