As I wrote about a few posts back, since disaffecting from Mormonism, I have started reading about other Christian denominations, gaining an appreciation for the differences in how they interpret concepts that might I might have thought I knew all about as a Mormon. By doing this, I feel I have gained as close to “holy envy” for those other denominations as may be possible for an atheist.
One such concept this has certainly applied to has been the concept of grace. Any Mormon who has discussed grace with a Protestant friend should be well aware of the difference — 2 Nephi informs Mormons that we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do (2 Nephi 25:23). There have been essays over whether we read that phrase appropriately (either theologically or even just grammatically), but if you had to accuse Mormons of either works righteousness or of cheap grace, it would be far more accurate to accuse the theology of the former.
There have been stirrings of a change in interpretation, however, with Adam Miller’s Grace is Not God’s Backup Plan, Brad Wilcox’s His Grace is Sufficient, and even President Dieter Uchtdorf’s The Gift of Grace. Each of these shifts the needle away from the idea that one must earn God’s love and grace.
However, as of October 2016, we still have to seriously question whether God’s love is unconditional. With his October 2016 conference talk “Abide in My Love,” Elder D. Todd Christofferson shares with us the one word that might mislead you about the nature of God’s love:
There are many ways to describe and speak of divine love. One of the terms we hear often today is that God’s love is “unconditional.” While in one sense that is true, the descriptor unconditional appears nowhere in scripture. Rather, His love is described in scripture as “great and wonderful love,”3 “perfect love,”4 “redeeming love,”5 and “everlasting love.”6 These are better terms because the word unconditional can convey mistaken impressions about divine love, such as, God tolerates and excuses anything we do because His love is unconditional, or God makes no demands upon us because His love is unconditional, or all are saved in the heavenly kingdom of God because His love is unconditional. God’s love is infinite and it will endure forever, but what it means for each of us depends on how we respond to His love.
As I read through Christofferson’s remarks, it seems that there are a few things that Christofferson is trying to get at (such as a distinction between unconditional salvation and conditional exaltation), but my biggest impression when reading the post was whether what he was describing were in fact conditions on the love at all.
Ultimately, everything seems to hinge on one question:
Is acceptance of a gift a condition to it?
Near the beginning of the talk, Christofferson quotes the following from President Monson:
As President Thomas S. Monson has expressed: “God’s love is there for you whether or not you feel you deserve love. It is simply always there.”
I think that this hints at what non-LDS Christians are getting at when they talk about grace as a gift and God’s love as being unconditional. God’s love keeps coming at all of us regardless of what we do, who we are, what we deserve, and what we feel we deserve. It is simply always there. (As Adam Miller would expound in his General Theory of Grace, this ever-flowing gift is present from even the first act of creation. The universe, our planet, our lives, our every moment is gift after gift sent our way from God.)
So, if Christofferson agrees with his quotation of Monson (and if Monson’s quotation is reconcilable with that general theory of grace), then Christofferson’s statements should nevertheless be compatible with an unconditional notion of God’s love.
It seems that Christofferson’s proposed conditions on love can all be redirected away from what God is doing to instead what we are doing. To quote the last line from my first quote block:
God’s love is infinite and it will endure forever, but what it means for each of us depends on how we respond to His love.
How we respond to His love.
Does our response pose conditions on God’s love?
When we talk about giving people gifts, aren’t those unconditional? What do we mean by that? Wouldn’t we mean that our gift is not based on the recipient “earning” the gift (we choose to give it regardless of what they have done for it) and it is not based on the recipient “deserving” the gift (again, we choose to give it regardless)?
And yet…doesn’t a gift recipient still have choices? They can reject the gift. They can misuse the gift. They can lose it. They can damage it.
If the recipient does any of these things, does that change the nature of the gift? Does that then mean that we (the giver) have placed conditions on the gift? Would we say that a gift is conditioned on the acceptance and proper use thereof?
It doesn’t seem to me like that would be the case.
In fact, it seems like we could say that our gift is unconditional precisely because we give it even when the recipient rejects it or when the recipient withholds it.
At the same time, we can say that we have given the gift unconditionally, but that the recipient’s response will affect what the gift means for them. If they do not accept it, they may not receive the full value and benefit of the gift (and yet, it was still unconditional). If they misused it, lost it, or damaged it, they may not receive the full value or benefit, yet the gift was still unconditional.
Does this make sense to you? Or would you say that those things place conditions on the gift?
Interpreting commandments in terms of responses to gifts
If the previously mentioned framework can make sense as a model for gifts, grace, and unconditional love, then that allows us to reconfigure a lot of Mormon-centric concepts in this new light. If this works correctly, then we should be able to maintain familiarity with Mormon teachings (that is, not completely jettison core concepts) while seeing them in that different light.
This is the fundamental difference, which brings us out of heresy: God’s unconditional love is the greatest constant in the universe, but God also has established commandments and covenants. Some of God’s greatest blessings are conditioned on faithfulness. This does not mean that God’s love is conditional, but rather that our ability to understand and accept God’s love for us will grow as we obey Him and come to know Him. God is broadcasting His love throughout creation: whether we hear Him clearly will depend on how we attune ourselves. That’s a simplistic metaphor but an apt one. Even our evangelical friends will likely agree that accepting Jesus Christ is required to actualize God’s love in our lives in a salvific way.
In this new light, we can think of obedience as being particular responses to gifts. The gift is there regardless of what we do, but obedience is like opening a new gift, reading the instructions manual, and following along.
What’s important here to always remember is that gifted aspect. In this case, thinking of God’s love as unconditional is helpful precisely because it keeps us from claiming credit.
If we take Brad Wilcox’s piano lessons analogy (from His Grace is Sufficient), what is crucial (and perhaps part of the reason Protestants emphasize that unconditional nature so often) is to remember that even if one improves at playing at piano through practicing and following one’s instructor, one must always recognize that one’s piano playing ability, one’s tutor, one’s piano itself — these were and are freely given and not earned. Though you did practice (and without that practice, you wouldn’t have gotten different results), everything was freely given first and without respect to anything you did — your piano, your teacher, your lessons, but also your very ears to listen and your hands to play.