In our time, charity is universally taken to refer to generous actions or donations to aid the poor, ill, or helpless. But in the old English language, it was a word that referred to a Greek word “agape”, meaning the love of Christians for other persons, corresponding to the love of God for humankind. As such, simplistically using the word love as a convenient substitute robs from charity its nuanced meaning. Charity - often simply called Christian love - is unlike any other expressions of human love, even though there are many similarities. Two dimensions mark charity as different, namely its sacrificial nature and its willingness to forgive.
Scripture records in Romans 5:8 an amazing declaration: But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. This cosmic gesture of affection can only have come from our heavenly Father because in giving His Son to die for me, He is acknowledging two facts: I am an undeserving sinner, and I have no means to repay this debt. This is divine magnanimity that reveals to me a mystery - to love the unlovable.
Once we recognize that the love God has bestowed upon us is not merely an emotion but an act of the will, we are forced to reevaluate how we love others. Specifically, we must reevaluate our categories. No longer can we parse our fellow humans into the categories of “lovable” and “unlovable. If love is an act of the will - not motivated by need, not measuring worth, not requiring reciprocity - then there is no such category as “unlovable.”
Obviously loving someone who is lovable is humanly natural; it is loving the unlovable that takes us out of the ordinary and comfort zone. Which is why many say that it is easier said than done and do not even bother to try. The excuse is plausible: I don't want to be a hypocrite. I was assisted tremendously by the idea of “disinterested love”. Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622) taught and wrote about a new kind of love, “Disinterested Love”. Disinterested love meant a loving attraction to a person or thing only because of the love of God. By love, Francis meant a movement of the heart towards what is found to be good…. an outpouring and progress of the heart towards the good, which aims at union with God.
The other aspect of charity is eloquently described in Psalm 103:10-12:
10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. 11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; 12 as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
Love forgives. And because God forgives, I am expected to forgive those who have transgressed against me. And if I ever wonder how serious the Lord is about forgiveness, Jesus told Peter he had to forgive seventy times seven in Matthew 18:22. Unfortunately I am a poor imitator of God's forgiveness. I am fundamentally unwilling to forgive those who have wronged me, especially those who are unrepentant and even when I try to forgive, I have to try over and over to make any decent progress.
There are only two motivations for me to forgive: a) God expects me to b) I set a prisoner free each time I forgive and that prisoner is me. How then do I overcome my reluctance to forgive? I have learned to focus on my own pitiful state and the amazing grace that the Lord has forgiven me even though I am unworthy. I have also learned to be patient with myself because unlike my Lord, I have to make repeated dismal attempts at authentic forgiveness.
It is said in the King James version of 1 Corinthians 13:13: And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. I have finally come to appreciate why charity is ranked above the other Christian virtues. It is when I am able to express true charity that I am most like my Lord. The Apostle John has summed up this pivotal truth in 1 John 4:10-12:
10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
May His love be made complete in me.