(The following is an excerpt from our chapter on "Charity" in The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders: Unlocking Your Leadership Potential.)
Few passages in all of western literature have been cited more often, or in a wider variety of contexts, than St. Paul’s discourse on love in I Corinthians, Chapter 13. It is quoted, in whole or in part, on Valentine’s Day cards, wedding announcements, church bulletins, even obituaries.
The Greek word that Paul uses in that passage is agape, which was translated into Latin as caritas, from which we get our English word “charity.” The King James Version actually uses that word, although most modern translations replace it with “love.” Thus, the terms “love” and “charity” tend to be equated, at least as far as Paul’s discourse is concerned.
But do they really mean the same thing, in practice? Think about how we use the word “charity” in conversation. Most commonly, it refers to the act of giving to those in need or to organizations that perform that function. We even use the term as an adjective: to be charitable means to be generous or giving.
The word “love,” on the other hand, usually refers to a feeling and in some contexts to a particular kind of feeling that includes sexual attraction. The latter is a type of love that in Greek would have been translated as eros (from which we get our word “erotic”) and in Latin as cupiditas (note the reference to the cherubic match-making archer). Of course, as with the ancient Greeks and Romans, we recognize other types of love, as well: love for family members, love for friends, even love of self. But what all of those have in common is that they are based on emotions.
Charity, on the other hand—agape or caritas—is something a little different. As Paul describes it his iconic sermon, charity is an action word, defined more by what we do (or do not do) than by what we feel. Charity, says Paul, demonstrates patience, or “suffers long.” It is “kind.” It “doesn’t envy.” It “doesn’t exalt itself, is not puffed up”—in other words, it shows humility. Charity is not selfish and does not mistreat others (“does not behave itself unseemly, seeks not its own”). Nor is charity “easily provoked” or prone to assuming the worst about others (“thinks no evil”).
By personifying charity, Paul is saying that the charitable person is one who exhibits all these traits. What do they all have in common? They require us to practice specific behaviors or avoid others. We should be patient, kind, and humble. We should treat others well. We should not be selfish or lose our tempers.
In other words, being charitable goes far beyond feelings. It involves action. Whereas the physical attraction and/or fondness that we normally associate with love is often involuntary, charity, as we are defining it here, is a rational choice.
For this reason, we chose charity as both the title and the focus of this chapter, rather than simply talking about love. When we use the word “love” in this chapter, think of the term as synonymous with the way we are describing charity. When we say “love,” what we literally mean is agape, or charity.
We do not mean to discount or undervalue love. However, while it is important for virtuous leaders to feel love—for others, for their work, even for themselves—charity cannot end there. Emotions, as we all know, are ephemeral, subject to change on a daily and sometimes even hourly basis. If we behave charitably only when we feel like it, then we are not actually being charitable at all—and we certainly are not exhibiting the kind of love that rises to the level of a virtue.
That kind of love will enable us to maximize our potential as human beings while also helping others to maximize theirs and in the process, as leaders, move important and worthwhile projects forward.