Love First, Love Last

As powerful as human love can be, it cannot compare with the unique love Jesus taught and exemplified. In fact, Christ’s love is so specialized the scriptures sometimes employ a different word to distinguish it from the ordinary concept. This word in the English scriptures is Charity. Unlike Charity, “which never faileth”, but “endureth forever” (Moroni 7:45, 47), worldly love is fickle, prone to fall in and out of our hearts depending on circumstances. Like ordinary love, Charity needs to be experienced to be understood. God shares his love with us, and after realizing how deeply he loves us, we might be inspired to reciprocate or even emulate His love. “We love him because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).  

Charity does not come naturally to the natural man. Instead it is a gift we receive through prayer. Prayer is a form of work, something we must exercise regularly; this is especially true for the reception and retention of Charity. The scriptures urge us to “pray unto the father with all the energy of heart” to be “filled with this love” (Moroni 7:48). The exercise of this type of prayer can have a cardiovascular effect, which increases the capacity of our hearts to love with more breadth and depth for longer. Receiving Charity trains us in the art of loving first. 

Although very common, measuring another’s interest in loving us as a condition to loving them is more shallow than the love we are capable of through Christ. Christ “first loved us” and his love pushes us to do the same (1 John 4:19). So before we have enough information about someone to judge whether they merit our time and effort, we can choose to love them first. We don’t have to wrap our minds around someone else’s world until we find common ground in order to love. We can push past loving people just because we can see in them things we understand and love about ourselves to loving them just because. When we pray for Charity, we can include an object, a specific person, for whom we can learn to love first. Sometimes this object we are praying to love should be ourselves.

Being “filled with Charity” is not an ability limited to loving others despite their weaknesses, but also ourselves. Sometimes we can learn to appreciate the sordid pasts of others and love them today regardless, but find ourselves loathing our own history so much that we become restlessly uncomfortable in our own skin. Christ’s love comes to us as a comfort, precisely because it comes to us through the “Comforter” (Moroni 8:26). The reception of Charity reminds us that we are not only meant to be the messenger of Christ’s love, but also a receptacle; we are meant to believe the message too. When we read that “[Christ has] loved the world, even unto the laying down of [his] life for the world” (Ether 12:33), the world is not some wholly abstract phrase here, we are the world to him. Spiritual syntax demands that his loving us first not only move us to love him in return, but also love ourselves more completely, which multiplies our ability to love, period.

When we believe Christ’s love for us, we naturally want to love like him (see John 13:34). Our role as an appreciative consumer of his love prepares us to become a distributor too as Christ’s Charity drives us to pour out our hearts in love for others; a marvelous work, from which we can grow weary. As we continue our commitment to loving others, we might fear to expend our coveted reservoir of God’s love, a reservoir carved out originally by our fervent prayers and miraculously filled by the Lord. Just like the widow of Zidon, when we faithfully use up our all for others, we will witness how God will not allow our reservoir to fail (see 1 Kings 17:8-16). Prayer, our connection to the power of loving first, will also enable this love to last, because “perfect love…endureth by diligence unto prayer” (Moroni 8:26). 

It can be overwhelming to realize the implications of an infinite love, but this weighty gift of Charity mercifully comes with a manual. The same Comforter that delivers the package of perfect love to us also is the manual for its correct application. Charity is not a mandate to become a perpetual doormat or an unflinching punching bag. The Spirit “will show unto [us] all things what [we] should do” (2 Nephi 32:5), including what we should do with this most precious gift of His love. The Holy Ghost will prompt us not only to turn the other cheek at times (see Luke 6:29), but also to “[reprove] betimes with sharpness” (D&C 121:43). This repeated spiritual process of seeking Christ’s love and wandering through paths unknown to deliver it, will one day walk us back to Him. In this way, “when he shall appear we shall be like him,” because Charity, above all other gifts, sculpts us most closely into Christ’s image (see Moroni 7:48). After all, Christ’s image needs to be seen on more than paintings and sculptures, it needs to be witnessed in our acts and on our faces as we choose to love first and love last. 

Special thanks to the editing wizardry of my friend Katherine.

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Cell of Our Own Self-Esteem

Sometimes we incarcerate ourselves in the cell of our own self-esteem. We take our fears, insecurities, and sorrows and project them upon the actions and words of others including God. We read our own guilt into the silent glances of others and they appear to be judging us. We may feel that God is angry at us, when really we are angry at ourselves. We can become so defensive over our own issues that no matter the real motives behind what anyone else does or says, all we will see is offense. Like bars, these feelings prevent us from having real relationships, because we don’t see things or people “as they really are” (see Jacob 4:13), we see them as we are.

Seeing the world through the cell of our own self-esteem makes it difficult to see anything but ourselves. As we put ourselves in front of the correct focus it won’t matter how much light we have in our life, the world outside of us will blur from our developing myopia. Our own concerns are sharply in focus and overshadow everything else. In this way, it can become nearly impossible to see the sufferings or triumphs of those closest to us, because we cannot see past the bars of our own overinflated issues. We cannot be there for others, and it seems like no one is there for us. This extreme nearsightedness may also be termed as spiritual blindness, where we “walk[…] in darkness at noonday” (D&C 95:6).

Spiritual blindness is not a malady that is inflicted upon us, but something we do to ourselves; it is the equivalent of walking around with our eyes shut. This is not only foolish, but dangerous! Fortunately, it is part of Christ’s prophesied mission to “Go forth to them that sit in darkness” (1 Nephi 21:9), and he can free us from ourselves by revealing himself to us. If we allow Him into our lives, we will see His “goodness”, which should “awaken[s] [us]” to a deeper sense of the divine (Mosiah 4:5, see also Mormon 2:13).

Depending upon our circumstances, coming to know God can be an arresting, life altering, and a sudden stop on our own road to “Damascus” (see Acts 9). Sometimes repentance, our turning to him, can be as uncomfortable as the impact of a wrecking ball, a “mighty change” that can cause the walls to the cell of our own self esteem to “[fall] down” (Alma 5:14 and Joshua 6:20). It may also feel like a eucatastrophe, which J.R.R. Tolkien defined as a “sudden joyous turn”, a joy “beyond the walls of this world, poignant as grief” (*).

Although repentance is often portrayed in dramatic one-time occurrences in scripture, for many of us this mighty change happens, almost imperceptibly, in the “process of time” (Moses 7:4). The experience of coming to know Christ and His atonement through repentance and reconciliation is a singular experience meant to be experienced regularly. It is a personal experience of such spiritual intimacy that in the Book of Mormon it is phrased as having “tasted of His love” (Mosiah 4:11).

It probably does not need to be said, but to taste something you put it in your mouth, you touch it with your tongue. This is the poetic way of referencing how personal and intimate our relationship with God can be. It is also exactly what we do every week at the sacrament. We take the bread, a symbol of his body, and we take the water, as a symbol of his blood, and we eat and drink them in remembrance of Him. The portions are small, but enough for us to “feast upon his love…forever” (Jacob 3:2). Through the sacrament, we memorialize the day when, or perhaps more likely the process of time through which, “Christ hath made us free” from ourselves (Galatians 5:1). We can then step out of our self-esteem to love and be loved.

Endnotes

* J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in The Monster and the Critics and Other Essays (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997) 153-157.

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