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Perspectives: The Charitable Spirit ~ Charity And It's Fruits
For an introduction to the 'Perspectives:' series, visit ~
"Perspectives: An Introduction"
I must begin this hub with a confession . . . my title, "Charity And It's Fruits", is not of my own design. The New England puritan, Jonathan Edwards preached a series of sermons in 1738 that have long been published under the title "Charity And It's Fruits", the sermon series and book being an exposition of the 13th chapter of the apostle Paul's first letter to the church at Corinth. Edwards is commonly counted to be one of America's great (if not the greatest) intellectuals and it is generally agreed that he is the finest theologian America has yet produced. It may very well be that no one since the time of the reformation has been more significant to the Christian church than Jonathan Edwards.
But for us, today, to properly benefit from his genius on this particular idea of ‘charity’, we must begin by recognizing how words can change, not just as they’re translated from one language to another, but as they’re handed down from one generation to another. In Edwards’ own words ~
“What persons very often mean by ‘charity’, in their ordinary conversation, is a disposition to hope and think the best of others, and to put a good construction on their words and behavior. Sometimes the word is used for a disposition to give to the poor”.
In Edwards’ time (pre-revolutionary America) the word ‘charity’ sometimes meant the practice of giving to help the poor - I would argue that giving to the poor is about exactly and only what most folks mean to assert when they use the word ‘charity’ today. I don’t think very many today at all think of a charitable spirit as having to do with “a disposition to hope and think the best of others, and to put a good construction on their words and behavior”. That attitude and approach to others might be referred to today as ‘patience’, ‘tolerance’, ‘respect’, etc, but the word ‘charity’ I think is specifically thought of and used as in giving some of your money to people who have very little.
With this in mind, it becomes very interesting when Edwards observes what the apostle Paul asserts in Scripture ~
“We observe that something is spoken of as of special importance, and as peculiarly essential in Christians, which the apostle calls ‘charity’. And this charity, we find, is abundantly insisted on in the New Testament by Christ and His apostles - more insisted on, indeed, than any other virtue.”
Is Paul’s point, is the Bible’s teaching, is the Christian message here that the very core issue of knowing and serving God is that we should give some of our money to those who have little? For the Christian, is the charitable spirit all about helping the poor or needy financially? The answer rests in the word that Paul uses in the Bible, the original word that English translators in the middle-ages used the English word ‘charity’ to represent. The language Paul wrote in was ancient Greek, and this ancient Greek, Koinè Greek, was a very precise language.
The ancient Greek word that Paul used, that is translated ‘charity’, is “ἀγάπη” transliterated 'agápē'. Now, some may recognize the anglicized ‘agape’, there are Christian book shops, Christian gift companies (candles & cards, etc), and I imagine a Christian Rock band or two that use the term ‘agape’ in their title . . . ‘agape’ is ancient Greek, Biblical Greek, for ‘love’. When the Bible says the greatest thing is charity, when Paul says without charity he is nothing, and when Jonathan Edwards says that Christianity insists more upon charity than any other virtue, they are all talking about love . . . love is the greatest thing, without love we are nothing, and Christianity insists upon love more than any other virtue.
Paul even very pointed states “If I give away all I have . . . but have not love, I gain nothing”. What most think of as charity, Paul here declares to be nothing if it is not an expression, a manifestation of genuine love. The Greeks had other words that are translated ‘love’ in English, they had ‘ἔρως’ transliterated ‘eros’, and ‘φιλία’ transliterated ‘philía’; from ‘eros’ we get 'erogenous', it indicates a sensual form of love, and from ‘philía’ we get 'philanthropic', it indicates a brotherly form of love (as in ‘Philadelphia’, the city of brotherly love). Now, if the Bible was instructing us that charity, in the sense of giving aid to the poor, was the heart of Christianity, Paul would have used the word ‘philía’ rather than ‘agape’. So, what is God calling us to when He calls us to practice love, or agape/charity?
When God Himself uses the word ‘agape’ He uses it when talking about His relationship with His Son . . . and when talking about His relationship with us. God the Father says that He has loved the Son since before the foundation of the world, and He says that He loves us so much that He gave His Son to death that He might bring us to Himself. When you see God saying “This is my beloved Son” and “God so loved the world”, etc, God is using the word ‘agape’, love . . . the same word that the Bible declares to be at the heart of being a Christian, one of His people. It’s that same word translated ‘charity’.
So, the true charitable spirit is not merely about doing good deeds or giving to charities, etc – it’s about love. And here’s where we can begin to learn about this divine love. What exactly does Paul say about love, when we read about ‘charity’ in his letter to the Christians in Corinth? In a beautiful passage, Paul writes ~
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude . . . it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Now, there is a great deal here to meditate on, to roll over and over in your mind and heart, to examine yourself on and strive to practice . . . like many truths revealed in Scripture, the ideas presented may be simple and clear – but the mastery of them, the daily, moment by moment attainment of these virtues, is a great thing and not easy for any of us. But I want to consider, very briefly, one point Paul makes, the one I omitted from the passage. Paul also states that, “love seeks not its own”. This is not a statement that reads easily for us today, it’s not so instantly clear what Paul might have been saying here. Indeed, some commentators assert that what Paul is saying is that love does not seek to have its own way, that if you are practicing authentic love than you don’t have to have everything just as you want it to be. I disagree.
I mean, I agree that if you are practicing authentic love you are not going to be carless about other’s interests and concerns and just demand everything suit you, I think this is a valid assertion of the manifestation of the charitable, or loving, spirit – but I don’t think this is what Paul was saying here. I think Paul was saying that true love does not require like-mindedness or sameness to love, genuine love is more than owning an affinity for someone it is easy for you to be with, someone in many respects just like you. All that other stuff about love being “patient” and “kind”, not being “arrogant” or “rude” or “irritable”, about “bearing all things” and “enduring all things” is all practiced when we love those we maybe don’t like so much. It’s easy to ‘love’ someone who we agree with, who likes all the same things we like, who has a similar disposition and sense of humor, etc . . . that’s not really calling upon love to intervene at all, that’s just human nature, not divine love – love is required when we’re around people who we don’t agree with, who like things we don’t like, who have a disposition and sense of humor it’s difficult for us to be around.
. . . see - even I can smile . . . if need be.
If I’m nice (patient, kind, bearing all things, etc) to someone I like, that’s not love, it’s just human nature – if I’m nice (patient, kind, bearing all things, etc) to someone I don’t like, I am practicing love. Now, I don’t mean merely being civil, putting up with, barely tolerating, etc – I mean actually being kind toward. It requires that other Christian virtue – humility. You have to simply remember that you’re no delight for everyone either, that whatever bothers you so much about ‘this’ fellow is not any worse than the things about you that bother so many others . . . his shortcomings may be those particular things that annoy you tremendously, but just because they annoy you doesn’t mean they are the worst features a person can have, like, any worse than your own shortcomings.
Recognize that, while it may be reasonable for you to try to avoid ‘this’ fellow, while you don’t have to like him and everything about him, you can still practice true love toward him as a man, who just like you is trying to get along in this world. When you bump into some fellow and he is at his worst, be patient, bear all things, do not allow yourself to be irritated, demonstrate a charitable spirit . . . perhaps he has come from his mother’s doctor’s office, her hospital room, her funeral. Everyone we meet in life has just been living their life, their whole life, right up to that moment we bump into them – give them a break, learn to live with a charitable spirit.
(and the "fruit" of this Charitable spirit is - try it, it's ludicrous how much more enjoyable every day can be when you're kind instead of miserable to others)
. . . and our guest contributor this month ~