The Real Meaning of Unconditional Love

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There is no condition that causes me to be unloving or disrespectful. In other words, if I am unloving or disrespectful, it is not because of certain circumstances caused by others that make me react unlovingly or disrespectfully. I choose to be harsh, independent of the circumstances.

As one parent admitted to me: “We tend to be Christlike when the kids are behaving and harsh when they are disobedient.” Most of us can identify, but we know this is a long way from unconditional love; in fact it is the precise opposite. We cannot say, “I would unconditionally love my kids if they would just behave!” This is not about demanding that our kids be deserving of love and respect by being lovable and respectable. If we continue in this fashion, we will always love or respect our kids conditionally, depending on how they act. It is simple enough to make them scapegoats for our display of anger or impatience. But all this irresponsibility on our part lasts only so long.

Eventually, the kids grow up, and the tables turn. As adults, our children can blame us for all their problems. Sadly, they make their case against us, as we did against them.

So where does that leave us with trying to love them unconditionally?

To love unconditionally, we obey God’s command to put on love or respect despite the circumstances (Romans 12:10; 1 Peter 2:17).

If we refuse to obey this command, we end up rationalizing (telling ourselves “rational lies”) and believing others have caused us to be harsh and rude. We tell others, in various ways, they made us react the way we did.

As parents we look to Jesus for motivation to love as He loves us — unconditionally. There is nothing we can do to get Him to loathe or despise us after we sin — nothing (Romans 8:1–2).

However, though He loves us no matter what we do wrong, what we do wrong still matters to Him. This is why He disciplines us (Hebrews 12:5–11). In the same way, as parents, loving and respecting our kids unconditionally does not mean we remove all requirements and permissively give them license to do whatever.

We confront their failure to obey, and we discipline them by correcting their disrespectful attitude with a loving attitude. Unconditional love, then, means we give our children the gift of a loving and respectful demeanor when they do not deserve it. This is not about what they are failing to be; it is about what God is calling us to be.

From personal experience and from dealing with thousands of spouses and parents, I know loving unconditionally is impossible to do perfectly. I had to learn (more accurately, I am still learning) to love my children unconditionally; it does not come automatically. As I reflect on the years when our children were younger, I realize how often I did not even think of Jesus during a flare-up with the kids. There was a huge disconnect between my parenting and Christ. Instead of trying to imitate His unconditional love for me, I would be angry before I even thought of the Lord. Later, often with Sarah’s urging, I would confess my sin to Him and apologize to my kids.

I would start again, and again, and again — trying to be more like Christ. I would try to remind myself that the Lord was present in my parenting and that He stood, so to speak, just beyond the shoulders of my children. I knew I had an audience of One to please and the kids were really secondary. I also knew the Lord was always willing to help me as I asked for His help with my irritation, presumption, preoccupation, sense of self-importance, anger, and defeats.

While I was turned off in great part by the poor example my own father set with his rage and loss of temper, nonetheless, his negative example came back to haunt me. I was seldom openly angry. Instead, it would boil within me as I felt my father’s unwanted influence, which I had to counter.

We all know the power of our “family of origin,” as psychologists call it. Due to these issues, some of us struggle more in the parenting process than others. Yet we have the opportunity to receive help from the Holy Helper.

Hear the testimony of Larry, a professor friend of mine and a man of great intellect, who discovered that family living is not a matter of right knowing but right doing:

I know I cannot achieve this on my own and that this won’t be easy. I have seen some aspects of my father rise up in me from time to time (when that happens, I stop and experience a “psychological vomit” because I am so repulsed). But relying on the Holy Spirit, I have experienced some of the fruits that God wants to come out of my life as detailed in Galatians 5:22–23.

Ultimately, I know that to break this cycle I must rely on God’s resources and not my own. I can will myself to change, but this lasts only for a short period of time, then I fall back to my old habits. As a friend once told me, Galatians 5:22–23 describes the fruits of the Spirit, not the fruits of Larry.

And a mother wrote of her struggles:

I have been having immense struggles with obedience with my seven-year-old son. I have been burdened with a dislike for him as we engage in this Family Crazy Cycle. I don’t want to be a part of it, but raising seven children ages thirteen to four months, with a husband that travels at times, I start to lose my purpose in serving the Lord. Your message today was so freeing… I was at my end, exhausted from my inability to break this cycle. I am going to look beyond him and see Christ. I am going to reflect on Scripture to show Jesus’ love for him. I am going to let God do the work to mold him… I have been focusing on a few of his strengths and trying not to get wrapped up in a negative cycle of thoughts and anger… I keep my voice calm and focus on the correction to guide him. There have even been times when the Spirit has prompted me to just give him a big hug. I have seen some major changes within our relationship.

A hurting father confessed:

In the heat of the moment, in the face of volatile defiance, everything goes out the window . . . I’m simply trying to survive the situation without saying anything that I will regret forever. My child has several variations of manipulative, defiant, disrespectful insolence toward us as parents, which causes us the desire to strike him. He is a really sweet kid with a kind and even overly sensitive heart, but who can, in a matter of fifteen minutes, infuriate us to the point where we just want to lock him in a room and run away from home.

It can seem like Jekyll and Hyde . . . I no longer have much hope that when I meet the Lord I will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” I just hope He doesn’t say, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoer.”

We hear the pain and fear in this dad’s words. Some of us can relate to his feelings of inadequacy.

When we feel disrespected, it is not natural to love or feel much love. However, it could be that God intends to use our kids to influence our lives more than He uses us to influence theirs. Parenting is not a one-way street.

When that truth hit me, it changed the way I related to my kids.

Sarah and I found great encouragement from the fact that the Holy Spirit is called the Helper for a reason. God intends to help us because we need His help.

It is okay — in fact, it is absolutely necessary — to admit that we are powerless to love perfectly a disrespectful and disobedient child.

Many times in prayer Sarah and I expressed our powerlessness to parent His way. Instead of running from the feelings of inadequacy, we brought those feelings to the Lord. As the apostle Peter urged, we cast our anxiety on Him because we knew He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).

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Sarah and I did this kind of casting continually. In fact, Sarah says frequently, “I thought I was serious about growing spiritually until I had children. Then, after I had children, I really saw how much growing I had to do.” In other words…

Children bring us to a point where we realize we do not have all the inner strength and wisdom in our spirit to be the kind of person we should be. At such moments, we can justify ourselves and blame our children, or we can acknowledge we need God. And along with this we need to realize that God is using our children in our lives, not just vice versa.

As we admitted our limitations and weaknesses, we discovered what Paul meant in 2 Corinthians 12:9: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”. Sarah and I tried to apply this principle by bringing our weaknesses before Christ and asking for His gracious power to help us parent His way. We kept seeking to improve. Yet in our deepest hearts we recognized that we needed God first. We knew that God intended to use our children in our lives. Sarah gives testimony that she went deeper in faith and obedience as she learned how to give thanks in the face of things that she could not control. Sarah learned to praise and worship God during times of trial, and she had plenty of opportunities!

“Thanksgiving became my lifeline to the Lord,” she says. “Giving thanks centers me on what God is able to do, keeps my prayers more positive, causes me to look to God for a solution rather than fixate on the problem, and brings a peace. Truly, I have peace in the waiting.”

May I invite you and your spouse to acknowledge before the Lord that you, too, need His help? Perhaps you have been remiss in surrendering your family over to Christ more regularly. You have not prayed with any pattern, “Lord, not my will but Yours be done in this family.” It is one thing to dedicate your children to the Lord in a service at church, an important event that many of us have done, but it is all too easy to forget to offer our kids to the Lord continually. Maybe you are trying too hard on your own.

Perhaps the well-known expression, “Let God be God,” applies especially to you right now. Memorize Zechariah 4:6, and pray it often as you go through your day with your children:

“‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts.”

And here is a bonus: as we look to Christ for help, we can encourage our children to do the same. As we display our dependency on the Lord we can cultivate such faith in our kids. This is the way to build our homes. Already Jonathan and his wife have taught our two-year-old grandson, Jackson, Psalm 118:7: “Yes, the Lord is for me; He will help me”.

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Your Turn

We all need the Holy Spirit’s help to offer unconditional love to our children! Are you in a tough season of parenting right now? Are you struggling with loving your children through it? Let’s stop and pray for the Holy Spirit, our Helper’s help! Please, join the conversation on our blog! We would love to hear from you about parenting with unconditional love! ~ Devotionals Daily

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Dr. Emerson Eggerichs

Dr. Emerson Eggerichs, an internationally known expert on male-female relationships, presents the Love & Respect conference with his wife, Sarah, both live and by video to more than 50,000 people each year, including groups such as the NFL, PGA, and members of congress. With degrees from Wheaton College and Dubuque Seminary and a PhD from Michigan State, Emerson pastored Trinity Church in Lansing for 19 years. He and Sarah have been married since 1973 and have three children.

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