My journey of learning to love unconditionally began in the early 1980’s. Love was not a new concept at that time, but until then I had only been able to see a limited kind of love. As a child, this limited form of love played a big role in my life. I was free to explore and roam in a neighborhood that was safe and healthy. There were no fears to alarm or caution me such as many children have to hear about today. Although these first lessons of love were not always about unconditional love, I believe those early lessons laid a good foundation that taught me to be a loving person. But as I journeyed towards adulthood, exploring the depths of love, I realized that love was wider and deeper than anything I had experienced as a child. In the 1980”s I began to learn more about love’s deeper meanings when a new window of exploration opened up to me.
Up until this point in my life, I had known that there were basically two windows of love, which I called conditional love and unconditional love. But I did not quite know how to keep my focus looking through the window of unconditional love. I knew how I wanted others to look at me and love me. I knew how I wanted to relate to others. I struggled with an ongoing question inside to which I could not seem to find an answer—how can I love unconditionally and authentically?
What I came to understand in the early 1980’s renamed the windows and made it easier to separate them. If I looked through the window I was now calling “behavior,” I would love conditionally. If I looked through the other window, “personhood,” I would love unconditionally. I began to learn how to separate someone’s behavior from his or her personhood. In other words, I began to look at myself and others as who we are rather than what we do.
Separating who we are from what we do is not an easy task. Our culture and society so emphasize performance that we are almost brainwashed into seeing others and ourselves through the window that makes evaluations based on behavior. What we believe is, “I am bad if I do something bad. I am good if I do something good.” That would be the same as saying, “I am a cat because I can ‘meow’.” Being able to see a person’s heart, who they are, requires a different window. Muddy smudges, such as judgment, blaming, rejection and contempt, cover the window of behavior, distorting our perception of others and interfering with our ability to show authentic love. It was not easy to break free from such strong, internal belief systems, but it was the cry of my heart to get there.
The Person who is unconditional love was the one who would teach me how to stop looking through the muddy smudges, while teaching me to look at people through the window of the heart, through their personhood. And I found it life changing. I had to practice and learn many personal lessons along the way. I failed and needed forgiveness. Others failed me and needed forgiveness. Everyone fails; everyone acts contrary to his or her values at some time or another. Everyone needs forgiveness and love. One of the discoveries I made on this journey was that separating behavior and personhood makes it easier to forgive and love.
Forgiveness does not diminish that a person acted inappropriately nor does it condone the behavior, but rather forgiveness paves the way for reconnection in spite of the wrong behavior. When I separate behavior and personhood, I can love YOU (or myself) without loving your (my) behavior. When this grace is offered that separates who we are from what we do, it feels wonderfully healing. It restores relationships. It helps us let go of anger and grudges. Behavior actually improves when someone feels loved and accepted unconditionally. As God has taught me to see myself and other people through this window of the heart instead of by actions, I have seen many changed lives. People want to behave better after they are loved for who they are in spite of what they have done. The changes may be slow, but they come, when the focus is through the window of unconditional love.
I remember one young man who cheated on his wife. His wife and community were unquestionably upset. Their reactions communicated the norm for most people—“You are bad, bad, bad.” Anger, condemnation and rejection were the smudgy windowpanes through which they looked at him. It was very difficult for me as their “counselor” to explain why my reactions were so different. I saw his heart and felt his shame and remorse. I spoke to the behavior but without condemnation, without communicating that he was bad. I was separating what he had done from who he is.
Over a period of time and through much pain, with guidance to look through the other window, his wife was able to forgive him. Shortly, the community was able to forgive all involved and reconnect in a way that had never happened in their community before. Everyone was touched by this event. Everyone grew in his or her understanding of love and forgiveness. Everyone learned something about seeing through the window of the heart versus the window of behavior.
Looking through the window of personhood instead of the window of behavior has another important application—that of parenting children. Children who grow up without unconditional love become people who either perform for love and acceptance or rebel. Fear-based or performance-based discipline pave the way for problems, while loving discipline teaches value and worth. Loving discipline will include consequences without humiliating and rejecting the person while speaking to the behavior. How we speak to behavior will determine how the children see themselves. If we can separate who they are from what they do, they will grow in confidence and joy. Take a simple example: If a child lies (or steals, etc), we can send different messages depending on the words we use when speaking to them about it. In the case of misbehavior, we want to speak about the child’s behavior and not his or her personhood. We do not want to give the message that bad behavior means that the child is bad. I have made it my practice to say something like this, “We don’t like lying around here. We will not have any lying in our family.” If I am looking through that window of behavior I will say, “We don’t like liars around here. We won’t have any liars in our family.” Even though in this case the distinction focuses on the behavior, the message is still from the window of personhood. Noticing these types of phrases can change the impact our messages have on another person.
I have experienced looking through the window of unconditional love not only with children and adults, but also with young people and teens. As anyone who relates with teenagers can tell you, these teen years give many opportunities to encounter undesirable behavior. I remember a young man whom I loved without condemnation when he took money from a store. He paid some dire consequences, but I gave no condemnation. I remember two unmarried young people who moved in to live together. I spoke once about my feelings on the matter (of course they already knew my feelings) and then I related to them the same as if they were married. Without my condemnation or interference, I watched them work through what they needed to learn, grow tremendously from the experience and then get married. Condemning or rejecting them for their unwise behavior did not fit with what God was teaching me about the two windows.
During these events, I had some important goals. First and foremost, I did not want to lose the relationship with these young people. I wanted to see them through the window of personhood and love them for who they are—to keep the relationship and know that we would stay connected. It was my desire that, when, like the prodigal son, their journey brought them back to their true values, I would be one to whom they would come for support or help. I am thankful to say that they did return and I have had joy in those relationship ever since.
Another goal in my heart was for these young people to truly know that they are loved unconditionally. They had heard it taught and knew the words. But it was one thing to tell them how loved they are and another for them to know it deeply in themselves. Being loved in spite of their behavior cemented into them that what they do is not who they are. Bad or unwise behavior does not make them bad or unwise. Years have now passed and they have been married a long time. Most of the time they look at each other through the personhood window showing evidence in their lives that these lessons of love were valuable and life changing. The lessons also brought them an added benefit–they know how to love authentically.
As we can see from these examples, authentic love produces more love. Later in life this young couple had a serious opportunity to love another as they had been loved. A dear friend became pregnant out of wedlock and she found authentic love from these who had not been rejected for their behavior. She found a place to heal and grow without condemnation. Loving relationships triumphed over wrong behavior. Again consequences followed, but without condemnation and rejection.
When we love someone without condemnation, in spite of their behavior, it teaches them that they are valuable and loveable. It marks them as worthy and precious. That window of personhood clearly reveals their heart, who they are, and what they are really about, not only to us who may be looking through the window, but to themselves as well. Nothing touches a person more deeply than not being rejected because of behavior. It brings hope and freedom. It brings safety and a place to learn from mistakes instead of dishonesty, hiding and pretending. Honest and openness are vital criteria for loving authentically. Separating behavior and personhood make this easier because we do not have to fear rejection when being open if we know we will be loved unconditionally. It also prevents excommunication from loved ones, as we stay connected and work through problems without fear of condemnation. And I believe when others see us through the window of the heart, it helps us want to behave better and sin less.
The Bible says in I Peter 4:8, “Love covers a multitude of sins.” I do not believe that verse means that we cover up or ignore sin and act like it does not matter. Authentic, unconditional love must speak to unwise behavior in a loving matter while continuing to see the person through the window of the heart. Authentic love covers the sins by taking the focus off of the person’s behavior and placing the focus on their heart. Love asks questions that separate personhood and behavior: “Why is the person acting this way?” “What are the circumstances both present and past that bring out this behavior?” “What kind of pain is the person in?” “Where does he or she feel unloved and empty of joy?” These questions first slow down any negative reactions I might be feeling. Then as my heart lines up with reasons for the behavior, I am better able to see the person’s heart. Now I am able to ask, “What characteristics do I know that show me who they really are?” “How can I help instead of condemning?” This does not mean that I am excusing the unwise behavior; it may have to be dealt with, but by changing my focus to the window of unconditional love, I am more likely to love authentically. As we grow in this understanding that we are not what we do, love can cover a multitude of negatives, smooth out the bumps in life and bring us closer to one another.
It has been through many painful and difficult lessons that I have learned to love authentically. It was well worth the pain. Loving authentically has enriched my life personally and relationally. I live life standing on this truth—that who I am and who others are is not based on what we do. It is how I accept people where they are while seeing where they might need to grow. It is how I stay open to others even when they bring me pain. It is how I keep going when life is difficult. This kind of love has become real and automatic to me most of the time. It has changed my view of myself, of others and of God because I know it is really His love that I am talking about and I understand it experientially. When I look through that new window of personhood rather than the old window of behavior, I see with Heaven’s eyes and love unconditionally.