It is a strange truth how regularly God denies us the blessings we want most, even the blessings HE MOST WANTS FOR US. Think about it. God planned to give mankind the Abrahamic Covenant through Abraham’s son Isaac, but for decade after decade there was no Isaac. It seemed pretty certain that no child would ever come. God delayed 100 years before laying this crucial piece of the puzzle in place. And think about Jacob’s son Joseph. God sent him marvelous visions of himself revered by his brothers and glorified above them, and afterward they sold him into slavery. Or imagine Ruth, one of the sacred few to form the earthly parentage of our Lord Jesus Christ. Imagine her facing her future as a destitute, childless widow.
The scriptural examples of this phenomenon are nearly endless. It happened then and it’s still happening now. So what can we do about it? What do we do when the Lord doesn’t give us the things HE TAUGHT US to want.
Obviously, perfect faith would carry us through these situations. But most of us don’t have perfect faith. Most of us are still lost somewhere on the path toward perfect faith. Does God expect us to hunker through each crisis of faith on sheer grit? Or is there some other tool? Some other principle that can carry us through when faith shakes and hope thins?
I found my answer in a place I didn’t expect. A principle of power, like faith and hope, but not as likely to break down when things get difficult. The answer is charity, for “Charity never faileth.” In the words of the apostle Paul, charity “Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.”(Corinthians 13) But this power seemed far removed from anything I had heard about charity before.
So then, what is charity? The Sunday-School-answer is that charity is the “pure love of Christ.” But how does the pure love of Christ help me bear all, believe all, hope all, and endure all? As I thought about this I came across a quote by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, in which he defined charity as “Christ’s pure love of us and our determined effort toward pure love of Him and all others.”
This definition revolutionized the way I thought about charity. I realized that the most basic way I access the power of charity isn’t by loving others, but by accepting Christ’s pure love for me. In the words of Elder Gene R. Cook, “What usually happens when we begin to ponder how merciful the Lord has been to mankind? To us personally? What happens when we count our blessings, or perhaps our sins for which we must ask his forgiveness, and recognize his hand in our individual lives? Is it not true that our hearts turn to the Lord in love and gratitude? Do our faith and humility increase? Yes.”
The next part of Elder Holland’s definition is also revolutionary. Charity is our “determined effort toward pure love of Him” (meaning Christ). We often talk about loving Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, but I can’t remember anybody suggesting we need charity for them. Perhaps it seems odd to have charity for perfect people because we so often talk about charity as a generous sort of love we give to people who don’t really deserve it. What a horrible (and uncharitable) misconception that is. In truth, how can we expect to have pure love for imperfect people when we struggle to feel pure love for perfect people? I love that Elder Holland’s definition doesn’t demand pure love for God the Father and HIs Son, but instead demands “determined effort.” Sometimes it takes determined effort to feel love for our Heavenly Father and Advocate. But when we make that effort… when we decide to give them the benefit of the doubt… when we try to be patient despite the inconvenience of the Lord’s timing… when we submit to the pain and messiness of life without raging at the heavens… In these moments we find access to charity’s power once again.
And then, of course, there is “our determined effort toward pure love of… all others.” Interesting that the most talked-about form of charity is the least emphasized by Elder Holland. Perhaps it’s just such an obvious extension of the rest of the definition that it doesn’t need much emphasis. When we feel Christ’s love for us and return that love, it is natural to feel more love for those around us.
And what does this love look like? Paul’s discourse on Charity paints a pretty complete picture of it. “Charity,” he says, “suffereth long.” When you think of Christ’s pure love for us, it’s easy to imagine why Paul might first single out suffering as an element of the charitable soul. I don’t think charitable people generally suffer more than other people do, but rather that the charitable soul submits to suffering. The charitable soul accepts suffering as a part of God’s plan.
Charity, “is kind,” Paul notes. The Savior of the world, the only perfect example of Charity, was so very kind. “I wonder why it is that we are not all kinder than we are?” asked Henry Drummond, a famous religious orator of the 1800’s, “How much the world needs it. How easily it is done. How instantaneously it acts. How infallibly it is remembered. How super-abundantly it pays itself back…Lose no chance of giving pleasure. For that is the ceaseless and anonymous triumph of a truly loving spirit. ‘I shall pass through this world but once. Any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.’”
Charity, “envieth not.” When we talk about Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for us, we often focus on that final sacrifice, when he laid down his life for us. I wonder how many times before Gethsemane He gave up His own desires in order to fulfill ours. One thing is certain, He did not make life choices based on what seemed fun at the time. And yet, I know He doesn’t begrudge me the comfort, joy, and happiness I experience in my life. Similarly, when I look back at the lives of my ancestors, all the suffering and difficulty they willingly undertook to put me in such a good situation, I feel certain that my good fortune is their good fortune. From the depth of suffering, a loving soul does not become jealous of those who have more, reach farther, or achieve greater heights. No matter what we go forth to do, someone out there will seem to do it a little better, maybe even by standing on our shoulders. When we have pure love for others, the comparison doesn’t matter.
Charity “vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up.” Have you ever noticed how little the Savior cared to advance His personal reputation? The man who firmly proclaimed, “I am the Light of the World,” hand-picked His apostles from fisherman, healed lepers and outcasts, and ate His meals with the publicans and sinners. He never used His magnificent power to win Himself fame or fortune. Likewise, when a person feels the pure love of Christ inside them, they don’t feel the need to put on a show or appear more perfect than they already are. They are loved. They are enough, despite their flaws.
Charity, “Doth not behave itself unseemly.” Charitable people cannot help being well-behaved. Kindness and respect toward others flows out of them. It is this same quality that moved the Savior to heal the ear cut from one of his captors in Gethsemane, and feel concern for His grieving mother in His own final hours.
Charity “seeketh not her own.” The pure love of Christ is the antithesis of entitlement. If any earthly being ever had the right to feel profound entitlement it would have been the Savior. Paradoxically, Jesus Christ became our Savior because he didn’t seek His own glory, but willingly forfeited glory to the Father. Likewise, charity manifests in us when we choose to lay aside even that which is our own. And what really is our own? The most profound answer in my mind has little to do with our possessions and more to do with our will. When we follow the Savior’s example, we willingly defer to God’s will for us. We don’t obsess over our just desserts. We don’t fight for what we “deserve.” We fight for others, just like Christ does.
Charity, “is not easily provoked.” The New Testament describes Jesus Christ as a man with a clever and sharp tongue. He was epic. He was powerful. He was critical. But he was always in control. Charitable men are also endowed with this gift. We sometimes find ourselves with the authority (even the responsibility) to reprove others with sharpness. When love for them resounds within us we find the self-control to reprove without bitterness and anger. For, “by this shall men know, ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”
Charity, “thinketh no evil.” It wasn’t just Judas that betrayed Jesus Christ. Each of us sells out our Savior at some point, and often we do so for much less than 30 pieces of silver. Despite this, our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ do not treat us with cynicism and distrust. When their pure love lives within us we are not so suspicious of those around us. We are also not so easily captivated by evil thoughts. Those who enjoy the richness of virtue are not easily tempted by the cheapness of evil.
Charity, “Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth.” Where did the Savior turn to find joy? Service? Prayer? Scriptures? Friends and family? When we have Charity we do not turn to vulgar entertainment and foolishness to find happiness. We don’t waste time. We don’t gossip and nag and accentuate the negative in others while ignoring the positive. We rejoice in the truth that Christ has come and that we can all become like Him and live with Him someday. We are drawn away from that which tears us down and towards that which builds us up.
The first time I really dug in and saw the complex beauty and power of Charity I knew in my heart, “this is what I want.” But how do we get it? In the words of Henry Drummond,
“Love begets love. It is a process of induction. Put a piece of iron in the presence of a magnetized body, and that piece of iron for a time becomes magnetized. It is charged with an attractive force in the mere presence of the original force, and as long as you leave the two side by side, they are both magnets alike. Remain side by side with Him who loved us, and gave Himself for us, and you too will become a center of power, a permanently attractive force and like Him you will draw all men unto you, like Him you will be drawn unto all men.”
Moroni 8:26 notes, “…because of meekness and lowliness of heart cometh the visitation of the Holy Ghost, which Comforter filleth with hope and perfect love, which love endureth by diligence unto prayer.”
Gaining charity is a goal the stretches throughout this life and beyond. However, we can access its subliminal power right now. Wherever we are on the path toward perfection, the pure love of Christ reaches that far. And when we have it, we climb into heaven.