“And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians).
OVER THE PAST FOUR HUNDRED YEARS, THE WORD “CHARITY” HAS CHANGED ITS MEANING. In the days of Elizabethan English, when Shakespeare was writing and the King James Version of the Bible was being made, charity meant love. In fact, it meant the very highest kind of love, the kind that loves unselfishly, without regard for return or repayment. But to most people today, charity only means “giving money to a worthy cause.” So let’s see if we can’t resurrect, and learn from, the full meaning of charity in the older sense.
Almsgiving. Giving to the poor and the otherwise needy is certainly involved in charity, and heaven knows we need more of it. But while we need more of this kind of charity, we also need more people who’ll engage in it simply for the good that it will do. As Dan Bennett said, “Real charity doesn’t care if it’s tax-deductible or not.”
Forbearance. There is an English proverb that says, “He that has no charity deserves no mercy.” Charity as mercy or forbearance is a part of the older meaning of the word, and it would be good for us to recapture a little of that old spirit. When those around us make mistakes, we need to learn to treat their failings “charitably.”
Love. Here is the heart of charity, even in the two areas above. It is love that prompts us to engage in acts of charity, whatever their nature may be. And I suggest that the word “charity” is still a quite beautiful word to describe the highest, most selfless kind of love.
Charity can be thought of as the glue that holds many other important things in life together. Qualities like wisdom, strength, and courage can easily get out of hand, and even do damage, if they’re not enlivened, warmed, and motivated by charity. When we want to do the charitable thing in a particular situation, it may sometimes tax our judgment to ascertain what course of action we should take, but the impulse to act charitably is always honorable. If we were moved by it more often, the world would surely turn into a better place.
“In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity” (Richard Baxter).