In a priesthood meeting I attended while traveling last week, someone talked about the unconditional love we feel for our children, and how it is patterned after the unconditional love our Father in Heaven feels for us.
I had two issues with the statement, and felt strongly enough to derail the class for a few minutes to get them on the table. (It was ok – it was one of those weeks where the teacher hadn't shown up, so we were getting an impromptu lesson anyway, so I didn't feel like I was detracting too much.)
The first issue was that I remembered an Ensign article from Elder Nelson a number of years ago called Divine Love. (Ok, I didn't remember that it was called "Divine Love," and it appeared longer ago than I remembered, but I did remember the article.)
In that article, Elder Nelson says, "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" (emphasis from the original).
The other thought I had was that I don't love my children all the same all the time. (Gasp!) Sometimes I get angry with one of my kids. Sometimes one of them hurts me or his or her mother, and it upsets me. And at that moment, I don't bubble over with love.
Now these two things are very different from one another. The first, taught by an apostle, is a clearer understanding of how God is (compared with how we want Him to be). I appreciate that he says that God's love is "universal," but not "unconditional." That says that it's available to everyone, but the results of that love, the blessings, are not for free.
In his article he then explains that the fruits of God's love are His blessings, and they are not meted out regardless of our behavior – those blessings are very much conditional upon our doing what we need to do in His eyes. Fortunately our Father is also merciful and grants us the opportunity to make corrections when we need to, and as soon as we do, says King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon, He blesses us.
The second –- my uneven love for my children -- is not a divine quality. It is the opposite of universal love, which I believe I should have for my children. If I really love them, then rather than getting angry and behaving badly (humanly, but still badly), I should allow them the consequences of their poor choices minus my not-so-righteous indignation. I might impose those consequences ("you came home late, so you can't use the car for a week") or someone else might ("you ran the red light; you pay the fine"), but allowing the consequence follows (I believe) the pattern of our Heavenly Father's love: we can learn from our mistakes.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I don't think I can say I have universal love for my children if I'm angry at them. In the moment of anger, I don't feel love. I know some may gloss over this and say, "well of course you love them; you were just upset." My point is that when I'm in that moment of anger, it's not love I feel, no matter how much love I feel the rest of the time.
Well, of course I'm not perfect (and if you think I might be, just ask my 13-year old; he keeps a list, which was handed down to him from his older siblings…). And the Good News is I can change. And it's something I work at all the time. And that opportunity comes because of my Father's divine love for me.