What Love Is Love but God’s? A Case for Charity

Timothy G. Merrill, “What Love Is Love but God’s? A Case for Charity,” Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium 2006 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2006), 73–85.

What Love Is Love but God’s? A Case for Charity

Timothy G. Merrill

The Tower of Babel destroyed almost all hope of coming to a consensus of what love really means.[1] Language is hopelessly inadequate when talking about love. The Prophet Joseph Smith lamented, “Oh, Lord, deliver us in thy due time from the little narrow prison almost as it were totel darkness of paper pen and ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect language.”[2] Poets and prophets have aspired to describe love with varying success. Many view it as a transcendent and inexplicable power that defies generalization because of its subjective and personal nature: “Love is a mystery which, when solved, evaporates.”[3] Others view love less mystically: “Because it is part of the physical universe, love has to be lawful. Like the rest of the world, it is governed and described by principles we can discover but cannot change. If we only knew where and how to look, we should be able to find emotional laws whose actions a person could no more resist than he could the force of gravity if he fell off a cliff.”[4]

While many kinds of love exist, I will focus on the love of God, which is also called charity (see Ether 12:34). I will not cover all aspects of God’s love but will address the following three questions: (1) What relationship exists between faith, hope, and charity? (2) What is the nature of and relationship between the first and second great commandments? (3) What conditions accompany God’s love? In this explorative essay, I do not presume to have definitive answers to these questions but offer what insights my limitations allow.

The account of the brother of Jared teaches that the best way to learn about God’s love is to experience it firsthand: when confronted with the Lord’s finger, the brother of Jared was not satisfied until he saw His hand, arm, and body also. Lehi understood the relationship between love and revelation when he said, “I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love” (2 Nephi 1:15). It seems the fullest expression of God’s love may occur only in His presence (see John 14:21; Ether 12:39; D&C 67:13, 10). That is why the scriptures do not overly concern themselves with what love is as they do with Who love is. Christ Himself teaches us the true nature of love.

The Prophet Joseph promised, “Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject.”[5] The best way to learn about love, then, is to experience the Lord’s “pure love” (Moroni 7:46). Afterward, we will be able to better heed the commandment, “And above all things, clothe yourselves with the bond of charity, as with a mantle, which is the bond of perfectness and peace” (D&C 88:125; emphasis added). This passage either indicates that the most important thing we can do is seek for charity or that charity transcends all other virtues, or both. Whatever its meaning, love is a defining attribute of all celestial beings (see Moroni 7:48).

Faith, Hope, and Charity

How can faith and hope enrich our understanding of charity? It is not uncommon for a doctrine to become distorted when removed from its peers and the broader gospel context. In the case of charity, C. S. Lewis cautioned that “the truth that God is love may slyly come to mean for us the converse, that love is God.”[6] The Lord intended we worship Him, not His attributes. Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught that “the gospel’s principles do require synchronization. When pulled apart from each other or isolated, men’s interpretations and implementation of these doctrines may be wild.”[7] Perhaps this is why both Paul and Mormon, on different hemispheres and at different epochs, linked faith, hope, and charity. Was it coincidence? If not, what is the special relationship between these three principles? For example, why not diligence, virtue, and charity; or patience, knowledge, and charity? There must be a reason that these three were singled out from among all the attributes of godliness. Both prophets also elevate charity as the preeminent of the three: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (1 Corinthians 13:13); “Wherefore, cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all, for all things [else] must fail” (Moroni 7:46). The similarities between the teachings of Paul and Mormon on faith, hope, and charity are too numerous and profound to be coincidental.

What is faith? For our purposes, let us define it as an “assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Joseph Smith Translation, Hebrews 11:1). Faith and hope enjoy a reciprocal relationship wherein hope builds upon faith and reinforces it: “We obtain a hope, and [therefore] our faith becometh unshaken” (Jacob 4:6). The scriptures teach that by faith we obtain the promises or assurances of God (see Ether 12:20–22). After we understand the mind and will of God by revelation, our hope grows stronger. Carefully read the chronology of faith and hope in the following verse written by Helaman about his stripling warriors: “Yea, and it came to pass that the Lord our God did visit us with assurances that he would deliver us; yea, insomuch that he did speak peace unto our souls, and did grant unto us great faith, and did cause us that we should hope for our deliverance in him” (Alma 58:11). Thus, our faith and hope focus on the same goal: God’s promises and assurances.

There is a catch, however. Moroni informed us that “ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith” (Ether 12:6). After we receive the promise we enter a probationary period to see if we truly believe our Lord is “a God of truth, and canst not lie” (Ether 3:12). In the end, the test is always about our faith in Christ. The test is this: do I trust the Lord to keep His promise to me? For example, if people are blessed by priesthood holders to be healed, will they trust the Lord to keep His word the next morning when they wake up sicker than ever? If we doubt or fear, then the promise is revoked (see D&C 58:31–32).

The Apostle Paul illustrated these principles in the life of Abraham: “By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called” (Hebrews 11:17–18). The Lord had promised Abraham that the covenant would flow through Isaac, and now he was supposed to sacrifice him? Abraham could have doubted the promise, could have decided that the Lord had changed His mind, could have found reasons why Isaac was no longer chosen. But because of his remarkable faith, he had something else in mind altogether: “Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead” (v. 19). For Abraham, it was unthinkable that the Lord would not keep His word—and so, even while raising the knife to plunge into his son, he naturally assumed that God would raise Isaac from the dead so His promise could be fulfilled. That is faith and hope!

What role, then, does charity play? Joseph Smith said, “Until we have perfect love we are liable to fall and when we have a testimony that our names are sealed in the Lamb’s Book of life we [will] have perfect love.”[8] Notice that the Prophet taught that the fullness of charity can be had only by those who have already had their names sealed in the book of life, or, as Mormon put it, those who have received a “hope through the atonement of Christ and the power of his resurrection, to be raised unto life eternal, and this because of your faith in him according to the promise” (Moroni 7:41). Perhaps this is why the Savior equated charity with “the bond of perfectness” (D&C 88:125). It may be that experiencing this form of divine love is akin to receiving the baptism of fire, after which if we deny Christ “it would have been better for you that ye had not known me” (2 Nephi 31:14; see also v. 20).

It is clear that these three principles are related, but is that all? Consider the ancient legend of the Sphinx. According to Greek mythology, the Sphinx sat outside the city of Thebes and asked all travelers the same riddle. An incorrect answer brought death. The riddle was: “What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?” Oedipus correctly answered, “A man, who crawls on all fours as a baby, walks on two legs as an adult, and walks with a cane in old age.” Like the man from the riddle who progressed through several stages of life, perhaps faith, hope, and charity are not separate attributes but are the same or similar attribute at different levels of maturity. How might this be so?

For a moment, consider the converse of each. What are the opposites of faith, hope, and charity? One of the greatest philosophical statements in the Book of Mormon is that “it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11). The dictionary defines opposite this way: “Being the other of two complementary or mutually exclusive things.”[9] Take, for example, a color wheel: the opposite of green is red; the opposite of blue is orange. A thing can have only one opposite.

First, let us consider the opposite of faith. Fear and doubt cripple our faith because they cause our belief to “waiver” (see James 1:6–8). The author of the Lectures on Faith indicated that fear and doubt “preclude the possibility of the exercise of faith in [God] for life and salvation.”[10] Because of their inherent opposition, “doubt and faith do not exist in the same person at the same time; so that persons whose minds are under doubts and fears cannot have unshaken confidence.”[11] They are mutually exclusive; you cannot have faith to move a mountain while thinking it is impossible. Since Mormon taught that faith and hope are inseparable (see Moroni 7:42), let us assume that the same logic applies to hope: you cannot hope for eternal life while fearing you are unworthy of it.

Now we come to another astonishing duplication of scripture from both the old and new worlds: “Perfect love casteth out all fear” (Moroni 8:16; emphasis added); “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear. . . . He that feareth is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18). These verses support our criterion for judging opposites: two things that are mutually exclusive. While hate or indifference are often viewed as the opposite of love, could it be that the true opposite is fear? Fear serves as spiritual friction. Newton’s First Law of Motion states that bodies put in motion will move at a constant speed indefinitely unless acted upon by an opposing force. Fear is the opposing force that hinders our eternal progression by crippling our faith, hope, and charity. The Lord said, “Ye endeavored to believe, . . . but behold . . . there were fears in your hearts, and verily this is the reason that ye did not receive” (D&C 67:3). If we would overcome fear, we must become, as our Savior, a Being of perfect love. Faith is the seed, hope is the tree, and charity is the fruit that seals us to Christ which, when ripe, falls to the ground and plants seeds to renew the celestial cycle.

The Great Commandment

A lawyer approached the Savior and asked, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” (Matthew 22:36). The lawyer posed a loaded question (see v. 35) and was likely to dissect the answer with legal precision. Carefully ponder the Lord’s response as though it were part of a legal code: “Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (vv. 37–39).

The Lord chose to give not only the first but also the second great commandment. And a formal commandment it was—equipped with Sinaitic “thou shalts” coming from the original Lawgiver Himself.[12] While the two commandments are related, they are different in nature and scope. Elder Neal A. Maxwell said, “[The] first commandment includes all of our heart, soul, and mind. . . . True, the second commandment is like unto the first, but it isn’t the first commandment. We worship the perfect object of that first commandment, God. . . . We do not worship neighbors [or ourselves].”[13] It is critical to follow the two commandments in the proper order.

Let us begin with the first commandment, which requires all our heart, soul, and mind. Taking the Lord’s words at face value, what percentage is “all”? It is one hundred percent. This is key to understanding what the Lord is teaching about love. But if we give God all our love, what love is left for our neighbor? None. It appears the Lord never intended us to love each other with our love but with His. Why would this be so?

Imagine you are thirsty and ask me for a drink. I walk down to the lake and take a dirty jar and fill it with polluted water: slime sinks to the bottom, leeches swim to the top. I return to you and offer you the water. Would you like to drink it? Of course not. Human love is like the water because it is impure. Human love is easily hurt, snubbed, and offended. Our “love” has strings attached to it; it is insecure, selfish, and needy. Compared to murky water, Christ’s love is “like a spring of water, whose waters fail not” (Isaiah 58:11), even “a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14). His love has the constancy ours does not, a love that “never faileth, . . . [while] all things must fail” (Moroni 7:46) because it is not of human origin, nor is it of this world (see 1 John 2:15–17). Thus, God wants us to be filled with His love, not our own. We can be stewards of His love just as we are of His earth. For “charity is the pure love of Christ” (Moroni 7:47; emphasis added). Is it not better to love and be loved with perfect love rather than imperfect love?

We keep the first commandment by consecrating our love. “To ‘consecrate,’ says the dictionary, means ‘to make or declare sacred or holy; to set apart, dedicate, devote to the service or worship of God.’”[14] All of it goes to God; we hold nothing back. The Father then commands us to pray that we may be filled with His love. “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, 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” (Moroni 7:48; emphasis added). According to this verse, charity is not cultivated but comes as a gift from God. Now that we have kept the first commandment, we may appropriately proceed to the second.

Is there a difference between the love we give God and the love we give to one another? Joseph Smith cautioned the Saints “not to set our affections too firmly upon others. . . . Our affections should be placed upon God and His work, more intensely than upon our fellow beings.”[15] Elder George F. Richards learned this in a special dream: “I dreamed of seeing the Savior and embracing him. The feeling I cannot describe, but I think it was a touch of Heaven. I never expect anything better hereafter. The love of man for woman cannot compare with it.”[16] Once we love God first and foremost, we can share His love with all men. The Prophet Joseph taught, “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.”[17] If we simply love our families but neglect our neighbors, that is not love but selfishness. Even the wicked love their children and take care of their own—but to be a Saint, the Savior taught during His ministry, we must specifically serve the poor, needy, sick, imprisoned, and so on. How can we obtain the kind of love to bless all men?

When we love our neighbor, our family, and our friends with charity, we can accomplish what was impossible with imperfect “love.” C. S. Lewis observed that only divine love enables men “to love what is not naturally lovable; lepers, criminals, enemies, morons, the sulky, the superior and the sneering.”[18] That includes loving ourselves—not with prideful, insecure, egotistical love but with the pure love of Christ.

Zion is built upon the two great commandments to love (see Matthew 22:36–40; D&C 105:4–5). If we were all filled with God’s love, there would be no fear, selfishness, or pride. Divorce, abuse, and poverty would end. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40). Someday we will learn that “all relationships are ultimately a relationship with God.”[19]

The Conditions of God’s Love

Does the Lord love His children unconditionally? The term unconditional love has proved a sensitive issue for many in the Church. The leaders of the Church used the term until 1993 but stopped using it when some began to interpret unconditional love to imply unconditional blessings (“Because God loves me, He will bless me no matter what I do”).[20] The Church Curriculum Department was instructed not to use the term, but misunderstandings persisted among the membership over the next decade. To clarify the issue, Elder Russell M. Nelson wrote in 2003, “While divine love can be called perfect, infinite, enduring, and universal, it cannot correctly be characterized as unconditional.”[21] Since that time, many members have avoided using the term, not unlike the word pride after President Ezra Taft Benson’s talk in 1989. Following the example of the Brethren, Church members have replaced “unconditional love” with more appropriate terms, such as President James E. Faust did in a recent address in which he used “unreserved love” and “unqualified love.”[22]

While this shift in policy is clear, questions remain as to what conditions may attach themselves to God’s love. A common concern is, “Does God stop loving me if I sin?” An incautious reading of John 14:15 may lead to this egregious belief. The Lord said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” This verse can be viewed either as an imperative (If ye love me, then keep my commandments!) or as a sequence (If ye love me, ye will keep my commandments). The original Greek supports the latter conclusion. Some people might mistakenly flip the verse on its head to read something like, “If you break my commandments, I will stop loving you.” But it does not say that at all. The focus is upon our love, not Christ’s. The verse also cannot be interpreted to mean that if we keep the commandments we also love Christ (there are many motivations to keep the commandments, and the love of God is but one of the them). But one logical inference we may clearly make is, “If ye break my commandments, ye do not love me” (if a, then b = if not b, then not a). Clearly, it was never the Lord’s love at issue but our own.

Look carefully at the following scriptures and what they teach about the Father’s love: the Lord is “no respecter of persons” (D&C 1:35); “the Lord esteemeth all flesh in one” (1 Nephi 17:35); “he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, . . . and all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26:33). Finally, the Lord taught, “That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). These verses teach that all men are capable of receiving God’s generous love.

For a moment, think of Christ as the sun. If I pull out an umbrella or if I crawl into a basement, will the sun stop shining? No more than God stops loving the sinner. What does change, however, is my capacity to feel His love and enjoy its blessings. Thus, God’s love is like His light that radiates from His Person and warms those within its reach. Like the sun, the Lord’s love is unchanging, immovable, and eternally accessible. But how much light reaches Pluto? God’s love is not conditional because He withholds it but because we have removed ourselves from its presence. Under this model, the meaning of the following verse becomes apparent, “If ye keep not my commandments, the love of the Father shall not continue with you, therefore you shall walk in darkness” (D&C 95:12; emphasis added). This verse equates an absence of love with an absence of light—and neither the love nor the light of God can be turned on and off like a switch (see D&C 88:12–13). The verse also teaches that while the Father’s love is constant, it cannot continue with people if they turn their back to it and pursue a path that leads to spiritual death. However, to paraphrase President Harold B. Lee, “That [love] never entirely goes out . . . unless we commit the unpardonable sin.”[23]

Some people are uncomfortable with the idea that God loves all within His presence equally and indiscriminately, as though wondering whether God loves Michael or Moses more. But that is misstating the issue, such as when someone asks, “Does Christ love Satan?” That question views God parceling out love as Santa does his gifts from a naughty-and-nice list. Once we realize that “God is love” (1 John 4:8), it seems reasonable that all who are worthy of His presence share equally in the radiance of His love (see D&C 76:95). Elder M. Russell Ballard assured us that God “loves us all equally.”[24] This does not make His love less personal. God knows us each by name and counts even the hairs of our head (see Matthew 10:30; Moses 1:35).


Let us shout from the rooftops with Paul, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Romans 8:35). I know that the mercy of God “encircles [us] in the arms of safety” (Alma 34:16). In a world of waning love and waxing fear, the Lord needs true followers who will carry His love to the lost and lonely. There is a famine in the land, not a famine of bread nor a thirst for water, but of love (see Matthew 24:12). “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, if ye have not charity, ye are nothing, for charity never faileth. Wherefore, cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all, for all things must fail—but charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him” (Moroni 7:46–47).


[1] Love is defined as a “deep, tender, ineffable feeling of affection and solicitude toward a person” or “a feeling of intense desire and attraction toward a person” (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/love).

[2] Joseph Smith to William W. Phelps, November 27, 1832, in Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, rev. ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002), 284–87.

[3] Ned Roren, quoted in Words of Love, comp. Jordan Linfield and Joseph Krevisky (Random House, 2002), 95.

[4] Thomas Lewis and others, A General Theory of Love (New York: Random House, 2000), 5; see D&C 88:36–39; 130:20–21.

[5] Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 324.

[6] C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (London: Harcourt Brace, 1960), 7.

[7] Neal A. Maxwell, “Behold, the Enemy Is Combined,” Ensign, May 1993, 78.

[8] Joseph Smith, quoted in Far West Record: Minutes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830–1844, ed. Donald Q. Cannon and Lyndon Cook (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), 23; standardized.

[9] The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), s.v. “opposite.”

[10] Joseph Smith, comp., Lectures on Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 52.

[11] Smith, Lectures on Faith, 71.

[12] These commandments were not new but belonged already to the Torah. For a discussion of the linguistic heritage and use of “love” here, see The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David N. Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 385–87.

[13] Neil A. Maxwell, “Insights from My Life,” Ensign, August 2000, 10, 9.

[14] Hugh Nibley, Approaching Zion (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 170.

[15] Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2nd ed. rev. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 4:587.

[16] Dennis B. Horne, Called of God by Prophecy: Spiritual Experience, Doctrine, and Testimony (Roy, UT: Eborn Books, 2001), 42.

[17] Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 4:227.

[18] Lewis, Four Loves, 128.

[19] Deepak Chopra, The Path to Love: Spiritual Strategies to Healing (New York: Three Rivers, 1997), 6.

[20] Examples of former statements include:

  • Neal A. Maxwell: “I am stunned at his perfect, unconditional love of all. Indeed, ‘I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me’” (Ensign, May 1976, 26).
  • Spencer W. Kimball: “Let your love of each member of your family be unconditional” (Ensign, November 1980, 4).
  • Richard G. Scott: “I am convinced that when we give unconditional love, . . . the miracle of the gospel is released in our lives” (Ensign, November 1983, 70).
  • James E. Faust: “I know of no better help than to show unconditional love and help lost souls seek another path” (Ensign, November 1987, 33).
  • Russell M. Nelson: “[Be] constantly mindful of the Savior’s atonement and rejoice in His unconditional love” (Ensign, November 1991, 59).
  • Thomas S. Monson: “[Thirteen-year-old Aaron] taught us courage, compassion, and unconditional love” (Ensign, September 1993, 70).

[21] Russell M. Nelson, “Divine Love,” Ensign, February 2003, 20.

[22] James E. Faust, “Where Is the Church,” BYU devotional address, March 1, 2005.

[23] The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, ed. Clyde J. Williams (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1996), 10.

[24] M. Russell Ballard, “Equality through Diversity,” Ensign, November 1993, 89.