Have you ever had a big crush on someone who didn’t even know you existed? It is truly amazing how strong your feelings can be for someone who gives no sign of reciprocation.
One of my favorite questions to ask a couple that I am getting to know is, “Who liked who first?” The question usually leads to intensely comical stories of awkward wooing, reluctant acquiescing and eventually winning someone over. I have found it to be much more common for one person in the relationship to be the first and only one initially smitten than for a mutual and simultaneous infatuation.
There is a word for these kinds of “one-way” feelings: unrequited. It refers to any emotions or actions that are not reciprocated or returned. Whether it's revulsion or fixation, if only one person feels it, it's unrequited. And this word best explains the love of our great God and the love that should mark our lives as God’s people.
The Unrequited Love of God
There are a multitude of sermons and songs about God’s love, how it is relentless, reckless, endless and so on. One of the most underappreciated aspects of God’s love is that it is initially, and in many ongoing ways, unrequited. God’s love is an “already” and “even if” love. For a broken world and for every unworthy individual, this aspect of God’s love is a shocking and welcome reality.
1 John 4:19 says that “God first loved us.” Not only did He love us first, but He shows in Scripture how He loves steadfastly, even through our infidelities (see Hosea). He is faithful even when we are faithless (2 Tim. 2:13). He loves, and, in many circumstances, He is not loved back.
God's love is not unwilling or reluctant. It’s not an “only if” love that hesitates until worthiness is proven. His is not even an “unless” love that loves to a point but is easily lost. God’s love is unwavering even as it is unrequited. God is not fickle in how He feels about people, even though people’s feelings and commitment toward God can be outrageously erratic. For God so loved the world even when the world did not so love God.
The Unrequited Love of God’s People
God has called us to reciprocate His love. First and foremost, we are to be lovers of God. Jesus Christ said that loving God with everything we’ve got is the first and greatest commandment (Matt. 22:37-38). And the great thing about loving God is that there is no question about whether our love will be reciprocated by Him—He loved us first, best and steadfastly.
The second commandment that Christ calls us to is to love each other. He even clarifies that this love is to be without exceptions across racial, gender, political, socio-economic or adversarial lines. Yes, He even calls His Church to love our enemies. We are to be imitators of God who love people even though they may not love us back.
The call of the Christian is to show kindness to not only those who want it but even those who despise it. This is an essential tenet of the Christian faith. We live in a world where it is easy to create an “us and them,” a compartmentalized life where serving the community looks like serving your church and your friends—but this isn’t all Christ calls us to. He is the God, and we are the people who love the unlovely, the lost, the sick, the hurting, the rejected and the ones who don’t want to be loved by us.
Beholding and Sharing God’s Unrequited Love
I would challenge you to consider how you and your household are actively living this out. Do you pray for opportunities to extend love toward those who will not and do not love you back? Do you practice your faith as boldly and gently as is appropriate in spaces where it is not invited or even welcomed? Do you practice hospitality with those who would find your home to be a foreign or uncomfortable experience? Do you intentionally go places where you do not blend in so that you can be a person of peace and an extension of God’s love? Do you explain that your love and service to others is rooted in a love for you that was yours before you reciprocated it?
Do you remember when you met God? Who loved who first?
Imagine the stories your neighbors who do not know God may be able to recount one day—of a God who pursued them and loved them first. Imagine the role you might play in bringing them together. This is the love of the coming kingdom, to love even those who do not or will not love us back and to be part of God’s love for a world that has always been, to a scandalous extent, unrequited.