This year we concentrate on the family.
John Powell, S.J., starts us off with his timeless book, Unconditional Love: Love without Limits. I chose this book because unconditional love must be the basis of family life. Though we all fall short at times, loving without preconditions should be our goal—the type of love we continually strive to achieve and maintain. Unconditional love says, “No matter what, I will not reject you. I’m committed to your growth and happiness. I will always love you.”
Powell reminds us that love is not a feeling, but rather a decision and a choice. We choose to place another’s welfare on the same level as, and sometimes even above, our own. By so doing we bring true meaning to our lives. Such meaning, or self-fulfillment, is an elusive quality which we can’t capture by direct pursuit but only attain as a by-product of loving.
Unconditional love says: I will love you, I will encourage you by helping you to be aware of your strengths, and when necessary I will challenge you to grow.
Most times this love will be tender and gentle, but not always. Sometimes unconditional love must be tough love, when truly wanting what is best for someone’s growth and happiness means not giving them what they want, but rather what is essential. A spouse may need to firmly point out a loved one’s self-destructive choices, or a parent will set limits to protect a child who is not ready for the independence he or she demands. A wife might ask her husband to cut back on his time away from home, or a mother might forbid a son to attend a party that “everyone else” is allowed to attend. Love is not unconditional if it weakly allows poor choices in order to avoid uncomfortable confrontation.
However, even tough love is not harsh. Sometimes as parents we think we need to constantly correct in order to assure our children’s proper growth. But a child does not flourish under criticism. Rather, Powell contends:
There is nothing else that can expand the human soul, actualize the human potential for growth, or bring a person into the full possession of life more than a love which is unconditional. […] Unconditional love is liberating. It frees the loved one to be authentic and real.
I think most people would agree that our children deserve unconditional love. We parents know we fall short, but we remain determined to love our children no matter what they do. It gets harder, though, when we turn it around. Shouldn’t we love our parents unconditionally, too? They weren’t perfect, but neither are we. And, even more difficult, what about our siblings? Heaven knows, siblings can find and attack our vulnerabilities. Do I need to love them unconditionally after what they did… or continue to do?
(Apologies to my two brothers. I’m speaking generally here, not specifically. Though I also apologize for when I didn’t treat you with the love I should have.)
Granted, not all family members are healthy to be around. Sadly, some are caustic, and boundaries must be raised in order to protect our emotional well-being. We mustn’t fear that loving another unconditionally will mean losing ourselves. In fact, in order to love another we must first love ourselves, as much as we are able, unconditionally. God has made us and declared us good and he has shown us we are loveable and worthy of the greatest sacrifice. So we come to love others, not out of weakness, but out of strength and awareness of our worth. It would be unloving to allow others to treat us with disrespect.
Yet, for spiritual and emotional health, unconditional love calls us to endeavor to forgive the wrongs of the past, even from a distance. That way, if the family member ever makes changes for the better, we will be ready to reconnect.
God’s word to us in the Bible is full of stories of unconditional love. We read of the prodigal son’s father, who knew unconditional love requires forgiveness and so ran to embrace his son at his penitent return. We believe that Jesus demonstrated unconditional love as he died for our sins and yet bid his Father, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
These are our models for building strong families. We must offer our family a lifetime of striving to love them unconditionally, forgiving them for their mistakes and asking forgiveness for our own, but always trying again to love, encourage, and challenge each other to be the best we each can be.
Next week we will turn to Building Christian Families, by Mitch and Kathy Finley.
Blessings on your first week of Lent!