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Defining and understanding “Charity”

They don’t write definitions the way they used to anymore. This is just one more great reason why I love Webster’s 1828 Dictionary. The standard definition for ‘selfish’ is pretty straightforward, but then you come to ‘selfishly’ and then POW, you’ve got some brilliantly delivered doctrine!

SELF’ISHLY, adv. The exclusive of a person to his own interest or happiness; or that supreme self-love or self-preference, which leads a person in his actions to direct his purposes to the advancement of his own interest, power or happiness, without regarding the interest of others. Selfishness, in its worst or unqualified sense, is the very essence of human depravity, and it stands in direct opposition to benevolence, which is the essence of the divine character. As God is love, so man, in his natural state, is selfishness.

So if we want to dig a little deeper here, we will find a profound truth. We are used to two ends of a spectrum in our faith, we usually speak of pride and humility. But, in my opinion there is something more specifically worse than pride and infinitely greater than humility; it is selfishness on one end and at the other end, charity, which is the benevolence of Christ.

So what is benevolence? We think we know, but what does Webster say?

BENEV’OLENCE, n. [L. benevolentia, of bene, well and volo, to will or wish. See Will.] 1. The disposition to do good; good will; kindness; charitableness; the love, of mankind, accompanied with a desire to promote their happiness.

I hope some of this is sounding familiar. Remember the people of King Benjamin and what they said:

And they all cried with one voice, saying: Yea, we believe all the words which thou hast spoken unto us; and also, we know of their surety and truth, because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually. (Mosiah 5:2)

Their disposition was changed, but how? Now this is something that has taken me years and specific sacred experiences to understand. It all centers on knowing what charity is and you can search every dictionary in the world and find several definitions which are not the same as what the truth is. The fact of the matter is that even though this principle is taught in the Bible and other scripture, there isn’t a specific word for it.

The word ‘charity’ in the Book of Mormon is either slightly different than what the word in the Bible means or the Nephites had a word unique to them for it but the English word ‘charity’ is as close as they could come. That said, the Book of Mormon defines exactly what ‘charity’ really is. This next verse, I believe, is one of the most critically important verses in all scripture.

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)

We’ve all heard it before. Yet look a little harder, when Moroni teaches that “whoso is found possessed OF it…” he did not say “whoso is found possessed with it…” he said OF it. So then, what IS the pure love of Christ and how can it possess you?

The pure love of Christ is Messianic benevolence. It is a Messianic disposition to do good and beyond that a desire for mankind’s happiness but NOT man’s disposition and NOT man’s desire; it is the disposition and desire of a SAVIOR, of THE Savior. The pure love of Christ is a force, a power beyond anything the mind of flesh can comprehend in words and metaphors. It must be experienced from the source. It comes from him, not from us, it is HIS pure love, and we become possessed OF it when we have been made partakers of it through our own true, redemptive repentance and have tasted of it through the power of the atonement personally!

That pure love is there for anyone who humbles themselves and repents, but to be possessed of that pure love that comes next is a choice that we must make. We can experience it and step aside or bask in it and be transformed by it.

You’ve read about this before! Read Alma 36 again but read it closer now; read about the sons of Mosiah and that love that flowed through them enough that they could not be restrained from reaching out to their brethren the Lamanites. Once one has truly repented and the love of Jesus Christ himself has poured into them, they experience a fundamental change. When you know the love of Christ for you personally, you understand how he views every other living soul and you cannot help but see them, at least partially, through his eyes.

This love then flows through you and not from you, at least until you are perfected in Christ to the degree where your love is as pure as his. All that I can say at this point, is that I have come at least as far as Alma the younger did in his conversion. I did not know what charity, or Christ’s pure love was until I experienced it for myself. I can tell you that Jesus Christ does, in fact, live and that any soul that walks this earth, can seek this Jesus and become a partaker in the common experience that unites millions across the globe and throughout time.

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Updated: February 14, 2011

  • linj2fly

    Do you think that being possessed of charity is the same thing as the mighty change of heart or a fruit of the might change?
    Thanks!

    • oneclimbs

      I think that being possessed of charity may cause a mighty change of heart, but that a mighty change of heart does not necessarily mean that one has partaken of charity.

      The influence of the Holy Ghost can cause a mighty change in the hearts of people without necessarily involving Christ, personally. Christ can come to you personally and in his presence you may feel his love. I believe that the Holy Ghost can reveal this to us as well, but every revelation reveals this.

      I can only speak from personal experience along with some assumptions. Best way to know is to find out for yourself ;)

  • DurangoUT

    As always thanks for your thoughts.

    When I read the great sermons by prophets like Mormon on the subject, it seems to me that Faith, Hope and Charity,define a progression from one level to the next. In other words faith is good hope is better and charity is best or the highest level of discipleship. If one has charity they have completely commited or subjected themselves to the will of God. They have become set appart for a holy purpose. One might even say they were consecrated.

    • oneclimbs

      It is interesting how those three seem to be mentioned together so often. Mormon’s sermon on faith, hope and charity recorded in Moroni 7 is something I often ponder. I don’t know of a greater sermon on the subject; in it, charity is defined as clearly as language will allow. Charity is not something you learn, it is something that you receive.

      Regarding hope and faith, there is a quote from Neal A. Maxwell that always comes to mind: “In the geometry of restored theology, hope has a greater circumference than faith. If faith increases, the perimeter of hope stretches correspondingly. (Neal A. Maxwell, “‘Brightness of Hope’,” Ensign, Nov 1994, 34).

      He seemed to see hope as leading faith in a sense or hope paving the way for faith to follow. Your comments about charity are also insightful because in the same sense that faith and hope lead to all truth, they lead to the greatest and most important truth of all, the knowledge (epignosis) of the pure love of Christ, or in other words, the fulness of the gospel.

      Your reference to consecration on this subject alludes to more than I have room to reply on!

  • Richard J. Nobbe III

    I believe it all starts with Alma 32, a mere wanting to believe. As we believe, we begin to see the world with new eyes. This leads to faith. Once we have faith, our hearts have a deep desire to increase our faith, and we start developing hope. Once we have hope, we are beginning to align our will with the Lord’s will, and as we do this we increase in charity. So, I guess I kind of see it as a formula that plays out continually in our lives.

    There is a danger here though! I tend to see Faith, Hope, and Charity as more of a pattern than a progression. It is a pattern that is meant to teach us continually throughout our lives. We never stop increasing in Faith, for instance, because we have received a portion of charity. To the contrary, as our Charity increases, our Faith also increases. All three of these virtues are meant to work together. Essentially they are three aspects of the same truth.