Monday, October 4, 2010

(Un)Conditional Love

This is going to be one of those muddled posts. Fair warning.

I've been thinking, off and on, about childhoods and people who choose religions that are viewed as stricter and more 'rules based' than say your average Protestant faith.

Candice did a poll post a while back which, while aimed at Muslims specifically I think actually might apply to the wider religious convert base.

The basic fall out is that people who had a 'difficult' or abusive childhood seem to tend to convert and then follow stricter interpretations of their chosen faiths than those who had 'normal' childhoods. Of course that's a broad generalization and I've hardly made an actual scientific study of the matter, and there will always be exceptions to the rules. But in general I think this observation bears out.

And I've been trying to think of why that should be. And I say this as one of those people who proves the rule and not by exception. One might think that a person who grew up in a strict household, unhappy, miserable, beaten down and controlled would choose (once they had a choice) to be free. Not to continue to be restricted with rules, but to do whatever they want. And some do that.

But here's the thing that's occurred to me - we are taught, overtly or subliminally, that all the bad things that happen to us are our fault. If we were better, if we were smarter, if we didn't cry so loud or break that toy or need new things for school *then* our parents would love us. *Then* we would be a good child, and bad things wouldn't happen anymore. From the perspective of adulthood we know that this isn't true, but there are certainly some things that run much deeper than just our minds. It's ingrained knowledge at this point. We are *flawed* and there have to be rules and things that we can do to *earn* the love that we see everyone else getting. Because they're good and we're not.

Subconsciously we feel like we have to do things to earn God's love and we choose faiths and interpretations of those faiths that seem like they offer us that opportunity. I'm not saying that that's what those faiths *actually* teach, of course. I'm saying that I think (at least in part) that that's what goes on in our heads.

People talk about 'unconditional love' and we can lip sync along to it. We understand, in theory, what the words mean. But in practice, in our hearts - the words are meaningless. We have no experience of a love that didn't come with conditions. Conditions that we were never able to live up to. And given that the only way we can understand God is filtered through our human experiences the idea that God loves unconditionally - that the rules aren't there to make us jump through hoops to earn God's love but are there to help us in other ways - never really sinks in fully. We cannot understand it because it's an absolutely foreign concept.


  1. Loved this post! I think even for those who have had good childhoods it is often hard to think of a love THAT unconditional. But for those who have had this thought in them -- IF I were only good, or better, you would love me ... wow, makes sense.

    This post made me want to hug the little child Amber and tell her what a precious person she is despite how adults in her life treat her.

  2. I think you're onto something.

    I imagine a person who was in a healthy happy home has a much broader definition of what is right because that's how they were raised... If they did something wrong, they were always forgiven. If they did something right, they were praised. They could feel that whatever they did, as long as they had good intentions, they would be OK. I guess what the parents showed them transfered to how they see God.

    Very interesting post!

  3. Susanne,

    Thanks. I've seriously been chewing this over in my mind for a while, trying to figure out *why* things work out the way they seem to in regards to this relationship and this is what I've come up with.

  4. Candice,

    I think so too. At least it's all I've been able to come up with at this point.

    *nods* I think there's a heavy link between our relationship with our parents and our relationship with God.

  5. Amber, my pastor said a friend told him about a class he taught in seminary. He wanted the students to draw how they pictured God. One guy drew a huge eyeball. When asked about it, he said he thinks of God as always watching and waiting for him to mess up so he could ZAP him! I've heard people say they have hard times trusting in a loving heavenly Father because their own fathers were either abusive or just absent, neglectful.

    So I definitely think we get a view of God from how our fathers especially treated us. If our fathers are hard to please, we feel God is hard to please. If our fathers showed unconditional love, we have an easier time of accepting this amazing trait of our God. Really good post. I love when you share things like this!


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