Rethinking God’s Unconditional Love

About two years ago, there was a discussion we had out at the prison Bible study that has haunted me. I keep thinking about it.

Steve was the one who made the comment that has stayed with me.

Theologically, the men in the prison study tend toward legalism and orient around a works-based righteousness. Which is strange, as you’d think that men in a prison would want to talk a lot about grace and forgiveness.

They do want to talk about grace, but they are also preoccupied with the theme from the epistle of James: Faith without works is dead.

The reason for this focus is because the men see a lot of hypocrisy around them. To survive in prison, you have to be a chameleon, learning how to show different faces to different people. Accordingly, when the men come to our Bible study, they have their “Christian face” on. During the study, the men are devout and pious, their discussions in the class full of biblical allusions and church-speak.

But we all know that the minute the study is over a change happens. They re-enter the prison world and the face they wear changes accordingly.

But not everyone’s. There are a few in the class who work hard to remain overtly and consistently Christian throughout their day. For these men, the face-changing, code-shifting hypocrisy they witness in relation to the Bible study drives them crazy. They see members of the study devoutly pontificate about their commitment to Jesus only to see these same men do something wicked 30 minutes later.

Consequently, our discussions in the class often come back to a works-based righteousness: You can say you love Jesus all you want, but you have to do this stuff. You have to walk the walk. You have to put this stuff into practice. Faith without works is dead. By your works you will be judged. And God is watching how you behave out on the unit.

In short, because many of the men are preoccupied with speaking into this hypocrisy, their theological orientation tends toward a judgmental and works-based orientation. Consequently, if you speak too much about grace, someone will push back with the worry that we’re letting the hypocrites in the room—the men who pretend they are Christians for two hours but who are mainly there for the air-conditioning—too easily off the hook.

This is the backdrop for the conversation we had about God’s unconditional love about two years ago. This is the conversation that haunts me because of a comment Steve made.

We were talking about God’s love, and someone said that God loves us unconditionally. That observation, as you know, is a banal platitude in Christian circles. But I doubt many Christians have seriously pondered the radical implications of that claim, that God loves us unconditionally. Because I don’t think people actually believe it. Yes, people might say that God loves us unconditionally, but they don’t, if you press them, actually believe it.

And true to form, some of the men in the study started pushing back upon this notion. Again, the idea that God loves us unconditionally might let the hypocrites in the room off the hook. God loves us, these men reminded us, but you have to do stuff. You have to be committed. You have to be holy. You have to put in the work.

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Richard Beck
Richard Beck is Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at Abilene Christian University and is the author of several books including Unclean, The Authenticity of Faith, and The Slavery of Death. Richard also writes about the intersections of psychology and theology at his popular and award-winning blog Experimental Theology. Richard is married to Jana and they have two sons. The Beck family are members of the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, TX where Richard is also involved in adult faith, prison and community ministries.