A week ago, I spoke in church on the subject of charity. My talk focused on some questions from 1 Cor. 13 and Moroni 7. Beforehand, I bounced a few questions and ideas off of my co-bloggers, and got I great responses from Melissa, Julie, and Jim, which became part of the talk. I kind of liked what I ended up saying — and a few things that I should have said, but didn’t get to — so I’ll set out a few thoughts here. (And please remember, as a general rule, the insightful stuff here probably came from Julie, Melissa, or Jim).
Start with one of the key scriptures on charity:
4 Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity denvieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
5 Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
6 Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
7 Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
8 Charity never faileth . . .
Now, we start with a threshold question. Is charity even worth discussing as its own item? The word translated as charity in 1 Cor. 13 is the Greek agape, which is often translated elsewhere as “love.” Many other translations of the Bible render 1 Cor. 13 as “love.” (The KJV renders the term as follows: love 86, charity 27, dear 1, charitably 1, feast of charity 1). So, is charity just another word for love? Is it worthwhile to discuss charity as a separate concept?
There has been some amount of discussion on this topic within other Christian demoninations. However, church members can more-or-less skip over that question. Moroni 7 keeps the distinction, suggesting that there is a good reason to keep the word charity, rather than just love.
45 And charity suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
There is definitely a lot of overlap between charity and love. However, Moroni 7 suggests that there are important distinctions as as well — enough to warrant the use of the separate term. Bearing that in mind, the similarities are still something to remember as we discuss charity.
Okay, let’s go back to 1 Cor. 13:7. “Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.”
That verse contains a rather startling list of items. Charity apparently believes all things, bears all things, endures all things. Does this apply to us? Must we be gullible, believing all things? Must we be pushovers, enduring all things? What does that list mean for us? Is there a limit to what we’re supposed to bear and endure, and to believe? Pauline charity might very well describe someone willing to get pushed around, manipulated, deceived, and even beaten up on a regular basis (or who allows those things to happen to family or friends). Is this what charity requires?
(Note — as I recall, this question came up in a prior blog discussion, from a while back. I haven’t been able to find the link, though — does anyone recall that one?)
One possible reading is that Paul’s list is hyperbole. It seems possible that Paul is exagerating. If this is the case, then perhaps we should apply a filter of own to the scripture. It doesn’t really mean all things; it means all reasonable things. Such a gloss makes the verse much more palatable, to be sure.
However, that reading seems to go against Moroni 7. The same list, and the same operative adjective — all — is set out in Moroni 7:45. If Paul is exagerating, then so is Moroni, in exactly the same way — and such a dual exageration seems unlikely. That suggests that the verse is in fact not hyperbole. And we’re back to hard-question land.
Let’s table that issue for a minute, though, to ask another question. Moroni 7 defines charity as the “pure love of Christ.”
47 But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.
Once again, on a definitional level, what does this mean? That is, what does “love of” mean? It seems there are several possible meanings of “love of.” It could be love from Christ. (Such as, “I have the love of my wife.”) It could be love towards Christ. (Such as, a love of learning.) Or it could mean something else altogether — perhaps something like a love like the love Christ has.
Again, we look to context and similar uses. In Paul’s letters, most of the time when he refers to the love of God, he clearly means it to refer God’s love for us. Since “the pure love of Christ” occurs in a context that has Paul’s writing as a direct analogue, we can probably assume that it means “love from Christ,” though it isn’t conclusive that it does.
Charity as Christ’s love for us makes a lot of sense in the context of verse 7 from Corinthians.
Christ’s love for us endures all things. We sin; we fall away. Our sins inflict pain on Christ, on many different levels. It pains him to watch us move away from him; he also feels the pain of our sins and afflictions, through the Atonement. And despite the abuse that we heap on him, Christ still loves us. Christ’s love for us endures all things and bears all things. Charity is the pure love of Christ — the pure love from Christ towards us — and it endures all things, including the damage inflicted by our own repeated transgressions.
Similarly, charity believes all things. We tell Christ that we are sorry for our failings and that we repent and will sin no more. He believes us. And even when we sin again, and repent again, and sin yet again, and repent yet again, and then sin yet again — the door of repentance never closes. Christ never says “I really don’t believe you this time.” Charity — Christ’s pure love for us — believes all things. And it hopes all things. Even after we have, through our own selfishness and pride and stubbornness, repeatedly disappointed that hope, Christ still hopes for us. Charity hopes for all things. Christ himself has borne many things, but will not bear all. (Cf verse four of Jesus, Once of Humble Birth). But his love for us will bear all things.
This approach also illuminates what it means for charity not to fail. Fail can mean many things. Charity not failing thus raises definitional questions itself. Is this, that it never fails as in gives out? (“A light that fails.”) Or is it fails as in doesn’t succeed? (“Their pick-and-roll never fails.”) Again, my Greek resources (cough, JulieSmith, cough) are of great assistance. The first lexicon entry for fail is “to fall out of, to fall down from, to fall off.” The translation breakdown is: fall 7, fall off 2, be cast 1, take none effect 1, fall away 1, fail 1, vr fallen 1. So it seems that when the scripture says that charity never fails, it means something like ‘falling down on the job.’
That definition for fail dovetails with the idea that charity is the love from Christ towards us. That love never fails, because it bears all things, endures all things, believes all things, hopes all things.
This is all the easy part. Charity is just being loved by Christ, and we’ve all got that. And that’s all there is to worry about, right?
Or maybe not. There’s one more can of worms to open. What about the requirement of having charity? What does that mean?
On the one level, we all have charity. We all have Christ’s love, from him, towards us. We are all recipients of charity. And on that level, the scripture makes perfect sense. If we didn’t have that, all would be lost. And on that level, scriptures like Moroni 7:46 make perfect sense:
46 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, if ye have not charity, ye are nothing, for charity never faileth. Wherefore, cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all, for all things must failâ€”
If we don’t have love from Christ towards us, we are nothing. That’s true. But the real question is this — are we expected to be givers of charity, as well? The scripture seems to indicate this. Look at Moroni 7:48:
48 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure.
Yes, it can be read in a more restrictive way, requiring charity only of Jesus Christ. But the more natural reading seems to be that we must develop and have charity for others. The hard, impossible love, the kind that Christ has. Can the human soul actually do that? And if so, how can we develop charity?
The first step is following the instruction set out in Moroni 7:48 — praying to have charity. A second step is doing it. And an important consideration is being realistic about the scope of charity. Do we need to be gullible pushovers, believing and enduring all things? No. We go back to what charity is: Charity is love. Our love for others must endure all things. Our love for others must hope all things, must believe all things. Often this will involve enduring things in our own person, believing things in our own minds, hoping things in our hearts.
But not always. We don’t need to believe people if they lie to us, proving themselves unworthy of our trust. The requirement is that our charity — our love for others — must believe, hope, and endure. We need not deceive ourselves, though — we don’t have to believe lies. I don’t have to believe Jim if he tells me the sky is green, but my love for him — and for everyone else — must endure all things, bear all things, hope all things, believe all things. Not an easy task, but one that puts us on the path to becoming more like Jesus.