While society has changed greatly since creation, one thing has remained constant: man's desperate desire for love. As far back as Adam and Eve, man has constantly sought after an ultimate connection.

Modern society is no different when it comes to the need to be loved, evident in the glitz and glamour of the world around us. If you listen to any music station on the radio, at some point you'll likely hear a love song that includes the ageless romantic mantra, "I'll be there for you." The recent reality show craze on television has focused on society's inherit longing for love.

Similarly, every February 14th we load up our credit cards with material displays of affection-roses, chocolates, and exquisite dinners.

From a relationship standpoint-whether it is marriage, friendship, family, or dating-it's assuring to know that there is someone out there who always has our best interests in mind. But how often do we display that same unconditional attitude towards those we love?

Thomas Merton said, "Love seeks one thing only: the good of the one loved. It leaves all the other secondary effects to take care of themselves. Love, therefore, is its own reward." Yet, how often do we view love as something to be bartered for, rather than something to be freely given?

One of the most poignant examples of unconditional love comes from Luke 15-the story of the Prodigal Son (also referred to as "The Parable of The Forgiving Father"). In this parable, Jesus describes a young man who takes his father's inheritance, runs away, and spends it all on "loose living" (v. 13). Penniless and driven to the point of working in a hog pen, the boy realizes that even his father's servants have ample food-something which he lacks.

Returning home, expecting to be cast off to live in servitude, the young man discovers that his father welcomes him with open arms. (v. 20) Instead of lecturing his son or delegating him to servant status, the father requests the best clothing, sacrifices a "fatted calf," and extravagantly celebrates the boy's return. (v. 23)

In telling the story of the Prodigal Son, Christ describes the characteristics of God's love, while also illustrating the standard by which we should treat each other. The parable gives six characteristics of unconditional love: acceptance, touch, quality time, giving, acts of service, and encouragement.

The father wholeheartedly accepts his son, and even runs to meet the young man outside. (v. 20) The father could have cast him off, refusing his return because of the son's ungratefulness. Yet, with open arms, he offers a warm welcome.

Upon reaching his son, he hugs and kisses the young man-demonstrating his love through physical touch. As the boy explains his guilt and humility, the father listens and allows him to vent his feelings of shame and frustration. The father gives quality time.

He also gives the young man gifts-a new robe, ring and sandals. This act of giving is an outward display of his affection. In addition, he serves by sacrificing the fatted calf and throwing a party. He chooses to make his son's return an event to celebrate.

Finally, the father provides encouragement, assuring him that though he was once dead, he is now alive-a reminder of the restored relationship we experience with God when we ask for forgiveness. (v. 24)

Now these are certainly characteristics of God's love for us, but they are also the ideals that God wants us to follow in our relationships with others. Consider the relationships in your life-how often do you express your love and gratitude through these characteristics?

One of the most important things to remember is that love is not a feeling; it is a decision, a commitment. God chooses to love us, not based on anything we do, but based on His holiness. He chooses to love us unconditionally in spite of our sin.

When we love others based on commitment and not our fickle emotions, then our relationships will become much more stable and grounded. Feelings will always change. A commitment grounded in unconditional love will never change.

Our relationship with God is clearly evident through our relationships with others. By striving to treat others as God treats us, we can begin to realize what He has in store for our lives. As Henry Ward Beecher said, "I never knew how to worship until I knew how to love."


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