Something surprising happens in a wedding ceremony. The bride and groom, after great preparation and full of love for each other, step forward to be united in marriage. And at the climax of that ceremony, they put conditions on their love for each other.

These conditions are exchanged as vows. These vows take the unconditional love of the bride and the groom and make it practical. How will the bride and groom love each other? For better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health. These promises—though often broken in our age—reveal that true love is as practical as it is emotional. The love between the bride and groom is not unconditional, but there are conditions about how love will be expressed between them.

The pastor who married my wife and I told us: “You married each other because of your love. Now you must love each other because you are married.” The time for emotional love was passed. The hard work of love had now begun. It was something we had to do.

Love the Lord Your God

But can love really be promised? Can we be commanded to love? Isn’t obligatory love the antithesis of unconditional love? Shouldn’t love be without expectations, without strings attached, without any requirement of reciprocity or—as it were—commandments? After all, we often see God offering us this unconditional love, a love that offers us everything, death for our life. This unconditional love, we often think, calls for faith in response—our faith in God’s love.

But this view of God’s unconditional love is really just sentimental love writ large, a view of God’s love that inspires faith in God’s love, perhaps more than it inspires faith in God himself.

Love is not something that we feel or that happens to us. The central command of the Old Testament is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:5). And Jesus affirmed this commandment as the first and greatest (Matt. 22:36–40).

Do these commands attach strings to God’s love? No. But they do show us its covenantal nature—a love based in promises that guide a relationship. Covenantal love does not fit easily into our cultural understanding of unconditional or sentimental love, but when we understand how God loves us and calls us in this love, we will better understand how to love others.

Covenantal Love

In The Love of God, Jewish theologian Jon Levenson notes the graciousness of God’s covenantal love, first given to Abraham, then re-affirmed toward Israel. Without merit or reason, God calls Abraham and bestows on him the original blessing that Adam had lost (Gen. 12:1–4). Years later Moses reminds the children of Abraham that it was “not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you…” that God chose them and rescued them from Egypt (Deut. 7:7–8).

Article continues below

God’s covenantal love, then, is unconditional in its source. Like a geyser of perfect grace, God’s love pours out toward Israel. But God has also ordered and shaped this life-giving spring by giving Israel the law through Moses.

Levenson reminds us that, “graciousness does not mean formlessness, and if love is to be a relationship and not just an ephemeral and episodic sentiment, it must impose norms of its own.” The norms of love between God and Israel are spelled out in the law given through Moses. These laws represent “the dynamics of covenantal love—not law as the antithesis of love, or love as a substitute for law, but love made practical, reliable, reciprocal, and socially responsible.” The law channels the unconditional eruption of God’s love within the riverbanks of an on-going relationship.

The offer of love is unconditional, but the mutual relationship of love has conditions—or better, expectations. As Levenson notes, “love may originate as ‘sheer gratuity,’ but unless it is to be chaotic and endlessly frustrating, it must also harbor moral expectations within it.” These expectations affirm the mutual standing of both partners in the relationship and offer guidance on how to make love practical.

To Abraham, God pours out the gratuity of love. To Moses, God sets the conditionality of love. Both express God’s covenantal love. God’s unconditional love is not license to do whatever we want. And God placing expectations on us does not mean God is harsh, demanding, and loveless. It just means God wants a relationship with us and knows what it means to have one.

Love Made Practical

It is sometimes thought that women understand love as an emotion while men see it as an action. For some, the idea that love must be made practical could seem like a particularly masculine way of understanding love. But as a pastor for over 15 years I’ve seen that whenever a relationship is in crisis, the offended party—whether male or female—has little time for words or sentiment. They want to see love in action. “Show me you are really working through your addiction recovery.” “Show me how you will build trust after your infidelity.”

Article continues below

These are not unreasonable demands. They convey a longing for love to be made practical, even when forgiveness has been offered. This does not mean love is being withheld until the proper conditions are met, but that relationships must be continually maintained and negotiated within the space of unconditional love.

Even in the healthiest relationships love must be made practical. This Valentine’s Day, along with that card expressing your ending love and affection, maybe your Valentine’s Day date could culminate in vows. Create a list of five things you could start doing regularly to show your love. And since love includes non-romantic relationship, ask your kids, co-workers, and friends for a list. In this way we will fulfill the first and second greatest commands, to love God and our neighbors (Matt. 22:36–40).

Geoff Holsclaw is professor of theology at Northern Seminary and pastor at Life on the Vine in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. He is co-author of Prodigal Christianity. You can follow him @geoffholsclaw