Failing Never: What the Apostles Teach Us about Love

“Failing Never: What the Apostles Teach Us about Love,” Ensign, Sept. 1975, 74

Special Issue: New Testament

Failing Never:

What the Apostles Teach Us about Love

The coming of Jesus Christ in the meridian of time was God’s supreme effort to make his love known and effectual among his children. The Father had always acted out of love, but the plan of things required a Savior whose life would be the highest expression of God’s love and whose sacrifice would represent a greater love for his Father and brothers and sisters than could be equalled. He made the sacrifice and finished his mission. He left an equally great lesson when he forgave his persecutors and executioners. Not the least of his gifts was a legacy of examples of what a Christian’s relationship should be with himself, his family and fellowmen, and his God.

It is written of Jesus by one who knew and loved him that he went about doing good. (See Acts 10:38.) Though from the beginning the shadow of the cross was upon him in all the acts and teachings of his life, yet he spent his time doing kind things, teaching, comforting and restoring, making people happy, taking little thought for his own comfort and convenience or his own concerns. He radiated the deep inner assurances that came with knowing who he was and why he was here and what his mission would mean. His disciples received from him not only the sense of his eternal power and godhood, but clear direction about how a child of God should live. The disciple-writers of the epistles of the New Testament reflect this intense focus. Paul and the others had special reasons for writing as they did: they had something to say, and a commission—and a compulsion—to say it.

“I greatly desire to see you,” wrote Paul in his touching letter to Timothy shortly before his martyrdom. “Please try to come before winter. Bring my cloke … and the books, but especially the parchments.” (2 Tim. 1:4; 2 Tim. 4:6–8, 13, 21; italics added.) He was cold and alone, he wanted his coat and his friends, he missed his beloved books, but he especially wanted the parchments! He had something he had to say, and since the time was at hand when he was “ready to be offered … the time of departure,” he had to put it in writing for his people and for us.

We have at least some of the letters he wrote, and some written by other inspired disciples. What is the message? What is there for us in the books?

The writers of the epistles testified, with fervency and at highest cost, of the eternal truths associated with Christ’s mission: of God’s gracious love, the Lord’s atoning sacrifice, the divine plan through which his children may accept that glorious gift, the resurrection, and the everlasting nature of life and of love. They explained the relationship of the church, God’s instrument, to both Christ and Christians. And they demonstrated, each in turn, that they had learned from the Lord and through the Spirit the central importance in God’s plan of love and service.

The sacred strains of Christ’s parables of judgment sound throughout the New Testament’s writings. Sins of commission were not even mentioned in that great story of the sheep and the goats, the time when “the Son of man shall come in his glory … and before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another … and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.” (Matt. 25:31–33.)

Those on the right hand of the king shall be invited to inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. Who will they be? They who have met the simple, charitable tests—they who have fed the hungry and given drink to the thirsty, cared for the stranger, clothed the naked, visited the sick, and have gone to those who were in prison.

They who have not done these things will be rejected from the kingdom, and will go to their own place to suffer the consequences of their failures.

This was the message in the day of Paul and Peter and James and John. It is the same in our time. Those who understand it and give it life are true Christians. I saw one of these Christians recently. In a Junior Sunday School room, I sat watching the youngsters arrive. I was to say a word to them before joining the adult congregation for stake conference. The children came into the room, separated temporarily from their parents, joining an unfamiliar group with new teachers and leaders. A few seemed completely unconcerned, but many were uncomfortable, and some were very much upset. The one who was crying the loudest was being comforted in the arms of a young teacher who I later discovered was 15 years old. The scene I observed was memorable.

The teacher had not quite stilled the sobs and dried the tears of the first child when another little girl appeared, younger and even more frightened and tearful than the first. Instantly the young lady responded. As she went to the new arrival, she said to the first youngster, still in her arms, “That little girl is crying. I think she is frightened. Will you help me make her feel better?” She then knelt for a moment between the two with her arms around them, both still sniffling.

She said, “You know something? We are going to sing two songs today and I have prepared a picture to illustrate each one. I need someone to hold the pictures up when we all sing. Do you think you two could help me?” Both nodded.

The teacher arose, holding each by the hand, and took them to two small chairs at the front of the room on each side of hers. She gave each a picture and sat back smiling with them as the sniffles stopped. I noticed that both children were leaning perceptibly toward their friend. There were no more tears.

It occurred to me that I was involved in a very important experience. The lovely young teacher, still a girl herself, filled with the light of love and of the Lord, calmly set about her sacred work, brought comfort to the frightened child, enlisted her aid for another who was also afraid and weeping, then involved both in a useful task that took their minds off their own problems.

As I joined the large congregation a few minutes later, I told them about that experience, knowing I had learned something more important than I would likely be able to express.

Christianity is not a religion of abstraction nor of unfeeling legalisms.

“For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.” (Rom. 14:17.)

Christianity does not contemplate the production, by declaration, of a perfect person or a perfect world but provides the objective, the plan, the motivation, and the power to produce persons who make a difference. Repeatedly the New Testament epistles talk about newness—the new creature who emerges from an honest, confrontation with Christ. “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; … all things are become new.” (2 Cor. 5:17.) This new creature, serving “in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter” (Rom. 7:6), is what is to happen; this is what the disciples learned, and this is what they wanted all Christians to learn, then and now.

We usually sum up the apostle Paul as a preacher and teacher of uncompromising commitment. We do not customarily think of him—or at least I have not—in terms of loving compassion and consideration and concern for others. We may have noticed a growing tenderness and ripening of love in him as he selflessly served the cause of Christ, but it has not seemed to be his chief message. Yet as one reads the epistles carefully and repeatedly, the witness comes through strongly: he knew and gave love.

Paul’s heavenly vision and subsequent revelations turned him completely around from the hostility of the persecutor to the fervor of the disciple. His beautiful and brilliant testimony of Christ, his exposition of Christian theology, and his determined opposition to legalistic teachers who sought to Judaize the Christian converts constitute much of his writing, but woven strongly throughout are his undeviating declarations of love, quality, and service which must characterize Christians. His “noble eulogy” to the Corinthian saints on the value and power and enduring quality of love was spoken to us as well. Without love, he declares, eloquence, prophecy, mysteries, knowledge, and even faith are nothing, nor are charitable works or martyrdom: with love these have meaning. With love we can endure all things. Love never fails.

When Paul wrote to the Ephesians, he told them that he prayed to God that they might be “strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man,” that they might have Christ in their hearts and be “rooted and grounded in love … and … know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that [they] might be filled with all the fulness of God.” (Eph. 3:16–19.)

In Paul’s teaching the pure love of Christ is more than compassionate condescension, more than sharing goods. The “charity” which is Christ’s love is more understandable in the light, again, of the Lord’s personal identification with the hungry, thirsty, naked, stranger, sick, and imprisoned: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren,” he teaches us, “ye have done it unto me.” (Matt. 25:40.)

Some years ago in a civic setting I proudly listened to two young men, one, born in Mexico, who had started ninth grade at the age of 19 while still a migrant farm worker, the other, part Indian, born in a small village near the reservation where many of his relatives lived.

Both of the young men were handsome and articulate, exuding strength, sincerity, and a sense of urgency. One had filled a mission—the other was about to go—and each was en route to advanced university training, preparing to serve the special needs of those with whom he shares proud heritage.

A civic committee sought their help in understanding the problems of their people and offering possible solutions. Each answered searching questions knowledgeably, effectively, earnestly. When asked what could be done to help, each responded repeatedly and firmly that what his people needed was not handouts but opportunities, equal opportunities so that through their own efforts they could reach the goal. They would do the rest themselves. Both pointed to faith in God and a religious commitment as basic needs of their people, and each explained that active involvement in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the key to his own development. How had this blessing come about?

It came to the young Mexican-American through a school administrator in a small Latter-day Saint community in Nevada where the verbal answers concerning salvation and redemption through Christ had been personalized into the experience of kindness and concern and contagious love. There the young man had found not only the answers which gave meaning to life, but direction and inspiration and purpose in living it. The love he found came not chiefly from books or lessons, but from persons who were able and willing to give it.

For the Indian, it had been a next-door neighbor, a Latter-day Saint bishop, whose interest and kindness had opened his heart and his home to this youngster. The little boy was not prepared to understand theological answers; loving concern he could readily comprehend. Through the life of a good man he learned to care about and to know Christ.

For these two choice young men, Christ’s love, shining through others, brought newness of life.

Like Paul, the apostle Peter knew the importance of faith. He knew also that enjoying this great gift—in whatever measure—is the beginning of our life in Christ, not the end. Thus, declaring that through knowledge of God and our Savior we “might be partakers of the divine nature,” he said we must “add to [our] faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness”; and in that remarkable construction of qualities and gifts, the apostle continued the crescendo: “… and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity” (2 Pet. 1:4, 6–7)—the pure love of Christ! Like his brother Paul, with whom he sometimes had controversy, in this central matter Peter had no question: to all the sacred attributes named, a Christian must add love. Without love the others, singly and together, were not enough.

Peter taught the believers that though there were those who were disobedient, who had “disallowed”—rejected—the “chief corner stone,” Jesus Christ, yet the true followers of the Lord were “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people” whose duty it was to “shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” (1 Pet. 2:6–7, 9.)

Likewise, the apostle James warned the early Christians that in fulfilling “the royal law according to the scriptures, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (James 2:8) they would do well, but not if they showed partiality to the rich. The message was not a slogan but the guiding theme of life, the directing goal and the power by which they were to govern their conduct toward themselves, others, and the Almighty.

If there is a key for resolving the many great social problems of our time it must be in developing homes that are training places for Christian qualities, families in which the relationships between individuals teach the responsibility to be good citizens in the home, in the neighborhood where the force is most effectual, and so in the community and the country. The instructions of the epistles demonstrate that the apostles taught with conviction this approach to solving the problems of their ancient world. Christians were expected to have sound marriages and strong families, to be good wives and good husbands, good parents and good children. Paul to the Ephesians and Colossians, and Peter and John in their writings, taught the same truths: wives and husbands must love each other and fill their major responsibilities in the home. Children must obey their parents and honor them. To fathers comes an especially significant invitation:

“Provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” (Eph. 6:4.)

Wrath, he adds perceptively to the Colossians, will leave the children “discouraged.” (Col. 3:21.) Peter saluted the strength of the woman to influence her husband through deep intuitive faith—that “quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.” (1 Pet. 3:4.)

Husbands are enjoined to give honor unto their wives “as being heirs together of the grace of life.” (1 Pet. 3:7.)

How significant these instructions for family love and interdependence are was emphasized for me recently. When a convert to the Church and his 12-year-old son arrived early for a stake conference session, they saw water spilling over a basin and into the hall. They stopped the water, obtained cleaning equipment, and, taking off their shoes and stockings and rolling up their trousers, waded in and cleaned up the problem. Learning of this and feeling that I wanted the privilege of knowing such people, I talked with the man and his boy, and in the course of our conversation learned that the family had suffered a tragedy just a week before. While the father was attending a meeting he was notified of the death of his beautiful little girl whose hospital room he had just left with the assurance that she was going to be well. Distraught, the family struggled through the necessary arrangements of the next day or so with broken hearts. After the funeral service they gathered for a family home evening. I will never forget the joy shining through the anguish as this wonderful father talked of the feeling for each other as they met that night, and of the resolve they had made. “We looked at each other and our children and they at us for perhaps the first time as individuals, as persons with strengths and needs and beauty and a place in our circle. In the terrible agony of losing our little one we gained a new vision of each other. Words of love and of kindness were spoken, testimonies borne, thanks given, and prayer offered as we knelt together. I don’t anticipate any problem holding family home evening from now on,” he said. “We have learned in a very hard way how much we mean to each other and how important it is to be together to enjoy each other and share with each other and express our love.”

So the message of love and family unity is vital still. The ancient writ rings with personal meaning in the instructions of the apostles and prophets. The major social problems of our time existed in their day. Opportunities for the Christian to exercise the wonderful gifts of the spirit existed then and are all about us now.

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.” (Gal. 5:22–23.)

In business the saints were instructed to avoid sloth, to be honest, to produce with their hands, to provide for their own.

The affluent learned that the love of God cannot be thought to dwell in one who “hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth his bowels of compassion from him. …

“My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.

“And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him.” (1 Jn. 3:17–19.)

The apostle James laid the responsibility of being considerate and concerned for others not on the rich alone but on all who follow after Christ:

“But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.

“Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:25, 27.)

Has someone been overtaken in a fault? The message of the prophets is that such a one should be “restored” in the spirit of meekness. “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal. 6:2.)

There is another principle of living that the apostles and prophets knew well. They were men, sometimes rather ordinary men, charged with an extraordinary mission and the responsibility to grow into capacity to fill it. There were extraordinary demands made upon them. Having come from different backgrounds they did not always function out of the same base of experience, and it was necessary for them to listen and learn. To them and all who should hear and follow them came the message to the Hebrews:

“Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord:

“Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled.” (Heb. 12:14–15.)

There would be wrongs done and some mistakes made. Peter knew this special trial well, and we understand when he says:

“For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully.

“For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.” (1 Pet. 2:19–20.)

In the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he said that he had heard of their “faith in the Lord Jesus, and love unto all the saints” (Eph. 1:15), and commended them. Much was expected of them now that Christ had “broken down the middle wall of partition” (Eph. 2:14) between who and what they had been and who and what they had become. Before Christ they were Gentiles, “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world,” “far off” and walking “according to the course of this world.” (Eph. 2:12–13, 2.) God had brought them “nigh by the blood of Christ.” (Eph. 2:13.) They were no more “strangers and foreigners,” but had become “fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God … built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone.” (Eph. 2:19–20.)

There was no more Jew and Gentile; all who had through the rich mercy and great love of God been brought to Christ were now Christians.

Something had happened! It was to be different now! They were to “walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind” (Eph. 4:17), but would henceforth be expected to put away corrupt communication, lying, anger, stealing, bitterness, wrath, clamour, evil speaking, malice. They would tell the truth, labor with their own hands to earn their own way, and to share, speak that which is edifying, and be “kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake” had forgiven them. (See Eph. 4:25–32.)

As “children of light” they were to walk in “goodness and righteousness and truth,” being good husbands, wives, parents, and children. (Eph. 5:8–9; see Eph. 5:22–25; Eph. 6:1–4.)

A perusal of the Christian’s passageway seems almost too much. How can ordinary mortals walk it? If we are to regard our religion as a “packet of beliefs and practices” to be borne, it will indeed be too much. But this cannot be for the Christian. Our religion is “not weight; it is wings.” It can carry us through the dark times, the bitter cup. It will be with us in the fiery furnace and deep pit. It will accompany us to the hospital room and to the graveside. It can assure us of the presence of a captain on the rough voyage. It is, in short, not the path to easy disposition of problems but the comforting assurance of the eternal light by which we may see and the eternal warmth that we may feel. All of this comes to us through the love of Christ.

“He that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked.” (1 Jn. 2:6.)

Illustration by Ralph Barksdale