The Quality of God’s Love

Journey’s End - by Derek HegstedAs members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we teach a gospel of love.  We teach that Heavenly Father loves all His children, and desires that they return to His presence.  Indeed, we teach the doctrine of Christ:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)

We teach that God’s involvement in the affairs of mankind is because of His love for each of us.  The entire plan of salvation is based on this love, that Heavenly Father’s full-time desire is that we, as His children, might become like Him and have eternal joy (Moses 1:39).  We also teach that we must likewise love others (John 15:12).

These are supernal principles that are imperative for our eternal growth and learning, and for us to become more like our Father in heaven.  For God is love (1 Jn. 4:8, 16).  However, as with most principles, these virtues can be taken to extremes outside the bounds the Lord has set, and which can lead to unwise compromises of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.  Our passions, even in gospel principles, must be bridled (Alma 38:12).  God’s love is one of these principles.

The first time that I pondered this was in a New Testament class with Joseph Fielding McConkie at BYU back in the Fall of 2002.  He asked a simple question of the class, “Is God’s love unconditional?”  The answer seemed likewise simple enough, and many of the students answered in the affirmative.  Br. McConkie’s response was surprising; he said that God’s love was not unconditional.  He then shared a scripture from John:

  21 He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.
22 Judas saith unto him, not Iscariot, Lord, how is it that thou wilt manifest thyself unto us, and not unto the world?
23 Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him. (John 14:21-23; compare Deut. 7:12-13; cf. 1 Jn. 4:16)

The implications were clear.  Those that keep the commandments of the gospel are those who love the Lord (John 14:15).  Those that love the Lord are those who are loved by Christ and the Father.  This does not mean that God does not have any love for those who do not obey His commandments, but it is on a different scale from those who do.  God loves each of His children, but that love will grow or diminish depending on how much we hearken to the light and knowledge that God gives us.  Just as a parent will always love their child here on earth, whether they are making the right choices or not, God loves His children.  However, with respect to those that choose to go against His commandments, His relationship with that person changes and so does the quality of His love.  Christ taught,

  9 As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love.
10 If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. (John 15:9-10; cf. Mosiah 4:12)

A few years ago I was with a group of BYU students and administrators.  A few of the students were not members of the LDS Church.  One of the administrators was a very good man, faithful, loving, and honest, and who I highly respect and admire to this day.  One morning we were having a devotional and discussing gospel principles, when I heard him say something that didn’t sound right.  It was something to this effect:

God loves us all.  It doesn’t matter if you are a member of the Church or not; God will work it all out in the end.  He has a plan for each of us.

On the surface this sounds right and good.  But does it really not matter if you are a member of the Church or not?  If that were the case, then why was the gospel restored at all?  I understand that this good brother was saying this to help those who were not members of the Church feel more comfortable, but I think it was at the expense of the unique saving power of the restored gospel.  There is only one plan, one way, one salvation, and it is of supernal importance whether we are members of the Church or not (Mosiah 3:17).

Another example.  Just a few days ago I was reading the words of another great and humble man, who I also highly esteem, who said that God loves us all, including those who leave the Church, and even those who attack the Church.  While this might be true in a limited sense, how does God love those who leave His Church?  Does He love them the same as those who stay in it and keep their covenants?  Does God really love those who seek to destroy His kingdom?  Does God love those who run anti-Mormon ministries?  Does God love Satan?  Does He love adulterers, murderers, liars, and whoremongers?  I don’t think so, not nearly to the extent that He loves those who obey His commandments and follow Him.

Did God love Laman and Lemuel to the same extent as He loved Nephi?  Nephi once taught his brothers:

And [God] loveth those who will have him to be their God. Behold, he loved our fathers, and he covenanted with them, yea, even Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and he remembered the covenants which he had made; wherefore, he did bring them out of the land of Egypt. (1 Ne. 17:40; cf. Deut. 10:15)

Laman and Lemuel were like those ancients who hardened their hearts, reviled against the prophets, and against God, and did not have the Lord to be their God (1 Ne. 17:44).  The tree of life which Lehi and Nephi saw in vision represented the love of God, but there were only certain souls who grasped the iron rod firm enough to make it to the tree to experience God’s love (1 Ne. 11:22).  Laman and Lemuel were not among those so fortunate.

Those that love God and make covenants with Him will be loved by God.  Those who do not will be cut off from His presence (Alma 38:1).  Christ also taught this principle:

For the Father himself loveth you, because ye have loved me, and have believed that I came out from God. (John 16:27; cf. John 17:23; John 17:26; 2 Cor. 13:11; 1 Jn. 3:1)

We have often heard the cliché, love the sinner but hate the sin.  Again, while this might be true to some extent, it is dangerous to take it too far.  Br. McConkie did not agree with it.  While it might be convenient to conceptually try to separate the sin from the sinner, it is still the sinner who commits sin.  Sin does not stand independent of the sinner.  Sin naturally becomes a part of the soul of the sinner; it fundamentally changes their nature, and cannot be isolated so easily:

33 And now, as I said unto you before, as ye have had so many witnesses, therefore, I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed.
34 Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God. Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world.
35 For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his; therefore, the Spirit of the Lord hath withdrawn from you, and hath no place in you, and the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked.
36 And this I know, because the Lord hath said he dwelleth not in unholy temples, but in the hearts of the righteous doth he dwell; yea, and he has also said that the righteous shall sit down in his kingdom, to go no more out; but their garments should be made white through the blood of the Lamb. (Alma 34:33-36)

Christ taught us, “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).  Why would we be taught to so love our enemies?  Does God love his enemies?  It is because of the hope that we should have that they will turn from their ways, that something in our example or teaching will change their disposition, and that they will come back to the light of the gospel and of salvation before the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed (Alma 34:33).

God does not love the wicked:

The Lord preserveth all them that love him: but all the wicked will he destroy. (Ps. 145:20; cf. Mal. 1:2-3)

I would even go so far as to say that only the righteous can truly and fully comprehend the love of God:

16 That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man;
17 That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love,
18 May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height;
19 And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God. (Eph. 3:16-19; cf. 1 Jn. 3:16)

Let me share a last example of the misapplication of God’s love.  Just recently we had a post here on Millennial Star discussing universalism.  I had my own discussion elsewhere a few weeks earlier with another form of the same subject which said that God’s love is so universal that nearly all the heathen (i.e. those who never heard the gospel in mortality) will basically get a free ticket into the Celestial Kingdom.  Applications of God’s love in this way are not true.  They are false.  It takes away man’s accountability of his mortal probation.  Every individual who has been born on this earth, save children under the age of eight, will each have to learn the gospel of Jesus Christ and accept it or reject it, whether in mortality or in the spirit world, but they will still be held accountable for their works in the flesh (1 Pet. 4:6).  For every man is given the Spirit of Christ (or Light of Christ), to know good from evil (Moro. 7:16; cf. John 1:9).  Only those in the spirit world who would have accepted the gospel and accepted Christ with full hearts if they had been given the opportunity in mortality will be those who will also inherit the Celestial Kingdom.

I am often reminded of the painting “Journey’s End” by Derek Hegsted included at the beginning of this post.  Do we really believe that this love is shared or will be shared with the wicked?  Lehi proclaimed:

But behold, the Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell; I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love. (2 Ne. 1:15)

Such love only comes to those who desire and seek righteousness, in spite of all shortcomings.

When we read that “God so loved the world” in John 3:16, we must consider that with other scriptures which read, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 Jn. 2:15).  So did God love the world or didn’t He?  When the prophets teach us of the “love of God,” let us remember that it is a two-way street.  God favors the righteous (1 Ne. 17:35).  God chastens the righteous (D&C 95:1).  God blesses the righteous (D&C 130:20-21).  God saves the righteous (1 Pet. 4:18; John 3:16).  God loves the righteous (Heb. 1:8-9).  Christ did not give his life for the wicked; the Atonement has no power over them (Alma 12:32; cf. Alma 11:37).  He gave His life for those who turn to Him, strive to be righteous, repent of their sins and mistakes, feast upon His words, follow His commandments, and become sons and daughters of God (D&C 34:3).  For these the Atonement cleanses from all sin and redeems them from the Fall.  It is these alone who will partake of the fruit of the tree of life, the eternal love of God, and sit down forever in that heavenly throne with the Father and His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ (Rev. 3:21).

(Bryce Haymond is the editor of TempleStudy.com, a blog dedicated to sustaining and defending the LDS temple by comparative studies of religious worship found around the world and throughout history.)

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About Bryce Haymond

Bryce grew up in Sandy, Utah, where he attended Jordan High School. He served a mission to the El Salvador San Salvador East mission, including eight months as mission financial secretary. Bryce graduated from Brigham Young University in 2007 in Industrial Design and a minor in Ballroom Dance. He loves all things Nibley and the temple, and is the founder of TempleStudy.com, and also blogs at BlackpoolCreative.com. Recently Bryce joined the Executive Board of The Interpreter Foundation, where he serves as a designer and technologist. Bryce has served in numerous Church callings including ward sunday school president, first counselor in the bishopric, and currently as temple and family history instructor. He is a Product Manager and Design Director at HandStands in Salt Lake City, and lives in Pleasant Grove, Utah, with his beautiful wife, three children, and another on the way!

21 thoughts on “The Quality of God’s Love

  1. “Does this mean the Lord does not love the sinner? Of course not. Divine love is infinite and universal. The Savior loves both saints and sinners. The Apostle John affirmed, “We love him, because he first loved us.” 39 And Nephi, upon seeing in vision the Lord’s mortal ministry, declared: “The world, because of their iniquity, shall judge him to be a thing of naught; wherefore they scourge him, and he suffereth it; and they smite him, and he suffereth it. Yea, they spit upon him, and he suffereth it, because of his loving kindness and his long-suffering towards the children of men.” 40 We know the expansiveness of the Redeemer’s love because He died that all who die might live again. 41″

    Russell M. Nelson, “Divine Love,” Ensign, Feb 2003, 20

    Contra, Don Peters composer and writer: http://www.austinlizards.com/jesus_loves_me.html

  2. Like I said, God loves all of His children. But that does not mean that all will partake from the tree of life, which represents the eternal love of God (1 Ne. 11:25). Man separates himself from that love according to his actions (1 Ne. 15:36).

    Yes, Christ suffered incomprehensible horrors during his mortal ministry, and he suffered it to be so because of His love. But he wasn’t about to grant eternal life to those who scourged him, smited him, and spitted upon him, which is the greatest of the gifts of God which He has prepared only for those who love Him and follow Him (1 Cor. 2:9; cf. 2 Ne. 31:20).

  3. Br. McConkie’s response was surprising; he said that God’s love was not universal.

    I took a class from Bro. McConkie sometime around 2002 (second half of the BoM). Who knows, maybe it was the same class.

    If I recall his argument correctly it actually wasn’t about the “universal” nature of God’s love, but the “conditional” nature of God’s love (although the two may be related). His question was something to the effect of, “Is God’s love unconditional?” McConkie’s answer is, of course, “No, it is not.”

    His justification comes from a couple of different lines of reasoning:

    1) It’s scriptural. In the class I attended he cited D&C 95:12-”If you keep not my commandments, the love of the Father shall not continue with you, therefore you shall walk in darkness.”

    2) God, by definition, cannot love evil. If you say that “God loves all his children”, and that includes the 1/3 of the host of Heaven who followed Satan, then you are in effect saying that God loves the Devil (who is also one of his children).

    I believe there was also an Ensign article in the past 7years by one of the apostles that talks about how God’s love is not unconditional.

    I have some problems with this, but I have to tend to my child, so I will have to respond later.

  4. When I worked at the Ensign, the correlation committee wouldn’t let us use the term “unconditional love.” In my opinion, that’s because the term “love” means so many different things.

    The way I see it, some forms of God’s love are unconditional, and some are conditional. He always feels compassion and concern even for the vilest unrepentant sinner. However, he does not trust and commune with them, which are higher forms of love he reserves for those who keep his conditions–er, commandments.

  5. Interestingly, the Ensign article you remember is the same one David cited above – “Divine Love” by Elder Nelson in the February 2003 issue:

    While divine love can be called perfect, infinite, enduring, and universal, it cannot correctly be characterized as unconditional. The word does not appear in the scriptures. On the other hand, many verses affirm that the higher levels of love the Father and the Son feel for each of us—and certain divine blessings stemming from that love—are conditional. (link)

  6. I think we should be open to the fact that there are different types of love. In Greek (New Testament), there are three different words for “love.” So, can God love in different ways? Of course he can, and the scriptures dealing with God’s love can mean different things at different times.

    My personal opinion is that God never loves any of his children more or less than other children. But children who disappoint him and make really, really bad choices are not capable of reciprocating his love and so the symbiotic possibilities of mutually satisfying love are not there with them. Earthly example: if my kid is a complete drug addict, has been in and out of jail, and is trying to hurt my other kids and is 20 years old, I would most likely throw him out of the house for his own good (and for the good of the other kids in the house and for my own sanity). Does this mean that I love him any less? No, I love him equally, but that child is not capable of returning the love and developing a symbiotic, growing relationship of love and trust. He will also miss out on a lot of things in life that another child will be able to experience (going to the temple, etc).

    That’s kind of how I see it with Heavenly Father — he loves Hitler just as much as he loves Joseph Smith, but Joseph Smith returns his love and is growing and progressing with God whereas Hitler (at least based on his Earthly behavior) has drawn away from Heavenly Father and the love he has to offer.

  7. Agree with Geoff B on this one that we are talking about different forms of God’s love. Does he love every child equally in that we all have a chance to be saved? Of course. Did he love all that kept their first estate so that they received at a minimum a resurrected body of glory with an appropriate glorified inheritance? Yes. Does he prefer his children that follow his commandments and accept his plan over those who don’t? Yes. This is probably more semantics. The question above about whether he loves Hitler more than JS is more a question that depends on what kind of love you are talking about.

  8. I’m reminded of Stephen Robinson’s remark about much of the talk about nature of God’s unconditional love “Most of it is not very useful.”

  9. I agree with Geoff B.
    I also think we need to spend more time focusing on ourselves and our lack of righteousness than looking out at others and their lack of righteousness.
    I think, in the end, I’d rather be a sinner who doesn’t claim to be close to God than a Pharisee/Rameumptonite who claims nearness to God but who ultimately falls short.
    Since I try to be close to God, it’s the Pharisee thing I personally have to watch out for.

  10. Love in the scriptures is used as two different types of verbs. Sometimes it is an intransitive verb, describing a feeling that the subject has of emotional attaching and involvement with another. Sometimes it is a transitive verb indicating that the subject is actively seeking to bless and better the life of the object (loving something or someone). God’s intransitive love is unconditional. God’s transitive love is conditional, dependent upon our covenant making and keeping.

  11. John C.–
    If God is not actively seeking to bless and better the life of those who don’t make and keep covenants, why in the world do we bother sending out missionaries? Why does our prophet call us–the members–to repentance?
    Sure, if we refuse to be humbled he’ll sometimes compel us to be humble…but is that not a sign of his love for us?

  12. The intransitive explains God’s constancy. The transitive love explains his blessing (and the withholding of blessings on occasion). Of course, God would like to express both aspects of his law to all of us, but some blessings are predicated upon obedience to law. Those expressions of God’s transitive love are dependent upon our willingness to make and keep covenant.

  13. I have no idea why people fixate on this basically semantic debate. If you define God’s love as some kind of interiorized sentiment, as a desire for our happiness and salvation, then of course it is unconditional. No person could sin so vilely that God would cease to desire that person’s salvation. If you define it as forgiveness, transformation through atonement, salvation, exaltation, then of course it is conditional. He can no more force those things upon us than he can force us to be charitable toward our fellow men or force knowledge upon us.

    God’s love gets to be conditional because he is God and because His love implies transformative powers and entails consequences which are uniquely His prerogative. His desire for each and every one of us to come and partake is limitless, surely not conditional on the stupidity and wickedness that we all, without exception manifest to varying degrees and at various times in our lives.

    That said, God’s prerogatives are His alone. He may punish whom He will, destroy whom He will, judge whom He will, and forgive whom He will. Those prerogatives do not extend to us. Any of us may choose not to partake of the fruit that is God’s forgiveness and love, but of us it is required to forgive all men.

    To the extent that we discuss the conditional nature of God’s love as a way of emphasizing that we are agents in our own salvation and that He cannot force feed us exaltation, I think we are stating the obvious. To the extent that we speak of such things as a way of (even subtly) rationalizing our own desire to hate or condemn, we are arrogating to ourselves divine prerogative, and that, I think, is a form of blasphemy. To the extent that we teach these things to try to make the sinners around us believe that they are not loved by God, we are ourselves sinning in a most egregious and manifestly un-Christian manner.

  14. I think one of the best ways to comprehend the extent and forms of God’s love, apart from scripture and modern revelation, is to examine our own relationships with others, familiy members, children, etc. and make those distinctions ourselves. If we are led by the spirit and acknolwedge that as man is, God once was, I think we’re on the road to a better understanding of the concept.

  15. Since it was preceded by the commandment to “Love your enemies” (Matt 5:44), Christ’s commandment to “be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), was given in the context of perfecting love within us. Perfect love is what makes God powerful. As well as Alma (see Alma 42:15), Moses and Micah knew this truth (see Exodus 15:11;18:11; Micah 7:18). Perfect love is a perfect balance of justice and mercy.
    Try as we might, it is impossible to arrive at this state of perfect love without divine help. To be “endowed with power from on high” (D&C 105:11) is to be endowed with “the love of the Father”. This phrase has very specific scriptural meaning. It is not a generic love. The endowment of the love of the Father comes to those who obey the commandments of Jesus Christ and receive a fullness of His gospel. The ultimate purpose of the temple endowment is to perfect us with the endowment of “the love of the Father”.
    The endowment of the love of the Father is used most specifically in D&C 95:12 as the endowment of power to those who are “chosen” (D&C 95:8). In fact the whole context of D&C 95:1-13 is about the love of the Father which can only be endowed in the temple which is a place not “after the manner of the world” (D&C 95:13). Therefore, “if any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).
    The endowment of the love of the Father comes as a fullness of the gift of the Holy Ghost. This is the “promise of the Father” (D&C 95:9) to those who are true followers of Jesus Christ. It is the Holy Ghost that sheds the love of God in our hearts and fills them with perfect love (see Romans 5:5 and Moroni 8:26). The fullness of the Holy Ghost is received in the temple (see D&C 109:15).
    To be perfected and sanctified to live in the presence of the Father requires baptism with fire and the Holy Ghost which means to baptized with the love of the Father. The Semitic root for the word love is haw or hav. It means to warm, kindle, or set on fire. God dwells in “everlasting burnings” (Isaiah 33:14) because His love is everlasting.
    The final great message of Moroni in the Book of Mormon is that we can become perfect in Christ by the grace of God (see Moroni 10:32-33; 9:26; Ether 12:41) “The grace of God” is another term for “the love of the Father”. The reward for growing up in Christ is to “receive the grace of God” (Mosiah 18:26) and to be “restored unto grace for grace” (Helaman 12:24) which means restored to the Father’s love for our love of His Son.
    If you want to really understand what the Apostle Paul meant when he said that we should be “rooted and grounded in love” (Eph. 3:17), read Alma 32:27-43 again carefully. Alma talks about a seed that is planted in the heart and diligently exposed to the light of the spirit of the Lord. If so, it will grow and produce a tree. This is not just any tree, but in fact, it is the tree of life. The wonderful message of Alma is that this tree can “take root in you” (Alma 32:42). The description of the fruit of this tree in Alma is the same description given by Lehi in 1 Nephi 8:10-12. We learn from Nephi that this tree and its fruit represent the love of God (1 Nephi 11:21-23)!
    The only way the tree of life can fully produce in us the fruit of eternal life which is the love of the Father, is if we are “planted in the house of the Lord” (Psalms 92:13) and become a “pillar . . . and go no more out” (Rev. 3:12). Therefore, the love of the Father is conditional.
    Bryce, if you understand what I have just written, then you will understand The Profound Message of Zion’s Camp. For me, this is the profound message that makes the temple so enticing.

  16. The following is just my opinion, so if I offend anyone, please forgive me.

    I am sorry that McConkie shows a fundamental flaw in his thinking, such as, I am more perfect than my neighbor. And therefore, God loves me more.

    If I break one of the commandments, I am guilty of breaking them all.

    What God wants is our hearts, not our feeble attempt at keeping the commandments. It is our heart that God seeks to change, because that is the way to change our will/thoughts/actions.

    Try telling someone that God loves them less, because they are sinners, and see how they respond. I do not see how that will ever bring about a mighty change of heart, as compared to; God loves you just the way your are, and has a plan to help you.

    I am sure that McConkie also believes that the prodigal son was not forgiven either. We are the only Christian church (that I know of) that teaches that the prodigal son was not forgiven. I do not know how anyone can miss the unconditional love that is taught in that and other parables.

    If it can be shown that God does not love Satan, then that one act can convict God of being unloving and therefore not God.

    The difference I see is one of blessings not love. God knew before we were born that we were gong to be sinners, and I would like to think He stilled loved us then. I would also like to believe that we all knew some would be blessed more than others, due to obedience not love or the lack of it.

  17. As CEF said, I apologize if this offends anyone, but this really seems to be one of those things with which we should not be concerning ourselves. A “mote vs. beam” issue, if you will. Without conflating God’s love with His forgiveness, but just to illustrate the principle: “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.” I expect it’s our duty to try to show love to all and not to worry about whom God loves or doesn’t or how much or in what way. To put it quite bluntly, it sounds like bickering children. (Dad loves ME more!) I expect God’s love is really a mystery that we won’t fully understand just as a child doesn’t ever really comprehend the love of a parent until achieving parenthood. And as far as such mysteries, I believe we need to worry more about our personal standing before God, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God”…”for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”

  18. In respect to McConkie–
    I never took a class from McConkie, but I had friends who did. According to them, he would often refer to his father.
    I knew the son of a current member of the 12 quite well. He was in the bishopric of my ward, and I considered him a friend. Despite looking like his father (and sharing the same last name) it took me months before I started wondering if the two were related. He never mentioned his father. He never tried using his father to further his own authority.
    Guess which one I have more respect for?

  19. I have always looked at God’s love as being unconditional, and I realized reading this that the bible does say that if we keep God’s commandments, we will abide in his love. And we are told to abide in his love. We evidently can choose not to walk in God’s love if we refuse to obey his commandments.

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