Editor’s Note: This is the ninth article in a 12-part Tuesday/Thursday Meridian Series that explores some of the most remarkable and exciting doctrines of the Restoration. Read the two-part introduction to this series here, and here, and read article 1 here, and article 2 here, and article 3 here, and article 4 here, and article 5 here, and article 6 here, and article seven, here. To read the eighth article in the series (immediately previous to this one), CLICK HERE.
This series poses fundamental and intentionally provocative questions about the doctrines of the Restoration, and in many cases includes the author’s own interpretation of certain Gospel beliefs and principles that do not pretend to be official doctrine of the Church and that are necessarily endorsed by Meridian Magazine. The intent is to stimulate thought and questions that will lead each of us to our own conclusions.
I lost my father to cancer when I was 15. He was 39. On his last day on earth, he wrote me, his eldest son, a letter; and the core, the focal point of that letter, said: “The greatest thought that Christ left on earth is love. It surpasses everything else. If a person practices love—then everything else takes care of itself.”
Many years later, my father paid me a visit. I will save the details of that visit for a book I am now working on, but for now let me just say that one evening in a quiet, private place I felt his presence very deeply and very personally. And I sought to know why he had come and tried to feel what he had to tell me. My mind went back to his letter, and then two words simply imprinted themselves on my mind. “Love More.”
I have reflected endlessly on that night. Was it a reminder of what he had written in his letter? Was it a chastisement for not fully understanding or applying what he had tried to teach me? Was it a more direct and powerful version of the same message?
In his physical letter, “love” was a noun, coupled with the verb “practice”. But in his spiritual message to me “love” was the verb, modified only by the adverb “more”.
Was he telling me to love more broadly—more things, more situations, more people? Was he telling me to love the people I already love, but more—more deeply, more fully, more purely? Or was he just simplifying the message for me, boiling it down to a two-word mantra that I could carry with me always and that would remind me over and over each day?
Questions about Love
Is love the great simplifier? Was Christ able to encompass all of the commandments of God with His two, ringing love-admonitions—to Love God and to Love our Fellow Man? Is Love the essence of His Gospel? Is love the Gospel? Is everything a manifestation of His love? Is He love?
You may have heard the metaphor of the little child who was struggling to put together a very complex puzzle—but who then started turning the pieces over and discovered that there was a picture of a man on the other side. The child put the man together, and then turned the puzzle over—which completed the complex side perfectly.
When the Gospel, or its doctrines and principles, or its history and its Church and organization seem complex or difficult, can it all be clarified, simplified, and beautified by its embodiment in Christ and in His love?
Is love both the most simplified way to think about Christ and His Gospel—yet also the most profound, encompassing and complete way to think about it? Is love something that we can understand even as children—yet something that we can study endlessly and expand upon for the rest of our lives?
Is love the positive and correct interpretation of all of God’s dealings with man? Is it the interpreter or lens that always gives us the authentic picture of who God is and what He is doing?
Is our love, or lack of it, the ultimate basis of God’s judgment of us, and of our judgment of ourselves?
Are there endless different forms and kinds of love? C.S. Lewis spoke of the four loves of Affection (storge), Friendship (philia), Romantic (eros), and Charity (agape); but in another way of thinking, there are an endless number of different kinds of love. In its most complete form, we can love our enemies, our challenges, our pain, our disappointments, even the darkest parts of ourselves.
Is it possible to love everything?
Can Love Expand Infinitely?
We know, when we really think of it in the deepest spiritual vein, that love has no limits. In fact, it operates in us in ways that are exactly opposite of most things. The more love we give away, the more we have. There is no depletion or wearing out of love as it is used, practiced, spread, applied—only an increase of capacity.
We have nine children and thirty-three grandchildren, and occasionally we are asked, when we are out in the world somewhere speaking or on a book tour, “How do you have enough love to go around?” Other parents have told us that they “Don’t want to have another child because it would dilute the love they have for their existing children.” Aren’t we grateful that love does not work that way—that it is able not only to “stretch” endlessly, but to increase forever.
We know there is no upper limit because we know that Christ, and our Heavenly Parents love each of their 100 billion or more children totally, completely, unconditionally.
What we need to learn is how to let love fill us up, how to absorb and learn and practice it enough that it becomes the dominant emotion, superseding and crowding out negative emotions like fear, pride, jealousy and hate; and enhancing and catalyzing other positive emotions like courage, resilience, peace and—particularly—joy.
What is the best Definition of Love?
The overwhelming, transcendent power and importance of love was dramatically declared by Paul to the Corinthians. In a new English translation, verses 1-3 of chapter 13 say, “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
The King James version, to me, is even more beautiful, partly because it elevates the more common word love to something higher called charity, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.”
In the Book of Mormon we have a clear, definition of charity which, though it contains only four simple words, may be the deepest of all doctrine and the most worthy of constant study. Moroni, quoting his father Mormon, tells us that,
Charity is the pure love of Christ.
I often ask people what they think that means, and I get three distinctly different answers, all of which work linguistically as a literal definition:
- Christ’s pure love for us
- Our pure love for Christ
- Our Christ-like pure love for others.
Do you have a preference among those three definitions? Is one better than the other two? Is one a starting place that leads to the other two? Or are the three so intertwined that it is impossible to truly have one without the other two; and that we are assured that if we fully feel any one of the three, it will inevitably lead to the other two?
Many of us are most aware of the first one when we are deep in prayer and in the Spirit. We may feel the second most deeply as we renew our covenants or reflect on the Atonement. And we may live in the third with a newborn baby or in a covenant marriage with one we would give our life for.
Love comes easily to us for our families, for the beauty of the earth, for the Gospel, and for good and loyal friends. But what about the harder loves—for strangers, for political opponents or spiritual adversaries, for un-asked-for challenges, for Covid 19, or for those who would harm us or cheat us?
How is the Deepest Love Obtained?
Can we get more love or love more simply by trying harder or developing the skill of love? Or is love much more than a skill? Perhaps what we can seek is the skills that allow us to love more— the skill of Noticing More (seeing needs, circumstances, perspectives, and what is inside when we look into someone’s eyes); the skill of Asking and Listening More (sincere questions of real concern and listening to the tone as well as the words of others); the skill of Expressing More (“if you love em, tell em”); the skill of Meditating More (clearing and opening your mind enough to let love flow in); and the skill of Praying More (increasing both the quantity and quality of our prayers).
Most will agree that it is warm, and clear, and right, and joyful to try to think of love in all its dimensions. But what about when we get up from our chair, or from our prayer, and walk out into this world of division, competition, greed, danger, sickness, guilt and fear? Is it really possible to emulate Christ and carry a love for everything and everyone into the everyday live that pulls us in so many opposite directions? Do we have that capacity?
Candidly, I would say no, we are not capable of that—not on our own. The challenge is far over our heads; that kind of pure, encompassing love is so much more than we can muster. It is the domain of Christ and of Heaven and of the Spirit and it is light years, light millennia beyond us.
Charity, in Mormon’s definition, is pure beyond our mortal capacity, and we can receive it only as a gift—not a gift that we deserve, but a gift of the Spirit that we must cry for, beg for, ask for with an earnestness that changes who we are and allows us to receive it. And since this pure love is a gift, we can remember that “it endureth by diligence unto prayer” (Moroni 8:26) and that, having tasted of Christ’s love we can retain the flame through constant communion—by simply, and always asking for it.
To finish where I started: I do not know if my father knew this on the last day of his life when he wrote that Love leads to everything else, but I do know that he knew it when he gave me the admonition/key of “Love more.” By then, he knew that love could expand forever and cover everything, he knew it was the ultimate gift of the Spirit, and he wanted me to work for it and ask for it for the rest of my life.
Do we perceive love differently than other faiths? Does Mormon’s definition lift us to a more complete understanding of charity?
It should. And we are grateful for the “clarity on charity” that this perfect definition gives us. But we also should humbly remember that we perceive love much the same as anyone, anywhere who feels the light of Christ in their souls, and yields to it, allowing it to lead them to all that is good, and to all that is love.
Two of my friend-reviewers of these articles commented as follows:
“Love in all its messiness takes on less of a Zen detachment and more of an ability to give more, to sacrifice more, to endure more so that pain might become bliss and certain misery made joy. I want to thank you for sharing your personal experience. Reading it feels in some ways like stepping into a parallel life. I had just turned 16 and my dad 40, when he passed. Some of the most profound experiences I have ever felt regarding love in this life and hereafter have come from him in the years since his passing. In the eight years of battling cancer leading up to that time, I experienced debilitating fear and learned to take hold of a power in love which can cast out and overcome the greatest darkness we can imagine.”
Another reviewer, who happens to be my brother, had this comment:
“These are wonderful thoughts. However, when we are writing/thinking/pondering about the pure love of Christ, words are simply not adequate. Indeed, even the most well written words can detract from the supremacy of that love. It is simply too pure, too powerful, too overarching. When one has truly felt it, he or she is never the same. It is no wonder that scriptures are full of prophets sharing deep feelings of inadequacy in writing about it. The key is to live in ways that allow us to feel it more frequently, more deeply—for that is the only way to truly comprehend it.”
Keep this kind of input and dialogue going by clicking COMMENT and sharing your thoughts and/or questions; and please join me again here on Thursday for a Thanksgiving wish, and a poetic thought or two on being grateful for the vast and unique challenges of 2020.
Richard Eyre is a #1 New York Times Bestselling Author who served as Mission President in London. He and his wife Linda are frequent Meridian contributors.