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RS/MP Lesson 37: “Charity, the Pure Love of Christ” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on June 26, 2009

If there was any one principle that animated the Prophet Joseph Smith, it was charity. Of course, I think that sentence itself can be drastically misunderstood. Joseph didn’t, on my reading of his life generally, understand charity to be a kind of sentimental feeling toward others, nor did he understand it to be simply acts of giving. Charity was, for him, something much more rigorous and, perhaps, difficult. It is easy enough to feel a kind of romanticized affection for others that has no real substance, and it is easy enough to help people out and be a sort of bland “nice guy.” But charity, it seems to me, is something much more complex. I think this lesson does a pretty decent job of showing that.

The First and Last Sections: From the Life of Joseph Smith; We express charity through simple acts of service and kindness.

Both the introductory and concluding sections of this lesson deal with stories that demonstrate Joseph’s magnanimity. Only one story graces the introductory section, and it is certainly illustrative (illustrative enough that I’ll let it speak for itself), but a whole handful can be found in the last section. In fact, the last section is nicely structured. It begins and ends with a teaching from Joseph, thus allowing Joseph’s own statements to sandwich the stories that give flesh to his instructions. Let me quote first from those two teachings, and then see how they are reflected in the stories.

“We do not present ourselves before you as anything but your humble servants, willing to spend and be spent in your service.” (p. 429) Again: “I love to wait upon the Saints, and be a servant to all, hoping that I may be exalted in the due time of the Lord.” (p. 432) These deserve a bit of comment.

One gets the picture, from these two teachings, that Joseph consistently tried to put himself completely at the service of the Saints. If we can trust Joseph to have been saying what he really felt, then it seems his greatest joy was simply to be with the Saints. Charity, for him, was made manifest in his desire simply to be among the people. The image from the second of the two teachings quoted just above is that of Joseph standing at the counter of his store, desperate to talk to the Saints in the days before Christmas, hoping that someone else will come in so that he can commune with them. There is a powerful sense of community in Joseph. Being willing “to spend and be spent” in the service of the Saints is much the same thing: he hoped to exhaust his strength simply in being together. This, I think, is a major aspect of charity as Joseph Smith understood it. Charity is the straightforward desire to be with others, to talk and think and rejoice together.

The stories, told by Joseph’s neighbors and friends, in the remainder of the last section illustrate this. Charity there is not presented just as almsgiving, nor is it presented just as a kind of affection. Joseph is rather found playing ball and building log cabins with the boys; inviting the sick to come to stay at his house; giving away his boots without a question being asked; making sure that everyone has the proper goods for subsistence; pulling sticks with the brethren; cutting wood to help out; providing Christmas dinners, etc. Joseph is simply in the thick of things. Charity for Joseph: to be in the thick of things.

This will have to be fleshed out in more rigor in the other sections of the lesson.

A person filled with the love of God is anxious to bless others; We have a special obligation to love and care for those in need.

The first two sections of the “Teachings” portion of the lesson provide a kind of broad framework for what Joseph will teach in much greater rigor in the third section. A few snippets, then, is all I will draw from these two sections before turning to the only part of the lesson I haven’t dealt with:

“Love is one of the chief characteristics of Deity, and ought to be manifested by those who aspire to be the sons of God. A man filled with the love of God, is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race.” (p. 426)

“[I taught] them to observe charity, wisdom and fellow-feeling, with love one towards another in all things, and under all circumstances.” (p. 426)

“To be justified before God we must love one another.” (p. 426)

“[A member of the Church] is to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to provide for the widow, to dry up the tear of the orphan, to comfort the afflicted, whether in this church, or in any other, or in no church at all, wherever he finds them.” (p. 426)

“The rich cannot be saved without charity, giving to feed the poor when and how God requires.” (p. 426)

“Keep the commandments of God—all that he has given, does give, or will give, and an halo of glory will shine around your path; the poor will rise up and call you blessed.” (p. 427)

“And if there are any among you who aspire after their own aggrandizement, and seek their own opulence, while their brethren are groaning in poverty, . . . they cannot be benefited by the intercession of the Holy Spirit, which maketh intecession for us day and night with groanings that cannot be uttered.” (p. 427)

Charity is long-suffering, merciful, and kind.

This section is, I think, the richest. And it is primarily drawn from Joseph’s sermons to the Relief Society (all of it is except for the third and fourth full paragraphs on page 428). I will draw from these teachings in particular to spell out what seems to me to be Joseph Smith’s vision of charity.

“Don’t be limited in your views with regard to your neighbor’s virtue, but beware of self-righteousness, and be limited in the estimate of your own virtues.” (p. 427)

To some extent, this sounds like Joseph is saying that charity amounts to a kind of self-deprecating humility: that one must think oneself bad in order to see others as good. I don’t think, though, that that is quite what he is saying. I don’t think his point is to say that we ought to beat ourselves up, but that we ought to do all we can to smash the idolatrous images we create abstractly of what the other person ought to be. (This question of image, it seems to me, is bound up with his use of the word “views.”) We have the natural tendency to determine that “virtue” must take such and such a shape, must conform to such and such an image, and so we can’t recognize virtue when we see it in another. The flip-side of all this, of course, is to recognize that we have set up an image for ourselves as well, that we spend a great deal of our time trying to live out an image that we have set for our character; and because we imbue that self-image with so many “virtues,” we imagine (we image-ine) that we are the very model of virtue. Joseph, then, is letting us know also that the image we make for ourselves too must be smashed, and then we will realize how much we have been deceiving ourselves.

In the end, I think the image we set up for others—the image they seem always to fail to achieve—cannot be done away with until we smash the image we believe that we ourselves enact. Hence, let us “be limited in the estimate of [our] own virtues,” but not “be limited in [our] views with regard to [our] neighbor’s virtue.”

“You must enlarge your souls towards each other, if you would do like Jesus, and carry your fellow-creatures to Abraham’s bosom.” (pp. 427-428)

This is a simply beautiful teaching. The image of enlarging one’s soul is perfect, and the injunction to carry one’s fellow-creatures to Abraham’s bosom nicely points to the humility and work that are involved in charity. Charity is not a feeling, but a task, and it is the task of carrying someone into heaven itself. Charity cannot be divorced from the work of saving others.

“You must be long-suffering, and bear with the faults and errors of mankind. How precious are the souls of men!” (p. 428)

Joseph’s final exclamation here shows his passion on this point, but it is the second half of the first sentence that I find most compelling: we are to “bear with the faults and errors of mankind.” Note, then, that charity is not a question just of feeling affection for someone, nor is it a question just of doing something good for someone. It is a question of being together, of being with people while bearing with their faults and errors. Too often, we try to make charity either entirely private (charity is something inside me, a feeling or a disposition) or entirely public (charity is an action that can be identified in the world, an act of giving something to someone). But here Joseph suggests that charity is a question of being with people in a certain way; it is to dwell in a public place while undertaking the constant work of reorienting one’s private concerns according to that public place. Charity is a question through and through of long-suffering.

“Don’t envy the finery and fleeting show of sinners, for they are in a miserable situation; but as far as you can, have mercy on them.” (p. 428)

I really like the way that Joseph puts this. There is no reason for us to be jealous of sinners, to believe that they are actually happy (if we are so jealous, we are already in sin!). But neither are we to reject sinners out of hand, precisely because they are in a miserable situation. We are to have mercy on them, and try to do all we can to help them. Joseph here helpfully shows that charity can only emerge where we truly believe that sin is sin, that sin is evil, that sin makes one miserable. If I believe that the sinner is happy (“Oh, I only wish I weren’t Mormon so I could…”), then I don’t really believe sin is sin—I don’t really believe the Lord—and so my lusts replace any charity I might have had. On the other hand, if I despise the sinner because he or she gives into such lustful practices, and if I thus refuse to succor the sinner, my repulsion betrays my resentment: every “holier-than-thou” approach to the sinner is motivated by a disguised desire to sin, and the uncharitable non-sinner is only a person who too wants to sin (who does not believe that sin is sin) but is in self-denial in order to maintain some kind of superiority. Whether I wish to join the sinner, or whether I despise the sinner for his or her sins, I do not believe that sin is sin, and so I am myself in sin, and cannot have charity.

But as Joseph makes clear, charity is the desire to succor the sinner, is grounded in the recognition that sin is sin and that the sinner is genuinely miserable, and so takes the shape of doing all one can to have mercy on her or him.

“When persons manifest the least kindness and love to me, O what power it has over my mind, while the opposite course has a tendency to harrow up all the harsh feelings and depress the human mind.” (p. 428)

This statement is perhaps clear enough as it is, but it is beautiful: charity motivates; compulsion, cruelty, and harshness only create enmity.

“God does not look on sin with allowance, but when men have sinned, there must be allowance made for them. (p. 428)

Joseph here draws the distinction between the sin and the sinner. What I think is helpful, though, is that he has not cast it in terms of love and hate (hate the sin, love the sinner), but in terms of allowance. There must be no allowance made for sin: one cannot say that charity amounts to an allowance for sin, for sin in the least degree. Charity was never an allowance for sin. But charity is rather an allowance to be made for sinners: one must do all one can to accommodate and strength and bring to repentance the sinner. That is the nature of charity. Charity is, then, never a kind of relativism: you have your values, and I have mine. Rather, it is a love that ignores all questions of individual values in the name of truth, calling the sinner to repentance. One does not truly love unless one can see that sin is sin, and that the sinner can be made happy.

The difficulty, of course, is that this can always slide into self-satisfaction. One must work at the infinite task of separating the sin from the sinner, of recognizing that sin is not some kind of metaphysical substance that taints the individual, but that sinners are simply those who find themselves miserable because they are trying to cover the weakness God has given them. If one regards the sinner (rather than the sin) as evil, one has attempted to cover one’s own weakness, and so slipped into sin. Charity requires us to see the sinner as fighting against grace, and so every allowance must be made to the person (but not to the sin) to repent and see that grace is one’s joy and not one’s shame.

“The nearer we get to our heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs.” (pp. 428-429)

This explains itself, especially after all the above. In approaching God, we will ignores the sins and carry the sinners on our shoulders into the kingdom of God.

“How oft have wise men and women sought to dictate Brother Joseph by saying, ‘Oh, if I were Brother Joseph, I would do this and that;’ but if they were in Brother Joseph’s shoes they would find that men or women could not be compelled into the kingdom of God, but must be dealt with in long-suffering, and at last we shall save them. (p. 429)

And here is the final bit: we cannot compel people into the kingdom. So soon as we have the inkling to do so, we must recognize that we are in sin, that we are not ourselves in the kingdom. Any desire to exercise control or dominion on others is a desire that issues from resentment that we cannot get away with sin, and hence from our belief that sin is not ultimately sin, that sinners are happy.

And this means that we cannot even compel ourselves into the kingdom. It is by grace that we sinners all are saved. So soon as we recognize this, we might just begin to develop the charity that Christ is.

3 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 37: “Charity, the Pure Love of Christ” (Joseph Smith Manual)”

  1. I think you make some excellent points in this post and I was very much edified by it. A point I want to add is that Christ pointed out that those who are not established in His gospel may have joy in their works for a little season, but by and by the end cometh and then they are hewn down and cast into the fire because of their works. But I don’t think that time comes until they have been called to repentance and every charitable effort to reclaim has been made.

    Keep writing!

  2. JerryYoung said

    Electric Shock: In the middle of page 431 Elizabeth Whitney describes her feeling as “an electric shock”.
    How did she know what an electric shock felt like in 1840? Since power lines were far away in distance and time, the only idea I have is static electricity or lightning.
    Any other ideas about to what she was referring?

  3. FrankM said

    According to the Online Etymology Dictionary (www.etymonline.com), the verb “shock” had a meaning of “to give (something) an electric shock” as early as 1706. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a 1748 date for the first occurrence of the phrase “electrical shock”, and a 1750 date for the phrase “electric shock”. Elizabeth Whitney’s comments were written in 1878, so there appears to have been enough time for this phrase to become familiar to the general public.

    Hope this helps!

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