Building a Habit of Charity

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The brain is made up of 87 billion neurons – the brain cells that allow us to breathe, think, walk, talk, pray, serve, and love. Each of these cells is connected to others with an estimated total of 100 trillion connections. That’s a staggeringly large number to contemplate. The number 1 followed by 14 zeros. These connections are not set for life; they strengthen or weaken constantly based on what we do and learn. Even simple actions, such as clapping or raising our hands in sustaining of church leaders, changes blood flow within our brains for half a minute. Each thought we think, each action we do, changes our brains. As we learn and re-learn things, the connections between brain cells change. If we do things over and over they become habits; habits might be easy or difficult to develop but they are usually hard to lose. This is because habits are ingrained within deep recesses of our brains; they travel along major brain pathways automatically and at rapid speed. Each thought or action we have or do has the potential to become a habit if we repeat it. What habits are you forming? What connections are you making in your brain – positive, uplifting, faithful ones, or are you strengthening connections that lead you away from Christ? The roads of the mind can elevate or debase. Do we seek and strengthen the paths that will lead us back home?

One way to elevate our minds is to strive for Christlike attributes. The greatest of these is charity. What is charity? Charity is the chief virtue. It is the “pure love of Christ, [that] endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.” (Moroni 7:47). Charity is without end, it endures forever. Charity is not helping others, it is not treating others well; charity is the pure love that comes from God. Charity is a gift from God. It is a pure fruit from an everlasting tree of beauty and purity with preciousness above all else.

Charity is a gift from God and is manifest in those who believe in Christ and are striving to be like Him. C. S. Lewis explained his belief in Christ; he said: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else” (Lewis, Is Theology Poetry?, 1945). The Savior testified of His Light, “I am the light of the world, he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness…” (John 8:12). Christ also said, “Ye are the light of the world…let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works…” (Matt. 5:14,16). What is this light? Did Christ mean that He was a physical light, a form of electromagnetic radiation that simply brightens the world around us? It is true that the resurrected Christ shines with a radiance above the brightness of the sun, as Joseph Smith described, but this is not really what Christ meant when He said that He is the light of the world.

Jesus created the earth, the moon, and the heavens above. He caused the sun to shine upon the earth to give us life. Jesus lights the earth around us but He also does more than that – He lights our souls with His love. Christ is love. Love is energy, you can feel it – it radiates like the sun. When we are told to “let [our] light[s] so shine” the Savior is telling us to follow His example by lighting others’ lives by love; we are to warm the hearts and souls of those around us through the warm radiance of charity. When we follow our Lord by keeping His commandments, He lights our souls with His love. When we have His love, we can share it with others. This means that it is not possible to light someone else’s soul without a burning in our own. This is a light that is in all people’s souls. In some it burns with a dazzling brightness, in others it flickers like a dying candle. When we have charity, the light of Christ shines through us with great intensity. When we are filled with charity we see the eternal light in those around us – we know that all are sons and daughters of our Eternal Father in Heaven. We know that all have the potential to become as He is.

But becoming like God is a process. None of us is perfect; we are fallen, living in a fallen world. We are in an embryonic stage, trying to grow up and control these wonderful but mortal bodies the Lord blesses us with. Sometimes we sin, sometimes we turn away from God, sometimes we forget who we really are. All of us on this earth, in the grand council of heaven, subjected our spiritual bodies and wills to the will of the Father; that is why we are here in mortality – we said in shouts of joy, “I will follow God’s plan for me!” Now as mortals we are trying to subject our physical bodies to the will of the Father – truly a difficult task. Just as in the premortal world, again Christ was the consummate example. He subjected His will completely to His Father’s; this surrendering of His will culminated with His death on the cross and His triumphal resurrection from the tomb in the ultimate act of love. Jesus Christ gave us the perfect example of charity.

We are commanded to serve others. Opportunities to serve come with baptism, when we covenant to be comforters: “And now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:8-9). A responsibility we have as Latter-day Saints is to help alleviate the suffering of others. We have been commanded to “look to the poor and the needy, and administer to their relief that they shall not suffer” (D&C 38:35). As Latter-day Saints and Christians we have been commanded to, “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

The miracle is that by mourning with those who mourn and helping other people bear their burdens, our own burdens and suffering are lifted. The Savior spent His life focused on others but His ultimate act of selflessness, His ultimate act of charity, was when He shed His precious blood for each and every one of us. In this act, His will was completely swallowed up in His Father’s. The Atonement is infinitely Other-focused – it was not done to benefit Jesus. In the premortal world, Christ answered the call to act as propitiation for the sins and sorrows of God’s wayward children. He performed the greatest selfless act the world ever knew or will know. As we follow Christ and turn our focus outward and serve others without seeking personal gain, we will find the cure for suffering. In doing good to others, we will overcome our sorrows and sufferings. We do not suffer while selflessly serving others. Just as the Savior did, we can serve to bring light and life to others.

We might serve others at first because it is a commandment – we might serve out of a sense of duty but the more we serve the more we will do so out of love. The Apostle Paul taught: “Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned” (1 Tim. 1:5). This means that we are given commandments so that we might learn charity and serve with a pure heart, good conscience, and real faith. The end of commandments, or in other words the purpose of commandments, is that we might become Christ-like – full of God’s love, which is charity. While there are many good reasons to serve others, the highest and best reason is because we love others and are filled with charity. Charity is a measure of perfection.

While our motives to serve others might not always be out of pure charity, by serving we keep a commandment and work toward the day when we will be filled with God’s perfect love. Charity can be strengthened by action. Through repeated desires and actions we can make feelings and actions of charity more automatic; acts motivated by charity can become habits, written upon the tables of our hearts (see Prov. 7:3) and the pathways of our minds.

Pres. Henry B. Eyring wrote recently: “A few days ago, I met in my office with a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to discuss work on increasing the spirit and the power of the Sabbath to build faith in Jesus Christ. As I later pondered this conversation, I felt that faith in Jesus Christ is built more by acting than by listening, even when the teacher or speaker has the power of the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost testifies of our Heavenly Father and of the Savior with the purpose of moving us to repent and to keep commandments. Those are actions. It is the actions to pray, repent, and keep the commandments that build faith in the hearts of disciples of Jesus Christ.” Elder Henry B. Eyring, posted on Facebook on Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015; https://www.facebook.com/lds.henry.b.eyring/posts/808659242514886)

As we act, we are blessed. If we want faith, if we want charity, we should act. Go and do. The call to action sometimes requires what I call a loving kick in the pants.

In October 2012, Elder Holland gave us such encouragement. He told of the apostles toiling after Christ’s death. The apostles were fishing without success when the Savior appeared on the seashore, although at first they did not recognize Him. It was not until He asked them to cast their nets again into the water that they recognized Him. By following His counsel, they caught many fish and came to shore to talk with their Savior. This is where the chastisement – the loving kick in the pants – started.

Jesus asked Peter three times – “Do you love me?” Peter responded, “Yea Lord, I do.” But the Savior needed to teach Peter a lesson – Peter had not fully grasped the nature of his calling as Apostle (and chief Apostle – the president of the church – at that!).

Now quoting Elder Holland:

“Jesus responded… perhaps saying something like: ‘Then Peter, why are you here? Why are we back on this same shore, by these same nets, having this same conversation? Wasn’t it obvious then and isn’t it obvious now that if I want fish, I can get fish? What I need, Peter, are disciples—and I need them forever. I need someone to feed my sheep and save my lambs. I need someone to preach my gospel and defend my faith. I need someone who loves me, truly, truly loves me, and loves what our Father in Heaven has commissioned me to do. Ours is not a feeble message. It is not a fleeting task. It is not hapless; it is not hopeless; it is not to be consigned to the ash heap of history. It is the work of Almighty God, and it is to change the world. So, Peter, for the second and presumably the last time, I am asking you to leave all this and to go teach and testify, labor and serve loyally until the day in which they will do to you exactly what they did to me.'”

Elder Holland continued with an admonition to all of us: “My beloved brothers and sisters, I am not certain just what our experience will be on Judgment Day, but I will be very surprised if at some point in that conversation, God does not ask us exactly what Christ asked Peter: ‘Did you love me?’ I think He will want to know if in our very mortal, very inadequate, and sometimes childish grasp of things, did we at least understand one commandment, the first and greatest commandment of them all—’Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind.’ And if at such a moment we can stammer out, ‘Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee,’ then He may remind us that the crowning characteristic of love is always loyalty. ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments,’ Jesus said. So we have neighbors to bless, children to protect, the poor to lift up, and the truth to defend. We have wrongs to make right, truths to share, and good to do. In short, we have a life of devoted discipleship to give in demonstrating our love of the Lord. We can’t quit and we can’t go back.” (Holland, The First Great Commandment, October 2012).

Will we be able to answer the Savior when we stand before Him to be judged that we really do love Him, that we loved Him enough that we put Him first in our lives? Did we love Him enough to really love other people? Do we really understand the weight of the responsibility we bear when we are baptized and are confirmed and make sacred covenants to follow the Savior? Do we feel like we can stand before the Savior today with clean hands and a pure heart having done all we can to follow His commandments? If not, what changes need to be made? Start making the changes today.

One of those changes we might need to make is to see others as our Father sees them. This vision requires charity. Charity isn’t just loving people for who they are it is loving people for who they might become. Charity is understanding the eternal potential and divine spark within all people. Charity is helping others draw near to God by seeing and edifying the good within. Do we love others enough to help them grow? Do we love others enough to help them return home giving them a loving kick in the pants when needed? Do we love and fill our lives with kindness?

Elder Wirthlin said, “The measure of our love is the measure of the greatness of our souls…. Love is the beginning, the middle, and the end of the pathway of discipleship…. Often, the greatest manifestations of love are the simple acts of kindness and caring we extend to those we meet along the path of life.” (Wirthlin, The Great Commandment, Oct. 2007)

Each simple act of kindness can be a manifestation of our love. Each hand we hold or tear we wipe, can share the love of God with His precious children. “Real love is best shown in the ‘how’.” (Holland, How do I love thee?, BYU Speeches, Feb 15, 2000). How do I love thee? Let me show you the ways.

One way to feel and show charity to others is when they are dealing with loss and grief for that is when love is needed the most.

With the strike of an automobile, some years ago tragedy struck our family. My 11 year old niece Allison was crossing a road on her bicycle with her father and younger sister when an automobile struck her, killing her instantly. It was a challenging time for my sister and her family. It was difficult for all the extended family. But who we are as people is defined by how we respond in the face of tragedy. Do we respond with faith or do we answer with festering bitterness? Do we forgive wrongs or do we allow the cankering cancer of hate to grow inside ourselves? I believe tragedy is a time to turn towards others, particularly our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. The healing waters of Christ cannot wash away our hurt and grief if we keep them locked within the stony tables of our hearts. We must offer our hurt and grief to the Savior. Christ’s suffering – His Atonement – not only helps us overcome sin and death, it helps us overcome sorrow, suffering, and pain. Sorrow, suffering, and pain are not removed from our lives but their effects can be lessened. We can even find joy amidst the hardship as we turn towards Christ. Then one day, we have been promised that “every tear today will eventually be returned a hundredfold with tears of rejoicing and gratitude” (Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, Nov. 2008 Ensign).

Jesus offers hope and healing to all who mourn. Isaiah tells us that the Savior: “bind[s] up the brokenhearted [and] proclaim[s] liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound…. [He] comfort[s] all that mourn; [and] appoint[s] unto them that mourn in Zion [and] give[s] unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified” (Isaiah 61:1-3). In these tender verses we learn of Christ’s role as healer; we learn of His great love for us. He pours forth the olive oil of mercy unto those in need and He comforts those who mourn: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

God shall wipe tears from our eyes – what a touching, beautiful, and miraculous experience that will be! What love our Father has for us! This is a miracle we can perform for others; this is a love we can share with others. Pres. Harold B. Lee said of this miracle – the miracle of healing those who sorrow and who suffer with spiritual sickness: “The greatest miracles I see today are not necessarily the healing of sick bodies, but the greatest miracles I see are the healing of sick souls, those who are sick in soul and spirit and are downhearted and distraught, on the verge of nervous breakdowns. We are reaching out to all such because they are precious in the sight of the Lord and we want no one to feel that they are forgotten.” (Lee, April 1973 General Conference). The Lord came to heal the sick – in body and spirit. We are commanded to follow Christ; we must to do as He did and reach out to and heal those who are dejected and sick in spirit.

Even in times of our own suffering we can help heal others. In the days before Allison’s funeral, my sister and her husband took time to visit and comfort the boy, a teenager, who was driving the car that hit her. Allison died and my family suffered because of his mistake but he was going to have to live with the weight of her death on his shoulders. My sister and her husband wanted to let the boy know that they forgave him for what happened. “There was hurt but no hate.” (Faust, April 2007 General Conference). They exemplified one of the greatest acts of love – the gift of forgiveness; it is the ultimate miracle, the ultimate gift of love. This is a gift given to us by Christ and one we can give to others. Those who Pres. Lee said are “sick in soul and spirit and downhearted and distraught” might be aching for one thing from us – the healing that starts when we offer a gift of forgiveness. What greater love is there than laying down hurt and hate and extending arms in love? What greater Christian attribute is there than that of forgiving those who might not deserve forgiveness and loving those who might not deserve love? This is charity, being filled with the pure love of Christ.

I pray that all our thoughts might be drawn out to God, that we might strive to be as He is, filled with a radiant, pure love. I pray that we might fill our hearts and strengthen the pathways of our minds with good and with love. This church is true. Jesus Christ lives and loves us!

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