Grandma Emily’s room in the nursing home was brightly bannered with birthday wishes from Varena and her family. However, Grandma simply sat, staring aimlessly into space, her wrinkled skin and missing teeth showing her advanced age.
“I wasn’t even sure if Varena’s grandmother recognized her,” remembers Brian, a friend. “But the awkwardness I felt soon disappeared as I observed this angel of mercy in action.” Varena gave her grandmother a drink and brushed her tangled hair, all the while talking in loving tones about past memories. She began to massage her grandmother’s shoulders, singing a lullaby she had learned from her as a child. “This is Grandma Emily’s favorite part,” Varena said, “when I brush my hand gently across her forehead.” Within moments Varena’s grandmother began to beam with recognition of her granddaughter. She tried to talk and express her love. “I remember thinking as I stood there,” said Brian, “that in a sense I was witnessing the gift of healing.”
I marvel at the power that a simple act of charity has in healing the human heart. Why can a loving word or look or listening ear change a life? Why is love such a powerful force?
I believe we knew the language of love in our premortal life. When we are loved, we recognize the same feelings we experienced regularly with our heavenly parents.
Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13:4–8 that charity is a pure love that exceeds all else: “Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up.
“Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
“Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
“Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
“Charity never faileth.” [1 Cor. 13:4–8]
Charity gives meaning and effect to our prayers (Alma 34:28); it helps us retain a remission of our sins (Mosiah 4:26–27); it is the basis for a celestial marriage (Eph. 5:25); it is greater than either faith or hope (1 Cor. 13:13). But charity is not merely a helpful gospel principle—it is the gospel. On it hang all the law and the prophets (Matt. 22:36–40); only by it can the power of the priesthood be maintained (D&C 121:41–45); because of it the Atonement was made (John 3:16). It is everlasting and never failing. (See 1 Cor. 13:8.)
Knowing all this, God has given us earthly bodies as well as a laboratory wherein we may practice pure love. Our earth life is an apprenticeship in learning how to become a celestial brother or sister, a loving heavenly parent. When we finish our earthly work, of many vital things, a charitable nature will still be the most important thing we take with us. Moroni says, “Except men shall have charity they cannot inherit that place which thou hast prepared in the mansions of thy Father.” (Ether 12:34.)
Our Heavenly Father has given us his church to help us preach the gospel, perfect the Saints, and redeem the dead. All of its auxiliaries and programs are designed to support us in our efforts to live the gospel, thus promoting love and service.
Gary*—a young, single man—was feeling out of place in his ward, which consisted mostly of families. He was unemployed and without a car when Mike* became his home teacher. “Looking back, I don’t remember that Mike ever gave me a formal lesson,” Gary said. “Instead, he would pick me up for church each Sunday, and since Mike was on the high council, he would take me along on his speaking assignments. With six children, Mike didn’t have much time, but he always had time for me. Often our visits in the car would extend long after each meeting as we exchanged the highs and the lows of the past week.
“Four months later when I had a car, Mike still gave me a ride because we enjoyed our long talks,” continued Gary. “One weekend he took me with his family to a college football game. Another weekend we worked together putting in his mailbox. Although Mike has since moved, we still keep in touch. We are truly eternal friends.”
A formal calling in the Church is not requisite for sharing the pure love of Christ, however. If we have made baptismal covenants, then we have covenanted to bear one another’s burdens and comfort our brothers and sisters, just as the Savior did. (See Mosiah 18:8–9.) This is what it means to take his name upon us.
Scott* and Jeri* reaped the benefits of living among Saints who loved them in this way. Scott had been excommunicated from the Church for twelve years when he and Jeri and their four children moved from Arizona to Virginia. They decided to go to church, they said, “for the sake of the kids.” Scott steadfastly maintained he would never rejoin though he knew in his heart that the Church was right.
From the moment they drove into the parking lot, they were warmly welcomed. When ward members learned of Scott’s Church status, they didn’t gossip or expect him to give a long explanation of his past.
No one judged him. “They liked me for who I was,” says Scott. “After that first Sunday, we never missed church again.”
About a year and a half later, Scott was rebaptized, and eventually his priesthood blessings were restored. A son and daughter born when he was not a member were sealed to the couple in the Washington Temple. “We’ll never forget watching our two children walk into the celestial room dressed in white,” Jeri reminisces. “There must have been at least seventy ward members with us. What made it so great was that everyone there was our family—it was not a ward, it was a family! These people had loved us through our ups and downs and comforted us in our times of discouragement. Without our friends we wouldn’t have made it.”
Scott’s bishop at the time observed, “Knowing that a loving ward presented the best climate for individual growth and development, we worked hard as a ward at ‘having our hearts knit together in unity and in love one towards another,’ as Alma counseled. (Mosiah 18:21.) As bishop, I saw the Lord direct many people like Scott to our ward for their personal growth because of the climate that existed there.”
The unity of which the bishop speaks also describes the city of Enoch: “And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind.” (Moses 7:18.) When we seek to love one another as the Lord loves us, we are filled with charity and are on our way to becoming a people worthy of Zion, preparing to live with God in a celestial state.
Nowhere should we express charity more than within our own homes among those we know best. Though it is easy to become tangled in the “weeds” of criticizing family members, we should work to look past their superficial faults to the good that lies within each of them. As we accept and love unconditionally, looking forward with an eye of faith toward what our partners or our children may become, we help them realize their potential.
President Joseph F. Smith counseled, “However wayward [children] might be, … when you speak or talk to them, do it not in anger, do it not harshly, in a condemning spirit. Speak to them kindly; get them down and weep with them if necessary and get them to shed tears with you if possible. Soften their hearts; get them to feel tenderly toward you. Use no lash and no violence, but … approach them with reason, with persuasion and love unfeigned.” (Gospel Doctrine, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1977, p. 316.) “You will observe that the most potent influence over the mind of a child to persuade it to learn, to progress, or to accomplish anything, is the influence of love.” (Gospel Doctrine, p. 294.)
Though the Lord specifically commands us to train our children, he does not give us a similar admonition in regard to our spouses. Because of the sealing ordinance, it is easy to mistakenly believe Satan when he whispers that since a husband and wife belong to each other, they can control each other. The Lord warns us, however, that when we seek to exercise control over any soul, either openly or subtly, His spirit is grieved and withdraws. (See D&C 121:37.)
“No one worth possessing can be quite possessed,” said the poet Sara Teasdale. (Mirror of the Heart, New York City: Macmillan, 1984, p. 122.) We must remember that we do not possess our friends, our spouse, or even our children. The one thing we each can possess is our own soul, “in patience” (D&C 101:38), recognizing that pure love is patient and “suffereth long” (1 Cor. 13:4).
Possessing our own souls in patience means that in the process of expressing love to others, we need not overstep our own physical or emotional limits. (Mosiah 4:27.) Living a Christlike life doesn’t mean we must single-handedly save our spouse, the office, the ward, or the world. It does mean we can aid our brothers and sisters with love and encouragement as we progress through life. It does mean we must care for and replenish ourselves regularly so that we are fuller, purer vessels from which others may draw sustenance.
As we become more charitable, however, we will yet see more opportunities to exercise charity, and life may become a bit overwhelming. When we feel we have more to do than there are hours in the day, it is helpful to remember that the pure love of Christ is often best expressed in small and simple ways.
Judy* had such an experience. “It was probably the bleakest time in my life,” she recalls. “My divorce had been long and bitter, and I missed being with my four children. For six months I had been working with Dr. Susan Nelson*, a therapist who helped me recognize that I was partially responsible for what had happened. For the first time, I had to confront my personal weaknesses that, until then, I had denied. It all seemed so overwhelming to me.
“One late spring afternoon in Dr. Nelson’s office, as I was speaking of everything precious I had lost, I looked up to see tears slipping down her cheeks. It surprised me. ‘If a paid therapist can care so much about me,’ I thought, ‘why can’t I care that much about myself?’ Tears began to roll down my face for the first time in years. It was the turning point. In her loving and caring way, Dr. Nelson reminded me that I am a child of God. I could then value myself enough to let go of the past and move on with my life.”
As all these experiences show, charity need not be simply giving money or cookies or needed conversation, though these have their place. First and foremost, we should regard charity as a way of being Christlike—the way we think about one another, the way we treat each other, the way we live and love daily. What great power lies in this pure love—a power of knowing and being known beyond what we can see.
Mormon urges us to “pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (Moro. 7:48.) It is one matter to recognize the Savior’s form and features; it will be quite another matter to recognize his spirit because we are like him.
When I think of this principle, I remember a brief encounter with a charitable influence in my own life. One December I found myself facing some unexpected surgery, the outcome of which was uncertain. As I slowly began to awaken in the recovery room, surrounded by a blur of white, I distinctly felt someone’s hands taking my vital signs and ministering to my needs. The hands felt competent and caring, and they conveyed such a sense of peace and comfort to me that I immediately knew all was well.
Despite my semi-anesthetized state, the experience made a vivid imprint on my spirit, so much so that upon fully awakening back in my room, I still recalled the touch of those hands. All during the week as I lay in the hospital, many nurses cared for me, but I never found the one I was looking for.
The morning of my release, a nurse came in to do a last-minute check. As she began I immediately recognized her touch. “I’ve never seen you, but you’ve taken care of me before, haven’t you?” I said.
“Yes,” she said, surprised, “but only once. I cared for you in recovery five days ago.” Though that experience was more than five years ago, I can still recall the kindness and charity conveyed in the touch of her hands.
I believe it is that same spiritual recognition of pure love that will cause us to know the Savior when he comes and cause him to know us. The Savior said:
“I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.
“As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10:14–15.)
May we pattern our lives after the Good Shepherd, feeding his sheep with charity, so that we may truly know him and that he may recognize us as one of his fold.
Invite someone who is alone at church to sit with you.
Bite your tongue. Practice pure love by not doing or saying anything injurious.
Do not label the people in your life. Labeling limits the way we perceive others, and worse yet, the way they perceive themselves.
Keep a friend in mind as you pray, and ask Heavenly Father for ways you can help him or her.
Make friends outside your normal group, including those who are younger or older than you, or of a different marital or economic standing.
Allow friends to change by forgetting their past and expressing belief in their future. We’ve all heard, “It’s the first day of the rest of your life.” Well, it’s the first day of someone else’s life, too.
Express pure love to Heavenly Father by being obedient. Remember, he said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15.)