Does Love Have to be Earned?

Reading Level: Impassioned

In continuation of our series, this is another reader provided question. I wasn’t sure if the person was asking about God’s love or human love, so I thought we’d cover both aspects.

First, let’s focus on a general principle of love. Love, whether given freely or earned, can be damaged or destroyed depending on our responses to it.

Someone can choose to love you completely unearned or unmerited, such as with new emotional love, which is based on the person they hope you to be, since they haven’t been acquainted with you long enough to actually know what you are like so as to commit to the relationship rationally. If your actions are unloving, selfish, and/or inconsiderate, obviously that will damage that relationship and eventually destroy the unmerited love as you demonstrate more and more that you are unworthy of it. Emotionally or physically harmful behavior will destroy it even more quickly.

Love that is earned in human relationship is actually, per say, more stable.

It may begin as emotional love or acquaintance or friendship and develop into a stable, lasting love as your attitudes and behavior show over time that you can be trusted to be a loving person through the variety of life’s circumstances. This is what I term rational love, a love in which the person has a sound basis of long-term experience with you which has developed a high level of trust. This trust based on experience then provides his or her heart the assurance that you are a person worthy of long-term commitment; they then choose to love you for life. Though you both go through various strains on the relationship due to life crises such as illness, job stress, tragedy, etc., the love remains in tact regardless of emotions. The love is a commitment based on experience and trust. This rational love is more stable and lasting because it is based on a trust that is, in effect, earned.

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God’s love operates on a much different basis than human love, though it is necessary to note that the relationship can still be damaged based on our attitudes and behavior.

God’s love is unearned, even undeserved. The Scriptures say that while we were still enemies of God and alienated from Him due to our evil behavior, Jesus’ death reconciled or restored our relationship with God to one of life, peace, and salvation (Col. 1:21;Ro. 5:10). Why would God choose to suffer loss on behalf of those who lived as His enemies? Why would He choose to be the one to suffer loss so the broken relationship could be restored? He explains it this way, “But God proved His love for us beyond all doubt by the fact that Christ died on our behalf while we were still sinners (Ro. 5:8).” More well known is the quote from Rom. 6:23, “For the wages paid by sin are death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In contrast to the concept of a cruel taskmaster that many were raised to believe that God is, God says that “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities (Ps 103:10).” On the other hand, if by our choice we continue to harm the relationship by behaving as His enemy or having attitudes destructive to a loving relationship, consequences will result similar to those in any relationship: communication between us and God will be hindered, a continued breakdown in communication will bring distance into the relationship, and eventually the relationship will die because of the continued harm you brought into it.

Now let’s look at the reverse. Since God made the first step and the personal sacrifice to restore the relationship between you and Him, even though you (we all) are undeserving of such love and favor, our positive efforts will grow the relationship.

If you are actively putting effort into growing the communication and developing loving responses between you and God, the relationship will continue to grow and deepen because you are nurturing it-just as it would with any healthy human relationship. Not that it grows on God’s end necessarily, since He is already perfect, but our abilities relationship-wise with our attitudes, communication, and behavior continue to grow and develop. Then, because God does not treat us as our sins deserve, His mercy (undeserved kindness and favor) treats us with compassion and forgiveness when we fail.

Though our own consciences may bring self-condemnation, God repeatedly describes Himself as a “compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness (Ex. 34:6).” Notice the aspects that we normally think He does not have-compassion, a slowness to anger, abounding in love, abounding in faithfulness (He won’t abandon you.). God also promises to do what we expect to happen with failures in a healthy human relationship. He says that if we confess our sins and failures, He will forgive them as anyone should in a loving relationship; however, God has the ability to do even more and actually cleanse our spirits from the failure (1 Jn. 1:9). In addition to all these unearned aspects of God’s love, He says that we should even come to Him boldly to receive not only mercy during our failures, but help “for every need–appropriate and well-timed help (Heb. 4:16 Amplified).”

(Important Note: This article is speaking of adult-level relationships in which one chooses whether or not to love another person. It is of vital importance to note that children should never feel that they have to earn the love of a parent or other family member. A child may have to earn the restoration of privileges after poor behavior but should always feel that your love for them is unearned and consistent, just as God’s love is toward you and them. Children are born with the capability to love but also with the capacity for extreme selfishness; being children, they have not yet learned the discipline of self-control to curb selfish desires. That is obviously a growing process taught by you as the parent. Those of us who were made to feel by parents that we had to earn their love-that love was based on our behavior-usually have many struggles to overcome in relationships as adults due to the lack of secure, consistent parental love.)

In summary, human love is more lasting and stable when it is earned, when it is a commitment based on trust via experience. God’s love, with its many aspects, is totally undeserved on our part, yet He gives it freely, desiring a loving relationship between Him and us. That loving relationship will grow and deepen based on our own level of commitment to it, just as it would with any human relationship. The relationship between a person and God can reach levels far beyond that of human love because God is far more capable of loving than any human being. It will then result in making us more capable of loving relationships with those around us because we’ve learned it from experience with God.

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