Several years ago, I read this from Elder Nelson:
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. (cite)
I was pretty surprised by this; I had always assumed that God’s love was unconditional. But I admit I hadn’t thought about it very much.
The same argument appears from him in a recent Ensign article:
Then, to underscore that His love was not unconditional, He added, “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.” (cite)
Here are a few other statements on the topic of God’s love:
Elder Marvin J. Ashton:
[God] demonstrated to us that His love was unconditional and sufficient to encircle every person. (cite)
Elder Neal A. Maxwell:
I am stunned at [Jesus'] perfect, unconditional love of all. (cite)
Elder Robert D. Hales:
That we may share His eternal, unconditional love with our brothers and sisters everywhere, is my humble prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, amen. (cite)
President Gordon B. Hinckley:
In moments of quiet, we reflect upon His matchless life and His unconditional love for each of us. (cite)
Elder Russell M. Nelson:
You are constantly mindful of the Savior’s atonement and rejoice in His unconditional love. (cite)
Yes! Elder Nelson! At this point two theories to explain the discrepancy occurred to me:
(1) The final Elder Nelson quote is from 1991; the two at the beginning post are from 2003 and 2013. Maybe he changed his mind.
(2) Maybe Elder Nelson (and the others?) are making a distinction between Jesus’ love and God’s love. I don’t think this is correct, however, for three reasons: (1) In the 2003 piece, Elder Nelson uses a list of scriptures to outline his position and some of them refer to Jesus’ love and some of them to God’s love and (2) I can’t figure out how to hang on to the concept of complete unity between Jesus and God if one of them loves people that the other one does not and (3) Elder Ashton is referring to God’s love and Elder Maxwell to Jesus’ love, so there is still some tension between what they said and what Elder Nelson said.
At this point, I’m not seeing an obvious way to reconcile these statements. I’m curious to get some feedback on whether y’all can think of a way to reconcile them and/or whether you think God’s (or Jesus’) love is (un)conditional.
(A quick Internet search shows reports that the Correlation Cmte. does not permit the phrase “God’s unconditional love” to be used after asking for clarification from the First Presidency and the Twelve on the topic (cite), but I have no way to verify this.)
And another thought: what I have given you is a handful of data points. Which do you think is the best theory for explaining their existence:
(1) Doctrinal development. (And, if so, is doctrinal change always an improvement over the older teaching, or is doctrinal retrogression possible?)
(2) Elder Nelson is sharing an opinion. The others are sharing opinions. There is a substantive disagreement between them, but none of them constitute doctrine. (Note that Pres. Hinckley was not the prophet when he made that statement.)
(3) There is no tension between the statements; the words are the same but the context is different, so the teachings harmonize.
(4) There is a substantive disagreement on a doctrinal issue.
(5) Perhaps there are some types or kinds of God’s love that are conditional and other types that are not. (What would these types be? How would this all work?)
(6) Stop micro-analyzing their words. Go out and show some love to someone who needs it.
–Maybe God’s love is always there but sin makes it impossible for you to feel it.
–How are we defining love: affection? approval? dutiful commitment? What about the OT marriage metaphor? That would suggest that God’s love is unconditional, because God stays in the marriage even when the bride is unfaithful.
–This seems like it might be Elder Nelson’s personal opinion, unless the backstory about correlation is true, in which case it is an official church position and it just happens that only Elder Nelson happens to teach this. (I found one or two other, older, quotes, but no other modern leader teaching this.) Is this an argument for correlation transparency, so people won’t dismiss things that seem to be personal?
INSTANT UPDATE: I wrote this post a long time ago but never got around to posting it. I was reminded of it again after the topic came up at the last conference:
President Monson: “My dear sisters, your Heavenly Father loves you—each of you. That love never changes. It is not influenced by your appearance, by your possessions, or by the amount of money you have in your bank account. It is not changed by your talents and abilities. It is simply there. It is there for you when you are sad or happy, discouraged or hopeful. God’s love is there for you whether or not you feel you deserve love. It is simply always there.” (link)