"You owe me nothing for giving the love that I give
You owe me nothing for caring the way that I have … "

These lyrics from an Alanis Morisette song are several years old now, but they still play in my head on occasion. As a chronic overanalyzer of lyrics, I find myself partly drawn to this song's portrayal of love and partly cynical about it. It sounds so compelling to say, "There are no strings attached," but is that kind of love realistic … or even possible?

Like it or not, we live in a world of conditional love. The person you were in a relationship with finds someone more attractive or more interesting, and you're dropped with no warning. You blow it in a friendship, and your former friend refuses to give you another chance. Someone you thought would always be there for you moves away, drifts away, or passes away.

Shortly after I started attending a small group through my church, I became utterly enchanted by Jason—five years older than me, with a fascinating job, a quick wit, and the kind of blue eyes that made my knees go wobbly. Soon we were spending time together outside of small group, and it looked every bit like dating—he made dinner for me, took me to concerts, and taught me how to dance (or tried to, anyhow). But he wouldn't call it dating … and in fact, did some impressive gymnastics to avoid the conversation altogether. My friend Sarah, miles away in Nashville, had never met him, but she sensed some red flags, and like a good friend, she warned me about those things I was closing my eyes to.

After several months of this pseudo-dating, I returned home from a trip to a message from Jason. He asked me to come to his place right away—there was something exciting he wanted to tell me in person. My mind was whirling: What could his news be? Was he finally going to make it official and ask me out? Then came his announcement: "I accepted a job in New York," he said. I was vaguely aware of the details he was spouting about this "great opportunity" that was "once in a lifetime." But all I could think was, Eight hundred miles. New York is eight hundred miles away. We finally had an overdue conversation about our "status," and he told me in so many words that he's a "love the one you're with" sort of guy—that he'd enjoyed getting to know me, but it would be easier to just go our separate ways. So he packed his bags, never pausing to look over his shoulder. And I was left feeling like I'd been sucker-punched with all the force of conditional love.

It's not just individual people who can make us feel the sting of changeable love—sometimes it's society in general. My freshman year of college I fell prey to an all-consuming pressure to be thin. Somehow I got the idea that the less I weighed, the more people would love me. But as my caloric intake and the numbers on the scale dwindled to dangerous lows, I didn't experience the surge of acceptance and affirmation I thought I would. On the contrary, I discovered that the world is the ficklest of all lovers … it constantly whispers to us that there's always something wrong with us. If only we were more _____ (thin, young, beautiful, witty, sexy, whatever), then we'll be accepted. But even if we somehow manage to achieve that elusive goal, it's never enough.

p>I've heard since my childhood that God loves me unconditionally, and at times I've even believed it. But it's usually one of those things I just accept on faith without really getting it (kind of like the Trinity or trigonometry). But last week I met an eight-pound person who taught me the largest lesson I've ever learned about unconditional love.

My brother and his wife recently had their first child—my first niece—so, like a good aunt, I booked a plane ticket to meet her. Now I'm not a huge fan of babies—I'm not one to squeal over pink outfits, and honestly I think Anne Geddes photos are kind of creepy—so I wasn't quite sure what to expect. But when my sister-in-law placed the tiny bundle in my arms, with her shock of dark hair sticking out in every direction and her big blue eyes looking up at me, I was smitten. In that moment, a love like I'd never experienced before—the kind with no conditions—surged through me.