The Life Called Charity
March 11, 2012
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
The third essential of the church is “the life called charity.” It is worth noting at the outset that nothing is said of “acknowledgment” as in the first two essentials—the acknowledgement of the Divine of the Lord and the acknowledgement of the holiness of the Word. For the third requirement is not the conviction that the life of charity is worthwhile; it is that life itself. It is not enough to convince ourselves that we ought to refrain from doing this and do that instead; we must actually refrain and actually do.
The connection between this third essential and the first two is very simple. The life called charity is the embodiment, actualization, and even the proof of our inner religious convictions. Without it, all our supposed faith in the Lord and all our knowledge of and reverence for His Word are illusions. They are ideas without substance, for we have never encountered the “stuff” they are made of, the raw material of daily consecration.
As we have on previous Sundays, let us now look at the terms of the essential before us. We have noted the absence of the term “acknowledgment,” which gives added stress to the word “life.” In this context, “life” means all our conscious acts. Sometimes we distinguish between thoughts, words, and deeds. These distinctions are basically valid, but we must not conclude from them that “life” refers primarily to deeds, that words alone are scarcely anything and that thoughts are even less.
We grant that both thoughts and words ought to issue in deeds as occasion arises. But the fact remains that both thoughts and words are often acts in and of themselves. There are times when we ought to stop and think, to face facts about ourselves, and when we avoid this confrontation by becoming suddenly busy “doing things.” There are times when our deeds are apparently good but are done with words that leave wounds. There are many people who drive themselves overtime with “I’ve got to get this done” because as long as this feeling of compulsion, of no alternative, is there, they can avoid the question, “Is it all worthwhile?”
Neither thought nor word nor deed can be omitted from “life.” Each has its place, and each may be called for at just that time when we are most unwilling to respond. Each may be difficult, and each rewarding.
A second aspect of life we may overlook is that communication is a primary value of deeds as well as of words. This may sound strange at first, but we can see it illustrated time after time. What we have actually done often has less effect than what people believe we have done. The coherence of the fabric of society, the hope for a better world, rests in the growth of understanding and love. We may perform our daily tasks to the letter; if this conveys to our neighbors that we think ourselves better than they, then every outward good we do will widen the gulf between us and them.
We are not finally responsible for what others choose to think of us. But we are obliged to try to convey the truth to them, to be alert to misunderstandings, and to be more desirous of correcting them than of blaming others for misunderstanding. What we say and what we do not say, what we do and what we do not do—these are the tools with which we tell others what is of value to us. These are the tools with which we tell others whether they are of value to us, whether we value them. There is no virtue in doing good “for spite.”
If, then, we take life in this broad sense, including our activity and our inactivity, our speech and our silence, and our thoughts, what is meant by “the life of charity”? Swedenborg defines charity at one point as “acting with prudence to the end that good may result.”
Now, the Lord alone is good, and He alone can give good. Moreover, He can give good only as an individual is both willing and prepared to receive it. We cannot take love, the essence of good, from our own hearts and place it in the hearts of others where it has not been before.
But the form of love, and its receptacle in us, is truth. Through truth we can at times awaken love, and through obedience to truth we prepare ourselves for the Lord’s gift of love. Our acts are most likely to result in good if they are efforts to awaken in others an understanding of truth that in turn awakens love.
“Truth,” of course, is a word with many meanings. In order to bring the matter down to earth, let us take a commonplace example. Here we have two members of one church. One believes that the church should start a Young Couples Club, primarily social, while the other is opposed to the idea. This is brought up at a meeting, each has his say, and no decision is reached. After the meeting, circumstances are such that the two are together, with no alternative but to talk to each other.
What are some of the truths that might be conveyed? We can list a few only, for there would be thousands. To begin with, both want this to be the Lord’s church and to be alive. This may need to be expressed. Neither has changed his mind. Each wants to persuade the other. Neither has the right to condemn the other. Neither totally understands the other. The Lord’s will probably does not coincide precisely with the will of either. Facts and figures exist about the success and failure of similar groups in other churches. This topic is only a fragment of the interests of each, and each is interested in the other’s family, job, and general welfare. Each is anxious not to be misunderstood. One is wearing a nice tie. The weather has been pleasant lately. The pennant race has been quite something. Both would like to avoid the whole issue of a Young Couples’ Club and get home.
Actually, all of these things may be true, and virtually anything said or avoided will convey more than one such truth. To bring up baseball may say “Let’s forget it” or “It’s no use arguing with you” or “Let’s be friends.” To say “This is the Lord’s church” may convey “I’m right and you’re wrong” or “Let’s try to understand the good each of us intends” or even “This is the Lord’s church.”
Charity here must rest in the widest possible awareness of such truths, kept in proportion to each other. It requires expression of such truths as will be conducive to genuine mutual understanding on as deep a level as possible, and the awakening of genuine affection. It requires the implicit denial of such falsities as “My opinion is intrinsically worth more than yours” and “Let’s keep the Lord out of this.”
For with all our words and. deeds, we make implicit statements concerning the first two essentials. Our acknowledgement or disbelief, our ignorance of them, our belief that they are practical or irrelevant, all come out in our lives. And the life of charity is that life which, by means of all the lesser truths it tells, affirms with growing clarity the Divine of the Lord and the holiness of the Word. Amen.
O God of grace and freedom,
increase our desire for truth,
that we may live honestly with brother and sister.
Increase our desire for what is right,
that we may live justly with our neighbors.
Increase your compassion in us,
that we may love even our enemies for your sake.
- Julie M. Hulme
Almighty God, in your mercy forgive us our divisions. Forgive us the pride, prejudice, and selfcenteredness that lie at the root of all separation and bitterness. Show us the things we have in common, help us to understand each other and find reconciliation in and through, and for the love of, Jesus Christ our Lord.
- Frank Topping
The most important thing in my life
is that I chose to follow Jesus.
No one makes me.
I chose to.
I have chosen to follow him
because he loves me
and love makes all the difference.
- Ann Kiemel
Rev. Dr. George F. Dole