Reverend Dr Selwyn Hughes was a very gifted Christian writer, teacher, and pastor. I read his devotional thought every day, have read his autobiography, and amazed at how he still impacts thousands of people every day. His devotional material helps some prisoners in jail who take time to read his thoughts. He died in 2006, but his impact still lives on.
He tells the story of a young university student who came to see him one day for some advice. He was struggling at University, and was failing his exams. It was rather odd, he told Selwyn, because when he was a child at school, he had sailed through his exams. He loved school, and had no difficulties coping. He had a very high IQ and there was no apparent reason for his failure in later years at University. It seemed a bit odd.
As they talked together, it came out that his parents were highly educated—both had PhD degrees—but were demanding on him, and expected perfection from him. In fact, his mother and father both said to him as a child, If you don’t pass your exams, we will not love you. Can you believe that? It is true. This man grew up with the idea that love is conditional. Love had to be earned by his getting excellent marks in his exams at school.
He kept that idea in his mind all through the years, and as a young adult, he realised how stupid his parents had been. He was angry at their way of handling him. In fact, these strong feelings lay buried inside—feelings of hatred and resentment towards his parents. He now subconsciously retaliated against his parents by failing his university exams.
I find this to be a very sad story, one that has happened too often to fine young people, who grow up with this concept of conditional love. If you do well in your studies, we will love you. If not, don’t bother. We won’t regard you as a significant person.
What Love Is—and Is Not
I know my mom loved me but when I behaved badly—like broke a dish accidentally—she would get so angry and then withdraw her warmth. This isn’t love. And breaking a dish isn’t behaving badly—it’s being a child. How many times have you accidentally broken a dish?
I know my parents love me, but they seem so much happier with me when I’m doing well in my job and dating someone they approve of. This isn’t love. It’s approval.
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So what is love? Love doesn’t have to be earned. Love doesn’t have to be proven. When someone truly loves you, they love you for who you are, not for what you do.
When a baby is born, the parents don’t look at that baby and say, We’ll only love her if she gets straight As (preferably A-pluses), is beautiful, dresses well, is tidy and polite, excels at sports, and attends a top kindergarten. No, they love the baby because she exists, because she’s a miracle, because she’s here.
Love isn’t dependent on ‘good’ behaviour which, in our culture, is defined by:
- sharing your toys
- not making a mess
- using an indoor voice when you’re indoors
- saying please and thank you and excuse me
- not screaming in public
- not crying too much or at all
- not bothering your parents as you’re trying to fall asleep or in the middle of the night.
A parent might not like all of their child’s behaviour, but they don’t punish their child for being a child, and they don’t withdraw their love even when things are hard.