Jeffrey Thayne

The phrase unconditional love is familiar to us and is in common use in today’s society. It is certainly a scriptural mandate to consistently love others. As the prophet Mormon taught, “charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever” (Moroni 7:47). The love we should have for each other should not be a fleeting thing, conditioned upon the treatment others give us, but should be enduring. However, Trevor McKee, in his article “Love Unconditional or Love Unfeigned: Justice and Mercy in Human Development,” suggests that what we most often mean when we use the phrase unconditional love can be better expressed in the scriptural term, love unfeigned.

This is because, McKee explains, not only is the term unconditional love never found in scripture, but it has its origin in the humanistic philosophy of Carl Rogers and is used by contemporary psychologists to mean something very different than what we mean when we use the term. To avoid expressing an unintentional allegiance to a humanistic philosophy that is in many cases at odds with the teachings of Jesus Christ, we should carefully understand our use of the term unconditional love and how it differs from its common use in the field of social sciences.

McKee explains that the term originates in Roger’s concept of unconditional positive regard. He said:

This term became the reactionary apothegm against the practice of parental control attempts in general and the notions of nurturance withdrawal in particular for getting compliance from children. … In fact, it was from the outset a reaction to [Roger’s] religious traditions that led [him] to look for a different set of values and a different methodology and to fight against any parenting procedure that imposed moral standards upon developing children.1

The idea behind unconditional positive regard, when applied to parenting, was that regardless of the actions of the child, the parent would treat the child with positive regard, never with chastisement or reprimand. The parents would never treat the child differently, avoiding such “manipulative” tactics such as confining the child to their room, grounding them etc. Accordingly, the child would recognize his or her parent’s unconditional love and acceptance, and this would create a climate conducive to the child’s growth. The parents would win the child’s good favor and obedience through positive regard, never through reproof, because reproof threatens the atmosphere of acceptance in the home. McKee explains, “The cumbersome term positive regard was eventually replaced and popularized with the more simple and commonly understood term love.”1

McKee points out that the intent of this unconditional positive regard was, like any parenting tactic, to gain the child’s respect and compliance. This, says McKee, is precisely why it isn’t what it claims to be. Addressing parents who treat their child the same regardless of his or her actions, McKee says, “It is quite likely that the child will read in your indifference to the child’s behavior that you don’t love him or her at all; you want only to posture yourself as a kind parent. … At best, [this] becomes an investment in self-love.”1 The payback is being perceived as a great parent. This, says McKee, is feigned love. Parents express unfeigned love when, with consideration of the child’s best interest, do the things they feel are best for the child, regardless of how they anticipate the child will perceive them. “Love is holy; it is charity,” says McKee, “consecrated and given for someone’s benefit without consideration of renumeration or paybacks.”1

Thus, the dichotomy between unconditional love and conditional love is possibly a false one, and a more useful dichotomy may be between unfeigned love and feigned love. This is because the practices we sometimes refer to when we think of both conditional love and unconditional love can both be feigned love, not really love at all. For example, the “Rogerian, humanistic love at best is evidence of posturing as being kind. It is really a refusal to love.”1

Russell M. Nelson also explained this concept as it refers to God’s love for his children. He said:

While divine love can be called perfect, infinite, enduring, and universal, it cannot correctly be characterized as unconditional. The word does not appear in the scriptures. On the other hand, many verses affirm that the higher levels of love the Father and the Son feel for each of us—and certain divine blessings stemming from that love—are conditional.2

1. McKee, Trevor R. (1986). “Love Unconditional or Love Unfeigned: Justice and Mercy in Human Development.” AMCAP Journal. Vol. 12(2). 35-57.
2. Russell M. Nelson, “Divine Love,” Ensign, Feb. 2003, p. 12.