When I was younger, I never really liked my name, Charity. People mispronounced it, misread it, or just plain got it wrong. I’ve been called everything from Cheryl to Christie to even Geri. During my elementary school days, there were actually two Charitys in our building, to everyone’s great shock (I know because they often commented on it). And when I was in college, there were two Charitys on our small campus. I know because I often got her mail.
Throughout my life, people have teased me that I’m their “favorite Charity,” or that they are “giving to Charity” as they hand me a drink or pass the salt. A college friend’s younger brother, upon meeting me and learning my name, said, “Oh, like a Children’s Charity?” And then cracked up laughing. “Yes, exactly. Like a children’s charity,” I said, while thinking, how original.
Another interesting response to my name over the years is that more than one person has asked me if I have sisters. At first, I was confused. Jumping from my name to asking about sisters felt like a non sequitur. “Yes?” I replied, more as a question than answer.
“Are their names Faith and Hope?” they asked, just before bursting out laughing. After a while, I got used to the response and came up with my own witty comeback.
“No, but if they were, I’d be the best of the bunch,” I’d say. “Because faith, hope and charity remain, but the greatest of these is Charity.”
I don’t remember exactly where I was when I first heard 1 Corinthians 13:13 read from the King James version, but I can recall the feeling of embarrassment as the other kids in the room looked at me and snickered during the reading. I hadn’t known my name was in the Bible before then. It’s like being introduced to someone who shares your name, and then having to awkwardly say it over and over in a conversation.
But because this verse has inadvertently followed me around for life, I’ve thought a lot about what it means for charity, or love, to trump faith and hope. I’ll admit that in my Christian life, it’s much easier to try to grow my faith through spiritual disciplines and attending church or to rely on hope during traumatic illnesses or life-altering decisions than it is to make room for love. At least the kind of love Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians or the kind of love that Jesus talks about in the gospels. But clearly there is something special, urgent even, about love.
When a teacher of the law came to Jesus and asked him what the greatest commandment is, Jesus didn’t talk about faith, pointing to Father Abraham who “believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6), or about hope, pointing to the Psalms of King David and promises like this one: “No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame” (Psalm 25:3). Instead, Jesus pointed to love–agape love that values, esteems, and feels generous concern for God and others–as the key to everything.
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt. 22:37-40).
It’s easy to see why love sits high on the list of Jesus’ priorities since his own death was motivated by the great love he has for the world. But why is it that it’s also the thing he most wants from us? Why is love the greatest?
Here’s my guess: Because Jesus didn’t come to earth to start a religion or to create an earthly outpost he’d oversee as an eternally absent caretaker. His goal wasn’t to form an exclusive group of fans to tease along with new hits and anniversary editions. The plan was never to string us along blindly, wishing for more forever.
No, from the first bite in the garden, God’s plan has been to restore his relationship with us. To get back to a place of eternal, mutual love. Eventually, hope and faith will be unnecessary, replaced by the certainty and confidence of being in Jesus’ presence. But love … love will always be preeminent in the heart of God and his people.
See, love is the greatest because it’s not just the plan to restore God and his people. It’s the goal.
Over the years, I’ve not only gotten used to my name; I’ve come to like it. Whenever I sense someone might be thinking about riffing off my name, I beat them to it. In fact, if you’ve ever received an email from me, you’ll see a little name play right there in the signature line as invite people to subscribe to my newsletter for “faith, hope, and … Charity quietly delivered to your inbox!”
But more than the fun I’ve had with it, my name also serves as a constant reminder of God’s primary call in my life, a challenge for every moment I’m alive: how can I show charity for God and others today? Because charity, or love, really is the most important thing. It’s the greatest thing. It’s our enduring legacy as God’s dearly loved children. And it’s a name I can only hope to live up to.