I will love you unconditionally!
These words from Katy Perry's Unconditionally rang through the air as my brother's bride walk down the aisle on their wedding day. They echoed in my mind throughout the weekend as we celebrated their marriage and I could not have picked better words to describe their love. Unconditional love is risky business, but my brother is well prepared. Throughout his life he has demonstrated when he sets his mind to something, he will commit himself to it unconditionally regardless of the risks.
There are many colloquial sayings about the relationship between risks and rewards. In the stock market we hear the greater the risk, the greater the reward. In athletics we here no pain, no gain. If it's true that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, then my brother's strength must rival Hercules because throughout the wedding celebration weekend we heard story after story of his risky and adventurous lifestyle.
This theme recurred throughout the toasts at the rehearsal dinner and the reception. We heard stories about his tree climbing, his acrobatic feats to get things from high cupboards in the kitchen as a child, his skateboarding and extreme sports, and his gutter cleaning business which required him to a walk on treacherous roofs. Mixed into the stories about his successful kitchen acrobatics and thriving business endeavors, we heard stories of the time he fell out of a tree and of the bumps and scrapes and bruises he earned at the halfpipe. During his toast, his best man exclaimed that he was surprised to be giving his best man toast before giving his eulogy. These activities inherently involve great risk, but his unconditional commitment to these activities allowed him to achieve greater accomplishments. He climbed the highest tree and cleaned the highest gutter, and he would not have been so successful in these efforts if he had placed conditions on his commitments.
Besides the stories shared in the toast during the wedding weekend, my own memories of growing up with my brother are filled with this theme as well. I remember a family vacation on which my uncle organized a casino night. While there was no real money involved, we had a competition in the family to see who could turn out the greatest profit. My brother stood at the roulette table for most of the night scattering his chips all over the board. As an observer, it looked like a terrible strategy. He was risking way too much! However, it somehow worked out for him. He managed to walk away with a way bigger pot of poker chips then any of the adults who were taking more conservative risks.
Even when his efforts didn't meet with much success, he still wouldn't let that get him down. Many of my memories of growing up include my brothers wrestling on the living room floor. My dad had taught us that, because we love our brothers, when we wrestle our goal is always to immobilize our brother and never to inflict pain on him. Since I was the oldest brother and he was five years younger, I was easily able to immobilize him. Nevertheless, he never gave up. He would initiate wrestling matches over and over and over again. No matter how hard I tried to convince him to admit defeat, he would adamantly refuse to do so. He refused to give up when the odds seemed stacked against him. Incidentally, though I am the oldest, I am now the smallest of my brothers and I would not immobilize him so easily today.
While dating the woman who is now his wife, they continued to go on adventures together like snowboarding and skydiving. However, their relationship itself has become my brother's greatest unconditional passion. While my brother has unconditionally embraced so many risks throughout his life, on his wedding day he accepted the greatest risk of all. During the wedding, the presider explained that my brother was inviting his wife into his being so she may know him intimately. Allowing someone to come into your being and become one with you means exposing your deepest vulnerabilities and trusting them not to take advantage of you. He promised he would love her in good times and in bad, no matter how bad the bad gets. He promised to love her in sickness and in health, no matter how great the sickness may be. He promised to love her for richer or poorer, no matter how poor they may become. Furthermore, he promised to continue to love her in this way until death do them part. There are no safety nets, there is no parachute, there is no life line, there is no escape hatch, there is no getaway car, there is no back door. He committed to love her unconditionally, no matter what!
Taking this sort of risk comes naturally to people who are truly, deeply in love. Love calls the lover to give of himself for his beloved. The more deeply you love someone, the less you think of yourself. The love between a husband and wife is the most powerful love experienced between human beings, and so we should expect that it will lead the husband and wife to make the most powerful sacrifice for each other. The spouses give of their very selves to one another. Love cannot be true love if it is conditional because it would mean the lover is putting some aspect of his own well-being above that of his beloved. If love is real, it has to be unconditional. Just as greater risk leads to greater rewards in the other areas of my brother's life, this greatest risk taken by a bride and groom leads to the greatest rewards. A bride and groom's public commitment to this unconditional love for the rest of their lives makes this love the most powerful love humans can experience - a love so powerful it can create a new human life!
The presider at the wedding also explained that my brother's love for his wife is a sign of Christ's love for the church. Christ similarly loves us unconditionally, no matter what! Not even being nailed to a cross could make Jesus stop loving. His unconditional love led him to ask the father to “forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). God's choice to give us free will was an awesome risk. In so doing he risked eternal separation from us if we chose to reject his love. But God's unconditional love for each of us required this because love cannot be love if it is coerced. We have to be free to choose to unconditionally love God in return. Choosing to unconditionally love a God you cannot see or touch or hear is risky, but the reward is equally awesome - an eternity in union with the God who is love.
While God has given us the freedom to reject his love, his unconditional love leads him to pursue us relentlessly no matter how far we run. The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) is a beautiful illustration of this. While the son is still far off the father comes running to embrace his son without caring what was done in the past. Nothing can keep the father from loving his son. Nothing can keep my brother from unconditionally loving his wife. Nothing can keep my sister-in-law from unconditionally loving her husband. Nothing can keep our God from unconditionally loving us. "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38-39)!