And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.1 Corinthians 13:13
Other translations use the term love instead of charity, which is perhaps more well-known. The original Greek word is agape (ἀγάπη). As we know, there are several kinds of love in this context.
These are agape (ἀγάπη), eros (ἔρως), philia (φιλία), and storge (στοργή).
Usually, we explain agape as love of charity. Its implication, however, is far from such contemporary meaning of charity like generosity and helpfulness toward the needy. It is, rather, the highest form of selfless love.
God’s love is in this form. It is, however, not that God loves everyone with His omnipotence. If God loves anyone with ease, then that is no longer selfless. God has to sacrifice Himself in His act of loving. He has to suffer, even die for us. That is the ultimate unconditionality of God’s love as agape.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.John 3:16
Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.Philippians 2:5-8
If agape is such selfless love, then eros is a complete opposite, a selfish love. We love to possess something or someone. When our ego is too dominant, this kind of love derives us to seek health, wealth, and success in this world.
Perhaps, philia is not such ego-driven. As we know the term like philosophy, when we love knowledge and wisdom, this state of love is dominant. In this state, we are somewhat selfless to devote ourselves to the higher values.
Storge could be like a mother’s love. It is also selfless, but more emotional. A mother loves her child, but her child only. Her love might not be for other children when and if she sees any conflicts between her child and other children. This love may be selfishly selfless or selflessly selfish.
It is only agape that one has to be completely selfless and unconditional.
Jesus’ conversation with a rich young man interestingly covers all these loves.
And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?
Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.Matthew 19:16-22
He loved (philia) to serve himself for the higher values like keeping the commandments. He was so proud (eros) of himself in keeping them. He also loved (storge) his father, mother, and neighbors. But still, he was not able to surrender himself for his act of higher love (agape) as he loved (eros) himself and all his great possessions.
We can’t give up everything. We can’t love our enemies. We can’t forget our small self. Love of agape reminds us of such impossibility. It is the true meaning of charity.
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
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: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.1 Corinthians 13:1-8
Among faith, hope, and charity (love of agape), as 1 Corinthians 13:13 says, why is charity the greatest? Because only with charity, we are completely selfless.
Faith is the form of I believe. Hope is the form of I hope. Charity, however, does not have any form of I. It is the form of self-denial and non-dual. The sense of I is completely diminished and surrendered. It is love without I or God’s love where even God sacrificed Himself.
Image by James Chan