Notes on Charity

May 31, 2006 | 9 comments
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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:

1 Corinthians 13:4-8:

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.

Moroni 7:45:

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.”

Moroni 7:47:

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 fail—

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.

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9 Responses to Notes on Charity

  1. Mark Butler on May 31, 2006 at 2:15 am

    Wow, that is a lot of issues for one post. My first comment is that this “X all things, Y all things, Z all things” is classic hyperbole intended to make a point of the depth of patience, humilty, hope, and long suffering true charity entails.

    As to “pure love of Christ”, while some might argue on various grounds that all love originates in Jesus, I think Christ-like love is a much more tenable interpretation that does not make controversial metaphysical commitments. I remember listening to a recording of a relatively recent mission president’s seminary where one of the new presidents asked Elder Maxwell to comment on the question, and his response was a polite refusal to take a position one way or the other.

  2. Mark Butler on May 31, 2006 at 2:16 am

    Re the metaphysical unity of the divine spark within, I should say.

  3. Mark Butler on May 31, 2006 at 4:27 am

    That is “seminar”, not seminary by the way. My apologies.

  4. Stephen M (Ethesis) on June 1, 2006 at 7:29 pm

    The database blew up, but I did say that I really enjoyed this one.

    Thought I’d repeat the comment.

  5. grego on June 2, 2006 at 1:13 am

    I think that the other scriptures, especially LDS, share the point that “love” and “charity” are distinguishable (D&C 4, for example).

    I think of love as being directed toward someone. I love my wife. Because she’s my wife, etc. I have charity. It’s not directed toward any specific thing, because it’s not specific. It’s all-encompassing. It can be directed specifically, but it need not be. Also, it sets off the limitations that love sometimes carries–something personal, some “extra” reason, etc. Charity doesn’t have those limitations.

    Does charity REQUIRE all those things, or does it ALLOW them/ make them possible, or give us guidlines and “best-if’s”?

    I think the questions of limits goes to what type of personality/ calling we have. For the A-N-L, it WAS all those. For the Nephites, it could have been, maybe; but just thinking about others being mean, and their families being hurt by their former bretheren, and their instructions on battle and protection, made them decide against it; nevertheless, they were sorrowful for it (an indication of charity). And I have noticed a few other lives that are lived in the manner the A-N-L lived, adn it seems all was ok, even temporally. It seems the ability to do all those things, brings heavenly blessings that no earthly mind can imagine, nor that any earthly hand can stay.

    Did not Paul and others walk a similar course? Did not Stephen suffer himself to be slain? Did not God suffer him to be slain? Did not Moroni see the destruction of his people, the extreme wickedness all around him, the sorrowing of his father; his wanderings, his loneliness, etc.? Did not Jesus literally and clearly do that with the Atonement?

    I think charity is the love that Jesus has. Why? It “endureth forever”–and MY charity, doesn’t. Can we ever, as humans, have a “pure love” of Christ, especially if we haven’t felt His charity? However, we can feel His love. It raises us, and wants us to also have that same love; towards Him, and towards ourselves and others.

  6. Curtis on June 2, 2006 at 2:08 am

    Offering my humble opinion here, I don\’t like the way we talk about charity in the Church sometimes. We talk about developing charity as if it is our good works that constitute an act of charity. The scriptures seem to clearly refute this idea as 1Cor 13 states above. Even though we sell our belongings and feed the poor AND have not charity, we\’re nothing. Even though we bring cookies to the neighbors AND have not charity we are tinkling cymbals. Even though we have the gift of prophecy or can teach by the power of the Holy Ghost, and have not charity we are nothing, and as Joseph Smith said, we are liable to fall (until a man is filled with charity) or something to that effect. Everything else fails because having charity means being like Christ. Having charity goes hand in hand with having a knowledge of God. As Peter stated in 2Peter 1, if we have Charity (the last on a laundry list of characteristics) we\’ll not be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul also commented in 1Cor 13 that, \”For now (while we don\’t have a fullness of charity) we see through a glass, darkly; but then (when we are endowed with a fullness of charity, like a mantle to wear) face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.\”
    The knowledge we gain with Charity is a knowledge of Christ. Thus it is intimately linked to Eternal Life, which is to know Christ. When we know Christ, we know how he longs after the souls of his children or God\’s children. A 3rd century bishop said that Charity is something that when held, causes those around him to love God. Robert Millet once said that Charity is an intense and painful desire to share the gospel. I am noone important to quote, but I have developed a working definition of charity in that it is the heart, mind, soul and desires of Christ. That\’s why we become the sons of God and become like him and see him as he is.
    This can only be achieved thru revelation though. We are told to pray with all the energy of heart for this gift. That means, that when we get thru praying, we shouldn\’t have much energy left in our heart. To know Christ then, can come only thru revelation. It comes from obedience to the word of Christ placed in us by the Holy Ghost. Therefore, we can\’t \”develope\” charity of ourselves at all, no more than we can get eternal life by ourselves. It is something entirely bestowed upon us by Christ by his will and of course, in response to the law that the bestowal of charity is predicated upon.
    I believe that when we act as inspired to do something, that is an act of Charity. I also believe that there is such a thing as a fullness of charity, in that we receive it and it doesn\’t go away anymore. We become whole, have Eternal life, make our calling and election sure… type of stuff.
    Sorry this isn\’t well organized. Hope it was intelligible

  7. Mark Butler on June 2, 2006 at 4:33 am

    Basic metaphysical issue here – is grace ultimately a cooperative enterprise, or are we just basking in borrowed light? Some LDS adhere to the practical equivalent of the doctrine of total depravity – that there is no good, no divine spark within us, that even our freedom is contingent on the light of Christ.

    I think this doctrine of humans as dirt resonates strongly with our Protestant heritage. It seems rather foreign to classical Mormonism however. With no Original Sin, no inherited taint from Adam and Eve, why should we be incapable of any good work in and of ourselves, unless we are all emanations from the ONE as the Neo-Platonists have it.

    Or more precisely, why is God God? By withdrawing from a metaphysical fount of grace? Then whence the suffering atonement? Or might I suggest that grace is the collective spiritual power of the divine concert working together, like a billion tiny sparks make a roaring fire?

    So thus while our charity may pale in comparison to Christ’s, when purely expressed it is of the same fundamental nature, in and of ourselves, and magnified through celestial unity.

    D&C 121:46 provides the best evidence for this argument – divine power through willing consent, a power that evaporates when willing unity does. Is this scripture foreign to the LDS tradition – I don’t think so – I think D&C 121 is the most critical scripture in our whole soteriology, the key to understanding the grace/works conundrum.

  8. Tatiana on June 4, 2006 at 9:54 am

    This touches on something that I’ve struggled with all my life. I grew up in an abusive family, and like all abused children, I loved my abusers and considered myself to be the one at fault. Later on, when I grew up, I realized I wasn’t at fault, but I still loved them, and had no wish to retaliate or hurt them or even much of the time to defend myself. I believed in Christ’s charity, and so I tried to live it towards others, and continued to be abused.

    Christ could get angry too, though, from time to time. But he never did toward people who hurt him. He did say it would be better for people who hurt children that a millstone be hung about their necks, but he never went berzerk and turned tables over at them. He never got physical with is. It seems he taught that lesson more by example, by suffering the children to come unto him, and by blessing them and weeping, and by calling angels down to minister to them. He loved children, it was very clear.

    Eventually I ended the abuse by fighting back. Whenever I was threatened, cornered, grabbed, in an aggressive way, or hurt, I fought back ferociously. It only had to happen once with each abuser, and I didn’t have to fight skillfully or successfully. Just the fact that I fought back made them leave me alone from then on. After, in the worst case, 36 years of physical abuse, I was finally free. Now I teach children who are abused to use that strategy. To be friendly and kind, and never pick a fight. To try to walk away if someone tries to pick one with you. But if that’s not possible, to fight like a berzerker with everything you have. After years of abuse it only took me doing that one time to make it stop.

    Thinking about this I realized as well that it elevates the abuser as well as the abused. It teaches him (or her) something important about life, and about the ones he is picking on. And it sets up the relationship so that it can have the possibility of constructive good things in it, rather than all evil. The abuser is harming himself far more than he harms the one he abuses. Both temporally and spiritually, this is very true. It erodes his soul until he is almost nothing. By abusing, he renders himself less and less a person, until he is like some foul thing, some vermin, some orc, with only the faintest spark of real selfness inside. In a way, abuse of others is like a drug to which the abuser is addicted. It makes him feel good, and he can’t stop. By forcing him to stop (at least against you), by using force, you free him from that addiction in one instance. You show him that he can be free of it, and model for him a better relationship. You give him a much better chance of breaking free of it himself, if you refuse to let him do it to you. You’re doing something that’s good for him, as well as for yourself.

    But Christ didn’t operate that way. He didn’t smite down the people who scourged and spat on him, though he surely could have done. He picked up their ears off the ground and healed them instead. So I can’t reconcile these things. And I’m teaching children something that’s contrary to what Christ taught. That’s got to be wrong. Charity is the pure love of Christ. If I am filled with that love, then how should it manifest itself towards people who physically and verbally abuse me?

  9. annegb on June 4, 2006 at 11:15 am

    Wise share, Tatiana. I fought back, too. Way to go. I think Jesus applauded.

    Kaimi, this is an important post. I put it in with your other one which I’ve quoted often. I think God expects us to exercise some judgement, not just lay down and let the truck run over us.

WELCOME

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