"For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away" (1 Corinthians 13:9-10).
Some people cultivate ignorance the way that other people cultivate rosebushes. They do so out of the strange notion that morality does not "kick in" until they possess a complete knowledge and understanding of the moral law of God. Such people will also often make the same assumption about the civil law of man, doing their best to remain ever ready to plead ignorance of the law if they should happen to be arrested.
Untold generations of jurist may have ruled that "ignorance is no defense against the law," but something weak and shifty in fallen human nature clings persistently to ignorance as the ultimate, unanswerable defense. And sometimes in human courts, made up of fallen human judges and fallen human jurors, people do get away with using ignorance as a defense. They plead, "How can I be guilty if I did not know or understand the law?" Then sentimentality, a fallen and perverted form of compassion, takes over and absolves the criminal, with a blithe disregard for the responsibility that all of us, except for the truly mentally defective, must accept for our own actions.
Voluntary ignorance of right and wrong is, in fact, a sin—an act of moral depravity. Some may point, of course, to the words of St. Paul in today’s Epistle as a defense of ignorance: "whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away" (1 Cor. 13:8). What such people miss, however, when they wrench these few words out of the context of the passage, is St. Paul’s main message about "charity."
Bible translation can be a tricky business, as we move from one language to another. The Greek word translated as "charity" when St. Paul writes of "faith, hope, and charity" (the three Theological Virtues, or powers of God’s grace at work in our lives) is translated elsewhere as "love," as in these passages from St. John’s First Epistle:
Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10);
And we have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world. Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God. And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him (1 John 4:14-16).
The translators of the English Bible were not trying to make our lives more difficult when they chose two different words to speak of love. They were trying to show the difference between God’s love and our own.
God’s love is perfect, eternal, and flawless. It is always aimed at the dignity, honor, or welfare of others. In the case of the Blessed Trinity, the love of the Father is totally directed to the Son and the Holy Ghost, just as the love of the Son is directed to the Father and the Holy Ghost, and the love of the Holy Ghost is directed to the Father and the Son. God’s love is the divine power that unites Three real Divine Persons in one Godhead, so that it is true to call the Blessed Trinity "One God." God’s love is God’s life, so that St. John can truly say "God is love," without his statement’s being able to be reversed like an algebraic equation into "love is God."
But why? Love is not an abstraction that can be turned into an impersonal "god." Abstractions and ideas do not love. Persons love, and love begins with the Three eternal Persons of the Blessed Trinity. God loves before the world exists, and the world exists because God loved it enough to create it from nothing. We exist because God loved us first, before we existed to love. He created us to live with him and to join him in the communion of divine love as men and women created in his own image and likeness. And God, who is complete in himself, gains nothing by creating. He does not become "more God," and he would not become "less God" if all of creation were swept away into nothingness
Even more to the point, when we sinned against God, he continued to love us, despite our offenses against him. He gave his only-begotten and eternal Son to become man and to die for our sins on the Cross. He gave us the grace of faith that we might put all our trust in his Son and receive all the benefits of his death and resurrection. He gave us the grace of hope to sustain us when we become aware of just how imperfect we are, even as redeemed sinners, to enter into his fellowship. And he gave us the grace of charity that we might begin to live as he does, by a total, selfless love, even as we await the perfection of our living and loving on the day of the General Resurrection, when his grace will complete us and take away our every deficiency and fallenness.
The translators of our Bible called the grace of divine love at work in us now "charity" to protect us from our many misconceptions of love. As fallen creatures, we tend to think of "love" as a "feeling we have" or as an "appetite." Thus we say things like "I love ice cream" or "I love so and so," when all we mean is that we have experienced a desire of the flesh. But the spiritual love of God is always directed away from the self, and it always means living for other persons, beginning with God in heaven and ending with the worst person we know.
Our Lord wasn’t kidding when he said "Love your enemies" in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:44). But he wasn’t talking about how we feel, but about how we live and act. And the traditional English word for "love in action, directed towards others, without worrying about how we are going to benefit" is charity. Charity is the greatest of the Theological Virtues because in the world to come we will see "face to face." We won’t have to depend on the weakness of this world to show us God’s goodness in reflections, as in a warped, old mirror (1 Cor. 13:12). We will see God’s glory, trust in it and hope in it, in a marvelous new way. But it will be the same charity that we must live by then, in the Kingdom of Heaven, that we must live by now, here on earth in this time of our probation.
Does anyone understand this reality of God’s love and glory completely, except for God himself? Obviously not, since even the saints who proceeded us into light are still waiting for the Last Day and its perfections to arrive. But just as we wouldn’t stop breathing or try to stop our hearts from beating because we couldn’t write an anatomy textbook, or explain all the mysteries of our physical life, we live the new spiritual lives that God has given us through the sacrifice of his Son by faith, hope, and charity, looking forward to the day when we will understand all.
St. Paul admits that our knowledge is partial, but at the same time he points out our obligation to know whatever we are able to know of God’s will: "For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away." The perfect Lord Jesus Christ is coming, and his judgment of the quick and the dead will not be sentimental, and it will not be open to pleas of ignorance. What we have been given by God now, what God has revealed to us now in the Holy Scriptures and the teaching of his Church, is sufficient now for us to live our lives by faith, hope, and charity.
But if what God gives us now is sufficient for us to live, then we must know and do what he commands at once. We can know and do his commandments because they are readily available to all men, and we aren’t even being asked for perfection. Perfection comes from God, and not from us. But to close our hearts and minds to what God has made so readily available is to close our hearts and minds to eternal life, and to continue to rebel against God and to sin. Not to know both the divine and the human standards of ordinary decent behavior is not to have charity, either to God or to man. To sin against charity is to sin against God and to sin against life. Charity is life for a Christian, and without it there is nothing but death.
Father Ed Bakker
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne
Bendigo in the Central Goldfields,