"And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity." (1 Cor. 13:13) It has been helpful this week (for me anyway) to look at these three Christian virtues as they are situated in time.
In a lot of ways, faith looks into the past. It is the evidence of things not seen, the substance of God's works as they have unfolded to us previously in human experience, either anciently as recorded in the scriptures, or in our own more recent family and personal experiences. Faith is a power of action. We build on past faith by "experimenting on the word," (as Alma puts it) which comes to us "like a voice from the dust" from the past to propel us forward into the unknown. Faith is not blind believing, but acting on past evidence. In some ways, faith is always dependent on the past. It is the "faith of our fathers [and mothers,]" the foundation upon which we, their children, must build. It is our first step in the gospel that connects us to God, but every step of faith we make, as soon as it is taken, becomes another part of the past upon which our discipleship is built.
If faith arrives to us from the past, hope always points us to the future. In Spanish, "to hope" is the same verb as "to wait." It is future tense, waiting with conviction for better things. It is the power that helps us see beyond the mortal muddle we are in, whatever feeling or emotion that drags us down in our lives. We hope for a future time where negative emotions or experiences can be resolved. We hope that some day we can sit down together in heaven through Christ, in a state of peace and total acceptance and with a perfect restoration of lost loved ones and lost blessings. Hope is the "anchor to our souls." (Hebrews 6:19) It is what helps us to make sense of less than ideal circumstances. Hope looks forward towards the ideal of what we and our fallen world can become in Christ.
But, of course, a life cannot be lived in either the past or the future, because it must be lived in the present. The most important time frame is now. We cannot focus our living on the experiences of the past, nor to the hope and idealism of the future at the expense of today. However much we would like to escape the discomfort of the present, to the suffering of the human experience around us on any given day, focusing solely on the past or future does not allow space for the crowning Christian virtue, which is charity, the pure love of Christ. Without His love today, our faith and hope in Christ is "sounding brass and tinkling cymbal," for without charity, we are "nothing." (1 Cor. 13) And so our lives must be spent trying to ground ourselves in the present, connecting with the beauty, humanity, and suffering of ourselves and the people around us by practicing love.
Charity is given to us only as we seek for it, pleading "with all energy of heart" that we might be filled with this love. (Moroni 7) Unlike faith and hope, which can be cultivated in solitude, love is relational. It forces us to connect to each other so that we can knit our hearts together in love. (Mosiah 18) It is what we are commanded to practice with each other now. Right now. Today.
Love is now. Love is not based on a person's past, or our past interactions with any person, because Christ's love does not allow itself to be clouded by how people once were. Neither does pure love look forward to the future, to some future state of a loved one, hoping that someday this person will be something other than what they are right now in order to love them. Just as Christ is present with us in each moment through His atonement (that perfect manifestation of His love) the pure love of Christ helps us to love and accept one another how they are now. Love does not demand that another person be different than they are in order for us to resolve our own feelings of tension or discomfort about a person's behavior. Love embraces that tension. Love hurts because it comes at a cost, which is the cost of our own growth, to expand ourselves more in order to include another person more completely in the orbit of our love. In other words, love is our work and willingness to grow so that we can better love another person.
Too often what I call love is not actually love, but another version of hope and faith. I think this is common. In other words, we love people because we hope they will change into something they are not, into what we think they should be. Hence we withhold love in the present tense by projecting our love for them onto the future, some time when they are more worthy of our love. Other times we love someone for what they once were, drawing on our love in the past tense, because of memories and experiences we shared together in better times, and so we have faith that things will work out for our relationship like they have done in other situations. Make no mistake, faith and hope can be good things, important and extremely vital things. With Christ, faith and hope are often the building blocks of love.
But every crisis of love comes to us in the present. It is charity that "never fails," not our hope or our faith. Love sees people without their baggage and without any expectation or ulterior motive from us for their change. We see each other for who they are. We listen to each other for what they are feeling in this moment. Love validates them in the present. It is what we are all so hungry for, because to be human is to hunger for this kind of love.
Christ loves us while we are yet sinners, that even if we should never cease to be sinners, His love would not falter at all. It is a constant the way the sun is, for it shines for us every day in the present. He suffered for us not based on our potential, but because of who we are right now, in this moment. We do not work to be worthy of His love someday, gaining love by degrees until we have cleaned up and shaped up and attained the fullness of His love. His love is already full. Christ loves us perfectly, infinitely, exactly how we are now.
How can I learn to love another person with this kind of charity? I believe it is the greatest task one can attempt to undertake, to learn to love someone exactly how they are without trying to manipulate or love them into submission. Learning to love another goes beyond my feelings for them. It is renovative. It is radical. It changes the world precisely because it changes myself, starting with my own heart. Love disrupts my natural tendencies, fundamentally making me a new creature. It makes me put away my "natural man"—all my insecurities, my fears, my ulterior motives, my comfort, my pride—so that I can be filled instead with Christ's love.
What I have learned about myself, for all my lengthy words and deep thoughts and circular arguments and righteous desires, however noble they may be, is this: I need this love in my life. I lack it. Every time I am called to put it into practice, I come up short. I feel the weight of my discipleship so much more when I try to act on it, than when I try to explain it or talk about it in the abstract. One can only know how impossibly heavy this task is by picking it up and trying to heft it for themselves. Charity is my biggest yearning and greatest potential for strength, but it is also my greatest weakness. Reading about the love of God in the scriptures points me to my need for repentance, to change my heart, clear away the overgrown brambles of my own fear and pride, so that Christ's love can take root.
Before I did this study exercise about charity, I believed that my love could change people. Perhaps, to my shame, that was what attracted me to it. It still can, I suppose, but now I am learning that it is not at all in the way I thought. I admit that I sometimes thought of charity as a kind of weapon. I wanted to obtain it mostly so I could use it to my advantage. I imagined, "If only I could love someone enough to change them." Studying about charity has taught me that the pure love of Christ isn't used to change other people. It is used to change me! Every opportunity to love someone is an opportunity for me to be changed, not the other way around. When I allow Christ's love into my heart, it makes me new. That is where the renovation occurs, not in some other person whose behavior or way of being happens to make me uncomfortable. Charity changes the world because it changes the heart of the person reaching for it.
In reality, being the self centered animals we are, I also have come to realize that charity is truly impossible. There is always some lingering animal fear that pops out of me, some selfish thought which interrupts it. Charity is the unattainable ideal of dreamers. As long as I am housed in mortal flesh, I am unable to generate this kind of selfless love on my own. But this is exactly why it is a miracle wherever it is found! And truly, I have seen it. I have felt it. Because my love is always tied up in my base and animal desires, Christ gives me His love, instead. When I pray for it, I am given opportunities to feel it, to see someone the way He sees them. Even if it only flashes into my heart for a moment, it leaves marks that permanently change me. Mine are simple moments that become recorded in my spiritual memory: an unexpected ice cream cake, a tupperware bowl of macaroni, a late night knock at a wooden door, the touch of a hand. These were times I was on the road to Emmaus and felt my heart burning.
"And whoso is found possessed of [charity] at the last day, it shall be well with him." (Moroni 7) I want to experience Christ's love not just once, but over and over again. I want that gift, to see someone with His love so that it changes me into something I am not, something more than I am. I already know I am a stubborn, insecure, anxious, prideful person with a fragile and easily deflated ego, and I know I become defensive and uncomfortable in the face of human vulnerability, especially my own. This has been a difficult but much needed discovery.
But I know His love changes me. It situates me not in the past, which is fraught with the evidence of my weakness, nor in the future, which is already looking like it will involve more of my failures. Choosing charity focuses me on the present, on the opportunities that are around me right now, because it is in the present where His grace is found, both to give it and receive it. Charity is the yoke we take upon ourselves when we take His name upon us. It includes the yoke of His grace that is both easy and light, but also impossibly difficult. But for now, it is sufficient for me to know that there is an unlimited supply of Christ's love to accompany me in what I will have to face today.