The Role of Charity in Marriage
Chapter 7 of The First Principles of Marriage

By H. Wallace Goddard

“Pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love” i

We are commanded to seek charity “with all the energy of heart.” We are told that we are nothing without it.

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 (Moroni 7:46).

Yet charity may be one of the rarest of gems in this mortal world. What is it? What does it look like? How do we get it? And what difference does it make in marriage?

What is Charity?

In an effort to understand charity, it is important to know what it is not. It is not artificial good cheer. It is not a thin veneer of politeness on a distressed soul. It is not holding our tongues while judging and resenting others. Rather it is a sacred and heavenly gift.

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.

Humans do not find charity coming easily or automatically.

When I come to my evening prayers and try to reckon up the sins of the day, nine times out of ten the most obvious one is some sin against charity; I have sulked or snapped or sneered or snubbed or stormed. And the excuse that immediately springs to my mind is that the provocation was so sudden and unexpected: I was caught off my guard… [Yet] surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is. Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth.

If there are rats in the cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats: it only prevents them from hiding. In the same way the suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man: it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am. The rats are always there in the cellar but if you go in shouting and noisily they will have taken cover before you switch on the light. Apparently the rats of resentment and vindictiveness are always there in the cellar of my soul. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 164-5).

The natural man is likely to find that resentment and vindictiveness come more easily than charity. More than we realize, those negative reactions are a choice – a choice to see in a human, judgmental way or to see in a heavenly and loving way. That choice makes all the difference.

If you don’t like someone, the way he holds his spoon will make you furious; if you do like him, he can turn his plate over into your lap and you won’t mind. (Irving Becker, RD Treasury of Great Quotations, 1975)

As in all things, Jesus is the perfect example of charity. He is also our unfailing mentor as we work to develop charity.

A Contrast in Charity

Jesus was invited to dine with Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50). It would be interesting to know Simon’s motivation for inviting Jesus over for a meal. Apparently Jesus was the talk of the town. It seems to me that Simon’s attitude was much like that of David Lettermen when he has a distasteful guest on his talk show. He can be curious without being cordial.

On a collision course with the dinner party was a woman who was known to be a sinner. We don’t know the details of her sin. Was she a tramp and prostitute? Had she been a blight on the community conscience for years? Was she shunned in the marketplace and streets?

And why was she seeking Jesus? Had she heard Him speak and felt the first stirrings of hope in her soul? Had she seen how He treated those who were injured and imperfect? Had He caught her eye in the street and she felt the first stirrings of pure love she had ever felt?

As Simon’s group reclined at the meal in the little courtyard in his home, the unnamed woman burst into the doings. It was bad enough that she was a woman and that she was uninvited. But, adding insult to injury, she was a flagrant sinner! And she touched Jesus, a rabbi! That alone was an offence against Jewish law.

And she certainly was maudlin. She wept profusely, letting her tears flood His feet. She even anointed His feet with oil that was no doubt gained through unholy means.

Simon cringed at the mere presence of the woman. And the fact that Jesus tolerated her was a sure sign of His spiritual failings. He had neither discernment nor good manners.

Jesus recognized Simon’s small-mindedness. Jesus had the power to humiliate Simon for his shriveled hard-heartedness. He didn’t. Instead he invited him to another way of seeing and being. He asked Simon whether a debtor that had been forgiven a large debt would be more or less grateful than one forgiven a small debt.

Simon shrugged. “I suppose the one forgiven the larger debt.”

Then Jesus invited Simon to see what He saw. In a sense Jesus said, “Simon, you have treated me with coldness and disdain from the moment I set foot in your house. You have not shown even the fundamental courtesies. In contrast, this woman who has no social obligations to me has poured out every devotion and kindness to me. Her many sins are forgiven because she loved abundantly. Meanwhile those who see themselves as needing no forgiveness are likely to love very little.”

Then Jesus turned fully to the woman and spoke cherished words: “Thy sins are forgiven.” Picture the radiance of hope emanating from that tear-stained face!

Simon and his crew still did not get the message. In their cold hearts they muttered, “Who does he think he is presuming to forgive sins?”

We are Players in the Drama

In some ways this is an ideal story for marriage. Think of the woman as your spouse (or, if you are a woman, you might replace her with a man). She comes to us burdened with sins but wanting something better.

We then have an opportunity. We can be like Simon and say, “I want nothing to do with a filthy tramp like you. I want and deserve someone better.” We can be judgmental and condescending.

Or we can be like Jesus. We see beyond the burden of sin to a soul struggling to be better.

We can, with Jesus, say, “I forgive you of mistakes, shortcomings, and humanness. I welcome you into the fellowship of my love.”

We choose to be Simons or saints. We choose to see each other the way ordinary mortals see each other, or we choose to see each other the way Jesus sees us. That is charity, the mind of Christ.

“Perhaps the greatest charity comes when we are kind to each other, when we don’t judge or categorize someone else, when we simply give each other the benefit of the doubt or remain quiet. Charity is accepting someone’s differences, weaknesses, and shortcomings; having patience with someone who has let us down” (Ashton, 1992, p. 19.).

There are many other ways this amazing story can be applied to our lives. For those of us who need forgiveness – which is all of us – we come to Him as the woman came to Him. We fall at His feet and weep with humble recognition of our failings. We anoint His feet with everything precious we have. We know that we do not deserve the kindness He shows and the forgiveness He grants. But we are grateful for every encouragement.

We are all dependent upon His charity.

Thinking about Charity

Elder Max Caldwell of the Seventy gave useful insight on charity. He observes that the common use of the word charity is different from its doctrinal or scriptural use. “The phrase love of Christ’ might have meaning in three dimensions: Love for Christ, Love from Christ, and Love like Christ.”

Charity is first and foremost the redemptive love that Jesus offers all of us. It is the love from Christ.ii He is the model of charity – which never faileth. As Elder Maxwell observes, “His relentless redemptiveness exceeds [our] recurring wrongs.” Or, in the words of the hymn, Jesus implores us:

At the throne I intercede;
For thee ever do I plead.
I have loved thee as thy friend,
With a love that cannot end.
Be obedient, I implore,
Prayerful, watchful, evermore,
And be constant unto me,
That thy Savior I may be.

(“Reverently and Meekly Now,” Verse 4)

He did all He did so He can save us. “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:17).

If you are like me, you may have resisted God’s love most of your life. I believed with all my heart that God loved all His children – while resisting His love for me personally. After all, not only did I sin, I sinned knowingly and deliberately. How could He possibly love me?

Yet He reaches after us. Somewhere along the path the miracle of His love breaks down our resistance. As we begin to understand His goodness and redemptiveness, we are changed. We are filled with a profound awe and gratitude for Him. We experience the stirrings of hope. Without this conversion, we are nothing spiritually (1 Cor. 13:2; 2 Nephi 26:30; Moroni 7: 44, 46; D&C 18:19).

As the amazing truth of His unrelenting love pierces our hearts, we are led to the second kind of charity, love for Christ. “We love him, because he first loved us” (1 John 1:19). I am not sure if these first two dimensions of charity can be disentangled. As soon as we glimpse His love for us we instinctively love Him in return. We fall at His feet and bathe them with tears of gratitude. Why would He do all He has done to love and rescue my flawed soul? Why???

The answer is charity.

As we feel the love from Him and for Him, we naturally love like Him. We become saviors on Mount Zion with Him. “This love which thou hast had for the children of men is charity.” (Ether 12:34.) The surest mark of discipleship is a love for all people – i.e., charity.

The scriptures are clear that this third kind of charity is inextricably tied to a love for God.
“If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1 John 4:20).

He who washed the disciples’ feet and wore Himself out in serving them and rescuing them gave us this astounding command: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you.” (John 13:34; emphasis added.)

We are to become partners with Him in the great work of salvation. We are to be swallowed up in love from Him, for Him, and like Him. Elder Caldwell observed, “Charity sustains us in every need and influences us in every decision.”

What does Charity Look Like in Real Life?

Let’s first consider what it does not look like. How does the natural man see others? Some years ago I read a question asked of a prominent guru. The author of the question wrote the following:

After thirteen years of marriage, I’ve come to realize that I really don’t like my wife. She is everything that I despise in a wife and a person. I’m a Christian man and have tried everything the books say, have taken direct orders from our pastor to implement actions all in an effort to cause a positive change in the marriage. The bottom line is, I see no positive aspects to my wife’s personality and it taints all of her relationships, especially ours. I really dislike being around her and I’ve run out of solutions. Just short of divorce, is there anything that can be done as a final effort to salvage this marriage? B.C. in NM.

Ouch! “She is everything that I despise!” The online response was sensible:

There were probably several things you enjoyed about your wife when you married her. After a while, differences become irritants for most of us who are married. Then we make a critical choice. Will the irritants be the basis for blaming or for compassion? When we react with blame, it usually worsens the condition we hate. We see more faults and feel more irritated. In our own ways we all contribute to our own unhappiness.

There is an alternative. At every critical juncture we can choose compassion. We can choose understanding, patience, and personal growth. We can, as Gottman suggests, “find the glory in our marital story.” We can use our differences to balance each other and to spur growth.

It is my view that most of us have misunderstood the purpose of marriage. It is not a picnic with friends. It is more like a college education with occasional joys, lots of growth, and abundant homework.

There may be too much pain in your marriage to rescue your relationship, but if you can see her and your marriage objectives differently, there might be hope for a close and satisfying relationship.

We are all familiar with the lack of charity.

We have all felt the critical, negative, carping, nit-picking, fault-finding, and grousing attitude that comes easily to the natural man. Charity does not flow automatically from having an extraordinary spouse. It is primarily the result of the way we choose to see each other.

An Example of Charity

Some people see differently. Instead of inconveniences and irritations, they see goodness and blessings. One of my heroes is a man named John Glenn. He is a hero for several reasons. He is a hero because of his pioneering space accomplishments both as a young man and as a mature man. He was a conscientious politician. But one of his greatest accomplishments may be his marriage.

John and Annie grew up together. They played together as children and dated through high school. John described Annie as “pretty, with dark hair and a shy, bright smile.” They were in band, glee club and YMCA/YWCA together.

But there were also challenges. Some classmates teased Annie for her severe stuttering. But John didn’t see her stuttering as a problem. “It was just something she did, no different from some people writing left-handed and others right-handed. I thought it was cruel and thoughtless to laugh at someone for something like that – especially Annie, whom I cared for – and I told them so” (John Glenn: A Memoir, p. 37, 1937).

Annie’s stuttering made it almost impossible for her to shop alone. She would have to write a description of what she wanted and show it to a clerk because she was not able to ask for it. Any public appearance was painful for Annie. Yet John lived a very public life.

At one point when John was preparing for a space launch he got a message to call Annie. Vice President Johnson wanted to visit their home. Annie refused. John was threatened that his place in the space program could be in jeopardy.

This is a place where most of us might have fared poorly as husbands. We might have called our wives and said “Look, I’m risking my life for the country, can’t you simply step out of your comfort zone and meet with the vice president?” In our hearts we might have accused, “Why must you think only of yourself.” We tolerate imperfections in our partners until they inconvenience us. Then we expect them to change.

But John Glenn was different. “Annie wouldn’t have refused to see the vice president without a really good reason. I called her, and she said Johnson wanted to bring in network television cameras and some of the reporters who were camped outside. She said she was tired, had a headache, and she just wasn’t going to allow all those people in her house. I told her whatever she wanted to do, I would back her 100 percent” (pp. 252-3).

Years later John Glenn was considered as a running mate for Jimmy Carter. Reportedly he was not chosen in part because of Annie’s stutter. “It shocked us and it hurt” (p. 335, 1976). But, out of the political race, John Glenn joked that he was free to mow the lawn at home.

At one point Annie took an intensive course to help her overcome stuttering. After the three weeks of grueling training, she called home. John described the conversation:

“John,” she said on the line from Virginia, forming her words slowly and carefully as the muscles worked, “today we went to a shopping center and went shopping. And I could ask for things. Imagine that.”

I had never heard Annie speak that many words without a single pause. It was all I could do to reply, “That’s wonderful!”

“I think so, too,” she said slowly. “It’s a start.”

Annie grasped the gift of speech and held it tight. Our lives were transformed. “John,” she said when she got home, hiding an impish smile, “I’ve wanted to tell you this for years: Pick up your socks.” Our phone bill increased as she started calling friends around the country. She had never been able to read children’s stories to Lyn and Dave when they were little. (Pages 325-327)

John Glenn might have been irritated many times by Annie’s stuttering, her quietness, and the impact they had on his life and career. But he wasn’t. Instead he loved his Annie. He helped her. He saw past her impediment.

John Glenn’s accomplishments as a pilot and an astronaut are remarkable. His strength of character is commendable. Yet his greatest accomplishment may be the kindness and tenderness he showed his wife, Annie. Though he might have been irritated many times by Annie’s stuttering, her reticence, and the impact they had on his life and career, he wasn’t. Instead he loved his Annie.

Our own Hearts Stutter

In some ways Annie’s stuttering is a great symbol for the “thorn in the flesh” that each of us suffers. Each of us has weaknesses. Each of us has large tracts of territory in our character where the natural man still rules. When we see weaknesses in our partners, it is easy to be annoyed. In fact our own weaknesses – that should make us humble – may make us even more annoyed by our partners’ weaknesses.

We will be annoyed by our spouses unless we are humbled enough by our limitations to call on heavenly grace. Paul called on Heaven for relief from his limitations. When the relief did not come, he set the example for all of us with his attitude:

And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. (2 Corinthians 12: 9-10)

This is one of many gospel ironies. It is only when we recognize our weakness that we can be made strong by His perfect grace.

Stay tuned for the second half of this chapter in Meridian Magazine.


i. Thanks to Barbara Keil for her helpful feedback on this chapter.
ii. I am discussing the elements of charity in an order different from that offered by Elder Caldwell.