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On the wall of a church near the ruins of Corinth in Greece hangs a huge marble tablet, engraved with the entire text of 1 Corinthians 13. This is one of the most important chapters of scripture: Paul’s great discourse on charity.
This lesson focuses on charity, defined by Mormon as “the pure love of Christ,” which is the one essential characteristic of “the true followers of Jesus Christ.” Nothing is more important than to be “filled” with charity. It “endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him” (Mor. 7:47-48).
Without charity, we are “nothing,” says the Apostle Paul. We may speak with the tongues of angels, we may have the gift of prophecy, we may understand all mysteries and all knowledge, we may have all faith, we may give ourselves up to martyrdom, we may even give away everything we have to the poor; but without charity, none of this matters. It is all “sounding brass and tinkling cymbal”—all show and no substance (1 Cor. 13:1-3).
How important then is it to be filled with charity?
We might become gospel scholars, enjoy spiritual gifts, or give our lives for the Church; but unless the pure love of Christ motivates our actions, it all counts for nothing.
Translated as charity, the word Paul uses is agapé, a Greek term for divine love. It is more than philia, or brotherly love—“it goes beyond just the emotions to the extent of seeking the best for others” (Liddell & Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, 2010, p. 4).
We could say that “in the beginning was love,” the love of our Heavenly Parents for their children. Our Father has no other motive in His plan for us than to help us attain eternal happiness, for “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8, 16). Naturally, if we are to become as He is, we too must develop that pure, divine, all-encompassing love that the Bible calls charity.
Charity is the only thing that endures. “Charity never faileth,” says Paul. “Whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away” (1 Cor. 13:8). Here Paul predicts that these spiritual gifts will be taken away as apostasy overcomes the Church. But charity, the light and love of Christ, will always continue in the world wherever God’s children are inspired by love of their families and their fellow human beings.
How does a charitable person act? The answers are in verses 4-7 of chapter 13. Let’s see how we are doing against this checklist of charity:
“Charity suffereth long.” This phrase “requires our thoughtful interpretation,” as Sister Aileen Clyde said. “The ‘suffering’ that may come from loving is the result of our great caring. It comes because another matters to us so much.” However, she continued, “It is not charity to let another repeatedly deny our divine nature and agency” (“Charity Suffereth Long,” General Conference, October 1991). “Long-suffering” does not mean submitting to abuse from others.
“Charity is kind.” In one of his last addresses to the Saints, President Thomas S. Monson pleaded with us to “examine our lives and determine to follow the Savior’s example by being kind, loving, and charitable. And as we do so, we will be in a better position to call down the powers of heaven for ourselves, for our families, and for our fellow travelers in this sometimes difficult journey back to our heavenly home” (Thomas S. Monson, “Kindness, Charity, and Love,” General Conference, April 2017). Life is hard for everyone; we all need kindness.
“Charity envieth not.” Those who are full of charity are happy when others are blessed. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland says, “There are going to be times in our lives when someone else gets an unexpected blessing or receives some special recognition. May I plead with us not to be hurt—and certainly not to feel envious—when good fortune comes to another person? We are not diminished when someone else is added upon. We are not in a race against each other to see who is the wealthiest or the most talented or the most beautiful or even the most blessed” (“The Laborers in the Vineyard, General Conference, April 2012).
“Charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up . . . seeketh not her own.” One of the hallmarks of the uncharitable is their preoccupation with their own status. They are the selfish ones. President James E. Faust noted that “ego and pride . . . are enemies to the full enjoyment of the Spirit of God. The ego . . . prevents the enjoyment of the full sweetness of a higher love” (“Five Loaves and Two Fishes, General Conference, April 1994).
“Charity doth not behave itself unseemly, is not easily provoked.” To act unseemly (Greek aschemon) is to behave disrespectfully. It can cover everything from wearing immodest clothing to insulting or rude behavior intended to tweak or belittle other people. Charity neither provokes others nor is it provoked by others. The Greek word paroxynetai is translated “provoked, irritated, annoyed, offended” and is related to our English word “paroxysm,” which means an outburst of anger.
Elder David A. Bednar gives this classic counsel: “To be offended is a choice we make; it is not a condition inflicted or imposed upon us by someone or something else” (“And None Shall Offend Them,” General Conference, October 2006). People imbued with the pure love of Christ choose not to be offended; indeed they follow the Lord’s counsel, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matt. 5:43).
All of Paul’s counsel in 1 Corinthians is based on the need for charity.
For example, in chapter 8 he speaks to those who apparently are making a show of eating foods “offered to idols.” He knows as well as they that the dietary strictures of the Law of Moses are done away in Christ, and it doesn’t matter what we eat (“neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse”) but he worries that this show of “knowledge” might offend other disciples of Christ who are still sensitive to what they eat. In a warning voice, he asks, “Through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?” (1 Cor. 8:1-17).
At a deeper level, Paul worries that the more “knowledgeable” saints in Corinth were motivated by pride. “Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth” (8:1). Pride is the opposite of charity.
In chapter 9, Paul points out that he is entitled to be supported by the saints because he is a full-time apostle, but that he does not accept that support because it might send a wrong message and cause some to reject the gospel. He worries they might think he is in it for personal gain. “If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things? . . . Nevertheless, we have not used this power. . . . So hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel. But I have used none of these things” (1 Cor. 9:11-15).
Paul teaches that our actions should be governed by concern for their effects on others. “All things are lawful for me,” he says, “but all things are not expedient . . . all things edify not. Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s wealth” (1 Cor. 10:23-24). We act with charity when we seek to edify others rather than to indulge ourselves, and when we seek “another’s wealth,” that is, to act in the best interest of others.
Often we hear people say “I have the right to do this or that” that isn’t edifying. Of course they have the right—everyone has agency. But a disciple of Christ thinks first of what edifies (builds up) someone else.
Thus, Paul advises that charity for others should motivate everything we do.
How do we become “filled with charity”? It may not come easily. It’s hard to overcome self-interest, pride, and egotism. That’s why it’s so important to do as Mormon counsels:
“Therefore, 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; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure. Amen” (Moroni 7:48).