Posted April 3, 2010
What does it mean to say that God’s love is often “unrequited”? This phrase is often misunderstood theologically, and thus obscuring the entire notion of our spiritual life, which in its very essence consists in responding to God’s love for us (1 John 4:19).
The pain we cause God by rejecting his love is not the same as that experienced by a person who experiences “unrequited” romantic love.” The hurt by which romantic love is not reciprocated is painful merely to the ego of the rejected person. This pain is the self-inflicted pain of not getting one’s own way—frustration in not being accepted or appreciated—not getting the affection desired. Unlike this romantic rejection, the “unrequited love” of God causes God pain, basically not because our rejection of him hurts him, but because it hurts us.
God pursues us with his love like “the hound of heaven,” as described in “Francis Thompson’s iconic poem; though “pursuing” us, he never forces his love upon us. He weeps over us because our rejection of him is damaging to us. God’s pain of “unrequited love” is exemplified by the pain of the Father in the parable of the prodigal son, (Lk.15:11-32) and Jesus’ anguish in weeping over disdaining Jerusalem (Lk.13:34-35).
To understand God’s love for us, we must grasp the real meaning of the scriptural phrase, “God is a jealous God!” Start by considering divine love as similar to true marital love.. The “bride “mentioned in Revelation and elsewhere is a metaphor for the people of God—all humans. There is no place for false gods in this covenant relationship. The relationship between a husband and wife is an exclusive relationship. A marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman. They each “jealously” guard this relationship against interloping “lovers” who might attempt to break up their covenant with each other. This jealousy is called righteous jealousy; it should not to be confused with the competitive emotional jealousy that comes from our ego, or lower nature, or even from the devil (James 3:14-15). Righteous jealousy is comparable to the zeal of the Good Shepherd who guards and protects his sheep from the thief and the wolf, which comes to steal and to destroy the sheep. (John 10:11-16)
There is only one “Shepherd.” God “jealously” guards his people against thieves and hirelings who try to take his place, but he will not stoop to competing jealously with those interlopers. He “jealously” guards his people because of what will become of them if they become slaves of “false gods” like worldly pursuits that are substituted for him (see 1 John 4:5-6; 5:19). He “jealously” goes in search of them when they become lost, and never gives up until he rescues them, or until they choose to reject him forever by a deliberate and unremitting refusal to repent—ever. That is the ultimate effect of freely rejected love—freely choosing, instead of love, the endless tragedy of eternal damnation.
John H. Hampsch cmf.