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We are commanded to seek charity “with all the energy of heart” (Moroni 7:48). 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. Exactly what is it? What does it look like in our lives? 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” (Moroni 7:47, emphasis added).
Humans do not find charity coming easily or automatically. C.S. Lewis said:
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.[i]
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 people in a human, judgmental way. But we can also choose to see in a heavenly and loving way. That choice makes all the difference. Charity can be the lens through which we see each other.
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 talk show host when he has a distasteful guest on his program. It is possible to be curious without being cordial.
On a collision course with Simon’s 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 a 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 in. Bad enough that she was a woman and uninvited; adding insult to injury, she was a flagrant sinner! And she touched Jesus, a rabbi! That was a serious offence against Jewish law. She certainly was maudlin; she wept profusely, letting her tears flood His feet. She even anointed His feet with oil 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 who 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. Her many sins are forgiven because she loved abundantly. Meanwhile those who are forgiven little seem to love little.”
Then Jesus turned fully to the woman and spoke cherished words: “Thy sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:48). 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 the spouse coming to us burdened with sins but wanting something better.
We then have a choice. 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, seeing 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.”
In each interaction we choose to be a Simon or a saint. 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. The latter is charity, the mind of Christ.
Marvin J. Aston explains this principle well: “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.”[ii]
There are many other ways this amazing story can be applied to our lives. Every one of us is a beggar at the throne of heavenly grace. Every one of us needs forgiveness for sins. So 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 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 insights on charity.[iii] (I am presenting the principles in a different order than he did.) 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. He is the model of charity—which never faileth. As Elder Maxwell observes, “His relentless redemptiveness exceeds [our] recurring wrongs.”[iv] 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.[v]
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 Corinthians. 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, emphasis added). 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 love for people 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, emphasis added).
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 concluded, “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? Let’s return to an online question that I first quoted in the introduction:
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.
More about choosing charity in the next installment of Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage.
[i] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, New York: Macmillan , 164-65.
[ii] “The Tongue Can Be a Sharp Sword,” Ensign, May 1992, 19.
[iii] “Love of Christ,” Ensign, Nov. 1992, 29.
[iv] “Jesus of Nazareth, Savior and King,” Ensign, May 1976, 26.
[v] “Reverently and Meekly Now,” Hymns, no. 185, verse 4.