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The Greatest of These Is Charity

"The Greatest of These Is Charity"

During winter semester John and I had the opportunity to teach a special Book of Mormon class. We studied the “last lectures” of the prophets in that book of scripture. When a prophet or any person knows that his mortal life is about to end, he teaches his most important, urgent, and compelling message to his people and his family. Many of these final sermons were given from a father to his beloved sons, as he was passing the baton to the next generation. What did the prophet/parent most want them to know, to remember, to live? These words were offered in love, with the desire that they would bless all who hear and heed them. The final assignment for the students in the class was to write their own last lecture -- the message they felt would be most important for loved ones to hear from them. The resulting papers tutored me in powerful and beautiful principles.

I took the assignment upon myself as I anticipated being able to speak to you at the beginning of this unique spring semester. I, too, want to teach about a principle and doctrine that is of greatest importance to me and has unparalleled power to transform our lives.

Both Mormon and Moroni teach in their last lectures in the Book of Mormon that love, the pure love of Christ, or charity is the greatest of the attributes one can attain to. They are living in the last days of the great Nephite civilization when wickedness abounds. It is a society racked with warfare and hatred. Somehow Mormon is still able to love his people. He is able to raise a righteous son in a horrible environment because of the influence or power of the love of God in his life.

So he knows from personal experience that which he teaches, namely that “. . . charity suffereth long, and . . . rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth and hopeth and endureth all things. . . for charity never faileth. (Moroni 7:45-46)

This love endures forever. It never fails. We should pray with all of our energy to be filled with it, for “except ye have charity ye can in nowise be saved in the kingdom of God. . .” (Moroni 10:20)

Why is this pure love of Christ the greatest of all attributes, and why can’t we be saved in the Kingdom of God unless we are possessed of it?

As the apostle Paul taught in 1 Corinthians, other spiritual gifts may fade away in the eternities, but charity will never fail. It will endure and change us and purify us so we can live forever in the presence of Diety. When we have this pure love as a part of our very natures, we will be like Him, and we will finally be comfortable and joyful in His presence.

In another place, Paul taught that no matter what trials we go through in mortality, they will not separate us from the love of Christ. His love in our lives will provide the strength and power not only to endure but even to triumph through these challenges.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35, 37-39)

Both Mormon and Moroni were living proof of these truths about the power of Christ’s love transcending our trials. How grateful I am for their examples and teachings during our current distresses.

Have you noticed that love is always taught with superlative adjectives in the scriptures? This suggests to me that it is supreme or unsurpassed in its power, influence, energy, might, scope, sway, force and strength. It causes change, transformation, sustenance, healing, joy, and even salvation.

Jesus Christ himself taught that the first and great commandment is: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. . . And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Matthew 22:36-39) These are the greatest, supreme commandments – upon which “hang all the law and the prophets.” Elder Jeffrey R. Holland in our most recent General Conference emphasized that living these two great commandments is our supreme hope in these troubled times. He said,

“Undergirding all of this is our relentless hope for greater devotion to the two greatest of all commandments: to love God by keeping His counsel and to love our neighbors by showing kindness and compassion, patience and forgiveness. These two divine directives are still-- and forever will be—the only real hope we have for giving our children a better world than the one they now know.”

This ever-enduring, pure love of Christ has the power to transform this world.

In another scriptural reference, in the Book of Mormon, we learn about the “most desirable” of all fruit. In his famous tree of life vision, Lehi said the fruit from the tree was “sweet, above all that I ever before tasted and exceed[ed] all the whiteness that I had ever seen.” And when Nephi asked what this fruit represented, he learned “. . . it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things. . . Yea, and the most joyous to the soul.” (1 Nephi 11:21-23) Here again the love of God is described in superlative adjectives, because it is the fruit that has the power to bring joy and salvation in our lives.

Even great philosophers and playwrights praise this quality as supreme. Sophocles said, “One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life: That word is love.” (Oedipus at Colonus, p. 161-162)

How is the love of God a force that beareth and endureth all things? One way I understand the phrase “the love of God” was taught to me years ago by my insightful husband. He explained that the preposition “of” in the phrase the “love of God” can mean “love from God,” “love for God,” or “love like God.” This brings richness and fulness of meaning and understanding for me. When I feel love from God, I have the “strength to do all things”. It propels me forward in goodness, in goals, in perspective. It heals my soul. When I feel love for God, I want to obey his commandments, as the Savior taught, “if ye love me, keep my commandments.” And I have increased ability to sacrifice to build his kingdom and do His will. When I love like God, I act as his instrument, his force for good in someone else’s life. My love is Christ-like.

There are examples of the transformative influence of the love of God throughout the scriptures, in history, in biographies, in children’s literature, in real life. I first learned about the power of love in my home from my parents.

It was in hundreds of little ways-- like singing nighttime lullabies, speaking kind and affirming words, meeting my physical needs, giving me opportunities to learn and to serve, teaching me to recognize and utilize the Holy Ghost. This loving environment gave me strength to press forward when life became more complicated and difficult. With an earthly experience of this kind of love, it was easy to feel of a heavenly parent’s love for me as well.

My relationship with my own dear father helped me to know and understand the love of my Heavenly Father. When I was very young, I would get up early in the morning and go to my dad’s tiny unfinished study, to be by his side while he studied. At night he would sing songs to me as I fell asleep. I wanted to feel of his strength and his love the first thing in the morning and the last thing at night. Though I’ve grown to greater independence, I never outgrew that need for fatherly love and strength. The earthly pattern I learned in my home made it so natural to go to my Heavenly Father in prayer each morning and night for those needs.

In a virtual family home evening a few weeks ago, our daughter described a scenario that helped her to feel love from God by feeling love from her earthly father. Even though it happened over twenty years ago when she was a teenager, it was indelibly imprinted in her heart. At a moment when she was struggling, John enveloped her in an understanding hug. As she prayed that night, she distinctly felt that same reassuring hug from her Heavenly Father.

Feeling this kind of love from Him, provides comfort—even joy, and keeps one pressing forward.

In my childhood home, I also knew of my parents’ love for the Lord by the way they kept His commandments, by the way they accepted callings to serve Him. Their love for him gave them the strength to sacrifice, to serve in ways that were stretching and difficult, year after year, sometimes far from home. My dad had to sell a family business in order to accept a call to serve a mission. My mother had to leave her widowed mother. I knew their actions transcended personal convenience and were grounded in their love for Him.

And because they loved Him, they also kept the second great commandment. Because when we love and serve others, helping one of the “least of these my brethren,” we are doing it unto Him. My mom helped her alcoholic brother time and again, with his addiction, with his children, never giving up on him, until he finally overcame this drinking problem in the final years of his life. My parents chose to love one of my brothers through his “hippy-hair” stage, rather than estrange him. Their love had the power to help and heal and change these needy ones, as Christ has done for each of us. They were instruments in God’s hands.

We often feel God’s love for us through someone who acts as His instrument. Perhaps some might not have had that same love in their growing-up homes, but you can be the instrument for that love in your current and future homes. President Spencer W. Kimball said something I have treasured for years:

“God does notice us, and he watches over us. But it is usually through another person that he meets our needs. Therefore, it is vital that we serve each other in the kingdom.” (Ensign, Dec 1974, p. 5)

Recently I read a book about a prisoner who was wrongly charged with murder and sentenced to death. One of the most impressive parts of his story for me was how the power of the love of God as taught to him by his mother governed his life through almost 30 years on death row until he was finally proven innocent.

His name was Ray Hinton, a black man, who grew up in a poor family in the southern United States. His mother believed in God and taught her son to love and forgive. Remarkably his mother and one friend visited him every week during his entire time in prison. Nevertheless, Ray spent the first three years in prison in angry silence, with a hatred in his soul for being unjustly incarcerated. But one night a person locked in the cell next to his was crying uncontrollably. This man’s pleas “Oh God. Help me, God. . .” touched Ray and opened his heart for the first time in a long while. This is what he said:

“The man started crying again, and I realized that I was crying too. . . and I wept silently for a man I didn’t even know, who was most likely a killer, but who also wept in the dark, all alone . . . . I was on death row not by my own choice, but I had made the choice to spend the last three years thinking about killing. Despair was a choice. Hatred was a choice; anger was a choice. I still had choices, and that knowledge rocked me. I could choose to give up or to hang on. Hope was a choice. Faith was a choice. And more than anything else, love was a choice. Compassion was a choice.” (The Sun Does Shine, by Anthony Ray Hinton, pp 145-7)

So then for the first time in 3 years, Ray called out in the darkness, “Hey, are you all right over there? Whatever it is, it’s going to be okay.” Finally, the man sobbed, “I just. . . I just got word . . . that my mom died.” Ray then said,

“I can’t describe exactly what it is to have your heart break open, but in that moment, my heart broke wide open and I wasn’t a convicted killer on death row; I was Ray Hinton . . . my mama’s son.” He said to the man, “I’m sorry. I really am.”

Then another voice from the dark expressed his sympathy, then another, and another. Ray then asked the man to tell them about his mom. And all of these inmates listened for two hours as the bereaved convict told story after story about his wonderful mother who was “tough, but full of love,” he said.

Finally Ray describes this pivotal personal change in himself.

“I wasn’t expecting to have my heart break that night. I wasn’t expecting to end three years of silence. It was a revelation to realize that I wasn’t the only man on death row. I was born with the same gift from God we are all born with—the impulse to reach out and lessen the suffering of another human being. It was a gift, and we each had a choice whether to use this gift or not.

Ray’s heart had been newly opened by the gift of charity, the gift that never fails.

Ray continued over the next 27 years sharing the love of God with his neighbor prisoners. He experienced Paul’s words that nothing, “tribulation or distress or persecution . . . [can] separate us from the love of God.” Ray Hinton changed lives through the power of his love, softening hearts in some of the most hardened criminals and sorrowful human beings.

This is a profound experience. But in contrast, even the smallest acts in very ordinary circumstances can also make a big difference. Our third-grade grandson had a schoolteacher last year who did not believe in him, which negatively affected his behavior. This year at a new school, he has a teacher who regularly tells James how much she loves him and affirms him in his schoolwork. He is a happy changed little boy, both at school and at home, responding to the miracle of love.

Love changes our hearts, our nature at its core. As a prayer I once heard pled, “Bless our hard hearts to be softened, our weak hearts to be strengthened, our wounded hearts to be healed, and our impure hearts to be purified.” Charity softens, strengthens, heals, and purifies.

Certainly, the most tender moments in the last lectures in the Book of Mormon are the father-to-son farewells. The desire of the parent for the righteous well-being of his child is uppermost on a father’s mind. And the power of this love is the force which strengthens the child, propelling him to press on.

Enos, in the Book of Mormon is such a son. He was taught in the nurture and admonition of his earthly father and then sought to know of that same love and direction from his Heavenly Father. When he received a remission of his sins, he was empowered with God’s love and able to lead his people in love.

Likewise, when Moses had his face-to-face conversation with God, he knew, really knew, he was a beloved son of God. It gave him power to rebuke Satan, to call upon the Holy Ghost, to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt, to part waters and walk upon dry ground. This love from God gave him the strength to fulfill his mission.

During the most recent April General Conference, I made a note each time we were taught about the power of love. Elder Neil L. Andersen’s explained that spiritual experiences in our lives are always accompanied by a feeling of God’s love. He said:

“Over the years, I have listened to thousands of profoundly spiritual experiences from Latter-day Saints all across the world, confirming to me beyond any question that God knows and loves each of us and that He eagerly desires to reveal Himself to us. These experiences may come at pivotal times in our lives or in what may at first seem as uneventful happenings, but they are always accompanied by an exceptionally strong spiritual confirmation of the love of God.” (General Conference, April 2020)

I needed that confirmation when I was first called to serve as Young Women president for the Church. It came in a way I didn’t anticipate. I felt terrified and inadequate, lying awake at night worrying, repenting, and crying. After several nights of this I had a very moving experience. I started thinking about my Young Women nieces, then about the Young Women in my neighborhood and ward, then about the Young Women I saw regularly at the high school, and then I envisioned young women throughout the world, over a half a million of them. The most wonderfully warm feeling began to envelop me and surge through me. I felt such exquisite love for them, each one of them, and I knew that what I was feeling was our Heavenly Father’s love for them, for each of them – and for me. It was powerful and all-encompassing. For the first time I felt peace, because I knew that what Heavenly Father wanted me to do, I could do. He wanted me to witness to share with young women everywhere of His great love for them.

I know that when Heavenly Father gives us assignments to work with His children, he endows us with love for them, his perfect, powerful love. I testify that He loves His children, each of us. He has a plan for us, and He will ever be there to lead us and love us.

During this worldwide pandemic, many of us have felt anxious and despairing. We have had an increased desire to feel assured of God’s love. Recently in my need I had one of those strong spiritual confirmations mentioned by Elder Andersen. I needed both physical and spiritual healing, which both came through the power of God’s love.

In March, five days after I had traveled back here to Hawaii from the mainland, I got sick. I had tightness in my chest, achiness, coughing, and a low fever. (My sons-in-law who are both doctors urged me to get tested, which I did. The test results took 8 days to be returned, so I quarantined myself very impatiently.) Nighttime was the worst, because when I lay down, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. The physical symptoms were real, but at night after John had fallen asleep, another dimension set in. I started to panic. Then I really couldn’t breathe. I needed help. I prayed for guidance in what to do, and also to feel reassurance and comfort. I testify that my prayers were answered with thoughts that came to my mind and peace that came to my heart to help me relax. I knew I also needed a priesthood blessing.

In the blessing John pronounced upon me, he briefly reassured me that I would heal. But the rest of the rather detailed blessing was about Heavenly Father’s and Jesus Christ’s love for me. I was overwhelmed with the surge of strength I felt in their love. I have always known that I am a daughter of Heavenly parents who love me, but I needed this profound reminder at this time. The power of that love strengthened me. I immediately and rapidly began to feel better. There is a supreme force and might in love that heals all ills, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. My physical sickness started to dissipate as my spirit started to soar. God’s love brought unspeakable joy to my soul. God’s love healed me.

We felt a similar miracle on Easter Sunday. Our special-needs grandson loves and is beloved with an unparalleled purity. But his earthly situation is challenging and bewildering for us. Nothing about the manifestations of his syndrome are normal or even well known. But we feel that he, too, will be healed through Christ’s love and atonement one day. Little Jack’s contribution to our family zoom meeting that day was to sing the “God of Miracles.” Miraculously this came from a 5-year-old whose diagnosis was that he would probably never talk at all. Nevertheless, he belted out these words:

“Jesus is a god of miracles

Nothing is at all impossible to Him

But I know this:

Of all his miracles the most incredible must be

The miracle that rescues me--

The miracle that rescues you and me.

I witness to you that the power of charity or the love of God rescues each of us no matter what our special needs are.

The pure love of Christ is embodied in His final earthly act, or “last lecture,” as it were, the Atonement. It is the supreme act of love. He said,

“And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me. …” (3 Nephi 27:14)

The Atonement draws us to Him, to feel His pure love. It transforms us to be like Him, to be perfected in Him. It never fails. It endures throughout the eternities.

The Atonement is Jesus Christ’s love for His Father -- loving with all his heart, might, mind and strength, willingly suffering both physically and spiritually beyond our comprehension. The Atonement is Jesus Christ loving like God, loving all of us, God’s children, his brothers and sisters, exemplifying that: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) The Atonement is Jesus Christ fulfilling the Father’s plan because of His absolute assurance of love from the Father, knowing He is “His beloved son, in whom [God] is well-pleased.”

Elder Dale G. Renlund further explained Christ’s atoning love:

“. . . remember that the Savior loves to restore what you cannot restore; He loves to heal wounds you cannot heal; He loves to fix what has been irreparably broken; He compensates for any unfairness inflicted on you and He loves to permanently mend even shattered hearts. As I have reflected on gifts from our Heavenly Father and from Jesus Christ, I have come to know of Their infinite love and Their incomprehensible compassion for all Heavenly Father’s children. This knowledge has changed me, and it will change you too.” (April 2020)

In the end my parents passed the baton to us of the next generation. And in our final days and hours together they provided a capstone on all of their sermons on love in two simple experiences.

The day before Dad died, we invited each person in the family to have a walk-through visit with him, quick and tender. He was in so much pain. But he hid that from view, as he focused on each individual and expressed his love and admiration and hopes for them, as he had always done. The power of that visit has lingered in the hearts of his posterity. Then as I sat by his side the next day, his final, silent message to me was a hand-squeeze, not powerful physically, but a squeeze that spoke of a perfect love that will endure forever.

In Mom’s last days, the men in the family surrounded her with their hands on her head, pronouncing a priesthood blessing. I peered in as well. She opened her eyes at the conclusion, looking at each one of us. The only word that she could muster was soft but clear: “love”. Her final word in mortality was the “greatest of these” – love -- giving us strength to press forward with steadfastness in Christ. . . and a love of God and of all men,” knowing that if we do, “[we] shall have eternal life.”

Their final words, their “last lectures,” sealed a lifetime of teaching that the love of God is “most desirable above all things. . . Yea, and the most joyous to the soul,” And that of all the spiritual gifts the “greatest of these is charity.”

And “except ye have charity ye can in nowise be saved in the kingdom of God. . .” because Christ’s pure, atoning love, not only changes us in this life, but it also transcends death. It endures forever.

I testify that the greatest of all the gifts is His pure love for us – the miracle that rescues you and me. May we pray with all the energy of our hearts to receive and share that gift -- charity.