Mormons frequently define charity as the pure love of Christ, quoting the Book of Mormon prophet Mormon. They teach that when they serve others, they are also serving God, and they turn to the example of the Savior in deciding how to serve others.
During His mortal ministry, Jesus Christ was asked which commandment was the greatest or most important. He answered, “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. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
For the Savior, love and charity were identical. All of His acts of charity were done not from a sense of duty, but from a deep feeling of love for all He encountered. He didn’t limit His service to His friends, although He served His friends as well. He didn’t limit it to those who were wealthy or middle class. He didn’t even limit it to those who were worthy, in the world’s eyes, of charity.
We can best learn how the Savior felt about charity by observing how He treated others during His ministry. One day the scribes and Pharisees brought to him a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They reminded him the law required her to be stoned and asked what He thought they should do. Their goal wasn’t to seek advice, but to trap Him. However, He acted exactly as He would have if the motive had been pure. The world couldn’t influence how He treated others. He knelt down, writing in the dirt as if He hadn’t heard them. They continued to ask and He responded, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” (John chapter eight) Chastened, the men began to leave. When Jesus and the woman were alone, He asked her if any accusers remained, and she said they had not. He gently told her he didn’t accuse her either-but warned her not to sin again.
This is one of the more powerful examples of the Savior’s charity. He rescued her from humiliation and death, preserved a certain amount of dignity by refusing to judge her worthiness for his act of service, and counseled her on how to avoid the same problem in the future.
One day a blind man called out to him for help. The man had been advised by others not to bother Jesus. After all, he was only a blind beggar, not someone “important” by the world’s standards. However, Jesus heard him and called the man to him. He asked how he could help, and the man asked for his sight. Jesus not only restored the man’s sight, but sent a clear message to those who had deemed him unworthy of the Lord’s charity. He told the man it was his own faith that had healed him. This man, seemingly unimportant, had possessed sufficient faith to heal himself, and this certainly sent a gentle rebuke to those who had dismissed him as being unimportant or unworthy of notice.
The Savior’s charity always helped people learn to respect themselves because of the way he treated them. Everyone received his respect. It removed roadblocks and rewarded them for their own efforts when possible. It pointed them in the direction of a better life. His charity also addressed small but immediate needs, such as feeding the multitudes because they were, at that moment, hungry. Every person in the multitude was fed.
Although it was not the primary purpose for telling this story, Jesus told a parable about a rich man who lived in an elegant home. Outside his gates lived a beggar named Lazarus. (Notice Jesus names the poor man, but doesn’t bother to name the rich man, even though the story is mostly about the rich man.) The wealthy man doesn’t do anything to serve or help the beggar, who was in need of food and medical care. When both men die, it is the poor man who receives the reward, and the rich man suffers eternal punishment, which he, naturally, finds upsetting. When he asks that Lazarus be sent in to serve him and help him feel better, Abraham says, “Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.”
The Savior made clear in this parable that a person who refuses to serve others and to practice charity can’t expect to receive charity for himself when it’s needed.
King Benjamin, a Book of Mormon prophet, taught this type of Christlike service to his people and warned them against unrighteous judgment in deciding whom to serve:
17 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-
18 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.
19 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? (Mosiah 4)
We see, in the examples of the Savior’s service, that He lived according to this same belief. The greatest example of the Savior’s feelings about charity, of course, is found in the final days of His life, when He took upon himself our sins in the Garden of Gethsemane and in the Garden of Eden. Although He lived a perfect life, he suffered for every person who ever lived, worthy and unworthy alike, and those who deserved help and those who brought their misery on through their own choices. He made no distinctions. He loves all of us equally, and suffered for each of us individually.
The world in which we live would benefit greatly if men and women everywhere would exercise the pure love of Christ, which is kind, meek, and lowly. It is without envy or pride. It is selfless because it seeks nothing in return. It does not countenance evil or ill will, nor rejoice in iniquity; it has no place for bigotry, hatred, or violence. It refuses to condone ridicule, vulgarity, abuse, or ostracism. It encourages diverse people to live together in Christian love regardless of religious belief, race, nationality, financial standing, education, or culture. (Howard W. Hunter, “A More Excellent Way,” Ensign, May 1992, 6)
Terrie Lynn Bittner is the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that have appeared in LDS magazines. She is married to Lincoln Bittner and is the mother of three grown children and grandmother to two girls. Terrie became a Mormon at the age of seventeen and has been sharing her faith online since 1992. She can also be found blogging about being an LDS woman at LatterdaySaintWoman.com.