Avaris to Avanim
Pursuing Holiness

From All Want of Charity


In reading the Book of Common Prayer, I came across an oft cited but rarely expounded upon phrase in The Great Litany, which usually precludes the Eucharist:

From all blindness of heart;
from pride, vainglory, and hypocrisy;
from envy, hatred, and malice;
and from all want of charity,
Good Lord, deliver us.

This is often quoted in cases for a call to mutual humility, especially in light of a scandal, disagreement, or outside agitation.  The things from which the petitioner seeks deliverance are all potential causes of interpersonal trouble, with the seeming exception of the latter.  From all want of charity.

Charity is a word used elsewhere in the Book of Common Prayer as an ideal state to be in.  It is never, to my knowledge, used elsewhere with any negative connotation.  The traditional invitation for the Eucharist begins:

Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways:  Draw near with faith, and make your humble confession to Almighty God, devoutly kneeling.

Here having charity is a requirement for approaching the Table, among repenting of sins and being at peace with neighbors.  This seems to be the same general sentiment as the prayer in The Great Litany, but why is one to be in charity before Eucharist and not seek it in The Great Litany?  Even more to the point is the Collect for the Sunday preceding Lent:

O Lord, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth: Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee. Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ's sake. Amen.

This turns The Great Litany into a very morbid affair.  Why should the petitioner not seek charity, which is the anti-thesis of death?  If charity is "the very bond of peace," then why does the want of it need deliverance, as with envy, hatred, and malice?

In John Wesley's second sermon of his Sermon on the Mount series, he brings up "want of charity" in the context of Matthew 5:21-26:

And whereas men naturally imagine, that God will excuse their defect in some duties, for their exactness in others; our Lord next takes care to cut off that vain, though common imagination. He shows, that it is impossible for any sinner to commute with God; who will not accept one duty for another, nor take a part of obedience for the whole. He warns us, that the performing our duty to God will not excuse us from our duty to our neighbour; that works of piety, as they are called, will be so far from commending us to God, if we are wanting in charity, that, on the contrary, that want of charity will make all those works an abomination to the Lord.

"Want of Charity" is therefore a perversion of the concept of charity.  Where charity is else mentioned in the liturgy as something the confessor needs from God, it is something to therefore be given rather than demanded from others.  If charity is viewed primarily as alms, this understanding also misses the mark.  Surely, it does not mean that if a person needs something, they ought not to ask.  That would be an awful setback for a community that is expected to be charitable among its members and therefore antithetical to a "bond of peace."  The answer is perhaps better given in CS Lewis' Mere Christianity, where he explains the nature of "Christian charity" as a concept well-beyond the modern understanding of alms-giving, but rather as a mentality:

The difference between a Christian and a worldly man is not that the worldly man has only affections or 'likings' and the Christian has only 'charity'. The worldly man treats certain people kindly because he 'likes' them: the Christian, trying to treat every one kindly, finds himself liking more and more people as he goes on — including people he could not even have imagined himself liking at the beginning.

Therefore, the Christian is called to be respectful of even those who do not return the favor.  The want of charity instead connotes a transactional nature.  The person in want of charity is doing something generous because they have received or are expecting to receive something in return - a future favor of another person, some positive affection.  If those are not met, then it is taken for a failed investment and as a personal injury.  Want of charity also works the same in reverse - holding a person emotionally hostage to get something out of them: "Grant me this in order to continue our friendship."

The kind of charity that Jesus preached, that the liturgy prescribes, and that Lewis explains requires the confessor to be generous even if there is no apparent gain.  In general, if someone has offended you, failed you, or come short in some way, or you have done the same to someone else, the call to charity means addressing that offense and pursuing a path for both of you to move forward in dignity (hence, the modern rendering, "in peace with your neighbor.")  The result of this is that in being kind toward someone, even if it is simply an intentional attitude of courtesy, the act takes on a sacramental and transformative nature.  It's sort of like the Endowment Effect, but turned sideways into something relational rather than transactional. 

As to the place of "want of charity" among other severe failings, it turns out to be justified.  Jesus does not mince words on the severity of this in Matthew 5:22, saying "You will be liable to the fire of Hell."  All the more reason that we should humbly ask and regularly, as the Book of Prayer prescribes, to be free from the want of charity even as we seek charity.

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