The two terms “love” and “charity” are in many ways interchangeable, since the virtue of charity is, in practice, a primary aspect of love. But the two are not identical; not all forms of love are also charity.
Charity is the highest form of love, because it signifies the unique selfless love God gives to us and is expressed in our own selfless love for others. By loving selflessly, without expectation of receiving, we are able to love as God loves.
Christ explicitly gave this opportunity to us, telling his disciples after the last supper, “A new commandment I give you: love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). Jesus leaves no room for misunderstanding his message; his words are not a suggestion . . . not advice to consider, but rather a new commandment to love as he did. That is, selflessly and sacrificially, defining “agape.”
There is a balance to be struck though, as in all things, to remember that we are also the temple of the Holy Spirit and must feed and love ourselves in the right ways. We learn to balance that with the sacrificial love of Christian charity, which always means surrendering our own self-interests or concerns.
Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, so you did it to me.
Practical ways of pulling ourselves out of the equation include taking time to examine our motivations, as we work toward learning and offering the Works of Mercy, which are officially described as feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, ransoming the captive, caring for the sick and imprisoned, and burying those who have passed. Our charitable works of mercy might include striving to spend time with people we don’t enjoy, showing kindnesses to our enemies, reconciling with estranged family members, and showing affection for people we don’t get along with.
Our ongoing duty as people of faith is to find the ways we can grow in our understanding of and response to Christ’s instruction on charity and love. Ultimately any charitable act, any truly loving work of mercy, is a gift of the self, and based not on the desirability of the recipient of our gift of self but rather on the transformation of ourselves as givers of God’s divine love. The ultimate means to our joy is a focus not on personal joy, but on the joy we give God and one another through charity and love.