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Monday, May 21, 2018

The Greatest of These is Love (Charity)

In the 13th chapter of his first letter to the Christians at Corinth, the apostle Paul penned a passage that has become quite popular at weddings:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. 
Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 
Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
What's interesting is that the Greek word (agapé) translated as "love" used to be translated as "charity," which is a clue that the form of love Paul writes about here is not feelings of affection for others. Rather, it's about acting charitably to others and that includes those we don't like. Charity, in this sense, isn't limited to giving to the poor and unfortunate (although that's certainly part of what this understanding of charity or love involves). Rather, it's about acting charitably to others in all that we do, regardless of how affectionate we fell for them or not. As C.S. Lewis once put it:
Charity means "Love in the Christian sense." But love, in the Christian sense, does not mean an emotion. It is a state not of the feelings but of the will; that state of the will we have naturally about ourselves, and must learn to have about other people. (Mere Christianity, p. 115)
Of course, it's one thing to "love" those whom we like. It's quite another to love those whom we don't like. The former is easy; the latter isn't. It takes work. As Lewis puts it, it takes an act of the will. It can be done, however. Over the weekend, I attended a memorial service for someone who had been a member of our church for over 50 years. And the stories people told about her repeatedly emphasized the unconditional love (i.e., charity) with which she treated not just them but others. She had a knack for seeing the good in people, regardless of whether they were "lovable" or not.

So, yes, loving others (in the charitable sense) is doable. However, if we sit around waiting for feelings of affection to develop before we act, we're missing the point. Those of us who consider ourselves Christians are called to act charitably today, not tomorrow, not next week, not next year. And we're called to love everyone, including those whom we dislike or those who have treated us poorly or those who hold beliefs we find reprehensible. Of course, if we're arrogant or rude, insist on our own way, and rejoice in the missteps of our "enemies," learning how to love others won't be easy. But if we look for the good in others, regardless of whether they're likable or see the world in the same way we do, it shouldn't be quite so hard.

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