One of Jesus Christ’s most memorable statements is the one he gave to the Pharisee at the temple: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Matthew 29:37-39). Although this commandment seems easy it is one of the most difficult that Jesus Christ gave us. How exactly do we love our neighbor as ourselves? What does that mean?
For centuries Christians have grappled with that question and come up with a variety of explanations about the scripture. Latter Day Saints have a leg up on the competition because of restoration scriptures that expound on the enigmatic topic of charity as described in the Pauline epistles. According to Nephite prophet Moroni, charity is the pure love of Christ, so when Christ is telling us to love our neighbor as ourselves in reality he is telling us to have charity. But that still does not answer the question. How do we use charity?
For most members, we have often heard abstract discussions about loving our neighbor and providing service. The most practical that charity gets for most people is proclaiming love for their neighbor and then moving on. I am guilty of this. We all are. But Christ asks us to be better. He does not just ask us to abstractly love our neighbor, rather he asks us to dedicate our lives in the service of others. Charity is not just a concept, it is a verb, it is a doing word, and it has the power to change the world.
What is practical charity? Our answer comes in the life of Jesus Christ. Writing after Jesus died, Luke gives us a brief snapshot of what Jesus’s life was like while he was on the Earth. In Acts Luke tells us:
“..God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him.” (Acts 10:38)
The description is important here. It does not say that Jesus spent his time meditating along and thinking about how much he loved the people. Rather he was a man of action and man of practicality.
The gospel accounts show Jesus’s actions in their stories. We get a picture of a Savior who is constantly among the people, constantly doing good. Even when there is not a teaching opportunity, Jesus is healing the sick and raising the dead. He is never idle, never experiencing charity as some sort of abstract concept. Rather it is a force in Jesus’s life, a driving motivation that determines all the actions he takes with his fellow-men.
And in the end, Jesus’s most charitable act was the most difficult of all, his atonement. Notice how when Jesus commits the atonement it is not an act of idle mediation where he contemplates the love that he has for humanity. Instead, he is down in the weeds, falling on his face and crying out in agony. He is carrying his own cross, he is suffering the bodily harm. His charity is in his actions. His words and his deeds are important and guide us in our lives, but his actions are the ones that bring to pass eternal salvation. Through his concrete actions Jesus saved us.
How often do we fall into the trap of using inactive charity? Too often when we hear Moroni’s words:
“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— 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 7:46-47)
we comfort ourselves in thinking that we harbor no ill feelings towards our fellow-men, and we are doing OK on the charitable scale. But if we are not acting with charity and giving practical and necessary help to those around us, we are not doing what we need to.
Another Book of Mormon prophet addressed this concerned. Speaking to faithful members, Amulek teaches this hard truth:
“…if ye turn away the needy, and the naked, and visit not the sick and afflicted, and impart of your substance, if ye have, to those who stand in need—I say unto you, if ye do not any of these things, behold, your prayer is vain, and availeth you nothing, and ye are as hypocrites who do deny the faith.” (Alma 34:38)
Those are harsh words. What Amulek is telling us is that we can pray for charity all we want. We can teach lessons about charity until our knees feel weak. We can discuss charity in FHE until we are blue in the face. But if we are not actually doing anything to show charity, we are failing.
I recently had an Elder’s quorum lesson that I attended which was, quite frankly, disappointing and offensive. In this lesson, supposedly about charity, the teacher and some students ended up having a lengthy discussion on when we should stop serving a person who is in need. An example came up from the teacher about a man who had financial troubles and needed help from the ward. When the missionaries visited him, they found out that he owned one of the newest video game systems and would play nearly all day. He was looking for a job, but not very hard. The bishop continued to begrudgingly give the man financial support. And priesthood holders were using him as a case study at a BYU-I lesson about where we should draw the line for charity. The class decided that in this situation the man no longer deserved help and no longer needed charity anymore. There were many comments about how we are no longer obligated to help somebody if they chose to not pull themselves up and reach a certain level of work ethic and stability on their own. Then the lesson concluded by talking about Paul’s description of charity and how to feel love towards other people. This blew me away. We had a lesson about charity where we discussed where charity should end and finished it by reading a scripture that has the words “charity never faileth.” Of course, I know that I am not perfect, but it confused me how priesthood holders could rationalize no longer giving service to their fellow-men.
This experience taught me an important lesson. We can talk about charity all we want, but if it is not tied into practical actions, then it really is useless. But how do we make sure that we have practical action? That was my question. I felt deep down that what I heard in Elder’s quorum was wrong, but what was the right way to act?
The story that immediately came to mind was King Benjamin. Benjamin was one of the greatest leaders in the Book of Mormon and was truly a man of God. He knew what he needed to do to bring his people the most good possible. He needed to serve them.
Often we pay attention to King Benjamin’s quote in Mosiah 2:17: “And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.” But we often times forget to read a verse just a few chapters later that give us the practical application of those words. Benjamin says:
“And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish. Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just— But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.” (Mosiah 4:16-18)
What is the condition of charitability? Benjamin tells us that it should not matter. No matter what the person has done or what unworthiness we perceive, we serve. And that is final.
When it comes to charity, we need to follow the example of Christ. Setting rules about when we should and should not show charity will ultimately fail. Instead, as church members we should give to everybody, regardless of what they have done. What should we give them? Whatever they ask for. It is not our job to arbitrate who gets what or decide when somebody does not need help. When God puts a person in our path that needs help we should help, no matter what. Like the Good Samaritan of the parable, our thoughts should only be about the other person, and not about ourselves. As Joseph Smith taught: “[A member of the Church] is to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to provide for the widow, to dry up the tear of the orphan, to comfort the afflicted, whether in this church, or in any other, or in no church at all, wherever he finds them.”
But when it comes down to it, the greatest example of true charity is Jesus Christ and his atonement. Jesus Christ gave his all for us even though we are unworthy. None of us have done enough to earn the love and forgiveness that Jesus paid for with his own life. We are begging God for his mercy and he is giving it to us freely. He never puts a cap on how much he gives us. We abuse and use his mercy every day of our lives through our sin and our negligence, but God never looks down at us and calls it quit. He never judges us for our choices, but he gives and gives through the power of his begotten son Jesus Christ. Benjamin puts is most elegantly when he says:
“For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?And behold, even at this time, ye have been calling on his name, and begging for a remission of your sins. And has he suffered that ye have begged in vain? Nay; he has poured out his Spirit upon you, and has caused that your hearts should be filled with joy, and has caused that your mouths should be stopped that ye could not find utterance, so exceedingly great was your joy.” (Mosiah 4: 19-20)
We can make lists all day long as to how we should serve and what we need to do to practice charity, but the best rule is to serve whoever is around you and whatever is in front of you. That is what the Good Samaritan did. He saw an opportunity and took it. Never once did he justify a lack of charity. Will we be perfect at this? Of course not. But that is where the atonement steps in once again. Christ will be there to fix us of our lack of charity and give us another opportunity. He is always there for us, and we can always be there for our fellow-men.