Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” –Genesis 4:9
We were about 14 when my friend Michael and I sat in a stairwell one day, just musing about life. And I’ll never forget what he said that day, because it took me by surprise. He said he hoped that he would be the last one to die of his family and close friends. It surprised me because most people dread having to experience the death of a loved one, and here he was welcoming it with open arms. I asked him why. Now Michael had a strong faith, and he also had the heart of a protector. He told me that he would feel a sense of peace knowing the people he loves are safe, gone on ahead of him to be with Jesus. To him this was preferable than leaving them behind on earth, not being able to help get them home. He said he wanted to see them off and be the one to “close up shop” before he went on to join them. A lot of things fall out of my memory, but that conversation never did.
I’ve spent a lot of time lately trying to get my son to mind his own business and leave his sister alone. Recently I looked back through a journal of letters I’ve written to him occasionally since he was born, and the most recent entry caused me to pause:
“…I also want to tell you that even though we scold you almost constantly for being too rough in your affection for Audrey or not giving her enough space, we are so happy that you are such a loving, affectionate brother. I hope that you will never lose that sweet love toward her- how you teach her and protect her and want to be with her. You both light up when the other comes in the room. You give her such a gift by being you and showing her she is so loved. I hope that you will love others that well, too. Sometimes I tell you to leave her alone or not to worry about what she is doing or that you’re not her parent. But the other day I heard a song I used to know that says:
‘Love will hold us together, make us a shelter to weather the storm. And I’ll be my brother’s keeper, so the whole world will know that we’re not alone.’
It made me think of you and that you are right to look out for her and be in her business. We must do that with some restraint, and grace, and humility, but we are responsible for each other in some ways- to protect, teach, encourage. Perhaps you have a pastor’s heart? Not necessarily to be a pastor by profession, but to become a leader who takes responsibility for his flock, whether that be your friends, family, neighbors. I know God has great plans for you. Not necessarily “big” (though perhaps big), but great, and good.”
Am I my brother’s keeper? In various places in my life lately the question has been popping up. There are clearly times when we should mind our own business. But do we bear some responsibility for each other?
The story of Cain and Abel seems to imply that we do bear some responsibility for each other (at the very least for not killing each other). Most of us possess some awareness that we are supposed to take care of people. How deep does that responsibility go? I didn’t know, but the question was plaguing me, so I decided to do a quick sweep through Scripture to see what it says. Here is some of what I found:
We are responsible to care for the physical needs of others, especially the poor and marginalized. (This isn’t the facet of care I’m focusing on today, but it is so pervasive through Scripture and more central to the gospel than many of us, myself included, tend to realize, so it definitely deserves a mention.)
“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” -1 John 3:17-21
We are instructed to care for each other spiritually- exhorting, admonishing, encouraging, bringing back, and restoring those who are wandering. Sin is not to be taken lightly, but such shepherding is to be done with humility, gentleness, mercy, and an attitude of restoration, not condemnation.
“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” –Hebrews 3:12-13
“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” –Proverbs 27:17
“Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. .” –Galatians 6:1-2
“We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” Romans 15:1-7
“Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.” -1 Thessalonians 5:12-15
God has instituted positions of authority over us to whom we are accountable and who are accountable for us. It is not always easy to be receptive to this, especially in a modern, democratic society in which we highly value our freedom, but we would be wise to humble ourselves, listen to wise counsel, and submit to the authorities in our lives (unless they are requiring us to do things against what God has commanded).
My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.” -Proverbs 3:11-12
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.” –Hebrews 13:17
“Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction, and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. They are a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck.” -Proverbs 1:8-9
“Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city.” –Matthew 23:34
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” -Proverbs 1:7
“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, But a wise man is he who listens to counsel.” –Proverbs 12:15
“Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” -Proverbs 11:14
We are also accountable to each other as brothers, sisters and laypeople.
“Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” -Proverbs 27:6
“Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.” James 5:16
“My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” –James 5:19-20
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” –Matthew 18:15-17
We are not to judge one another. Ultimately each person (including the one who judged others) will give their own account to God.
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” Matthew 7:1-5
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned.” –Luke 6:37
“Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” –Romans 14:10
“For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load.” Galatians 6:3-5
“So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.” –Romans 14:12
God intends for us to live in close, authentic, communities in which we challenge and encourage one another to be faithful to God, fleeing from sin and pursuing the righteous life to which he has called us. We need this in order to thrive.
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” –Colossians 3:16
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” –Hebrews 10:24-25
There’s one thing that stands out to me in all of that. Apparently it is possible (and expected of us) to admonish (warn or reprimand firmly), exhort (strongly urge), confront, challenge and instruct each other when necessary, while at the same time not judging, not being prideful, not condemning and not discouraging one another. So these things are not mutually exclusive? In our society today, if you do any of the former things, it is automatically assumed you are doing the latter. Maybe sometimes we are doing both, coming at someone with rotten motives. But it is possible not to. How do we tease those things out? I don’t know. Maybe only God knows our hearts and from what sort of motives we are challenging one another. But if we’re in a real relationship with someone, we often have a good sense of whether they are challenging us from good motives, even if we feel defensive at first. Did you have the fortune of being raised by a parent who loved you and did their job pretty well, requiring things of you to help you grow into a responsible adult even though the discipline wasn’t fun at the time? Did you ever have a coach or mentor who called you out when you were getting too big for your britches, needed to work on something, or were headed down the wrong road? Has a friend ever risked you getting angry with them in order to gently tell you something about yourself that might be a little difficult to hear but was ultimately important for you to know?
We have been given by God the responsibility of taking care of and ruling over the earth as stewards (which is likely one of the reasons we all have opinions and convictions about how things should be and sometimes feel a responsibility to try to get things, and people, to work that way. It’s not all bad.). At the pinnacle of that responsibility is the charge of taking care of people, his treasured ones who are created in his image. We must have some sort of stewardship of each other, I have to conclude. Not to rule over another in an oppressive way, but to kindly, humbly watch over their souls, keeping in mind that they too are image-bearers, immeasurably valuable to God, individually accountable to him, and stewards of our souls as well. We are partners with each other in this work of tending creation, cultivating it and shepherding it back to the way it was meant to be, shepherding ourselves and each other back to God, until Christ himself returns to bring it all to completion.
“Mind your own business” might be a good approach much of the time with strangers with whom we have neither relationship nor credibility. But with the people God has placed in our lives to walk the long road with, the people we have real, face-to-face committed relationships with, minding our own business is not always the most loving thing to do. We must tread softly, bearing much love, but we should tread, showing up and pouring our hearts and lives out for each other, getting in the game with each other, knowing we’re on the same team, even in the moments when tough love is needed.
We are our brothers’ keepers, I have concluded. Sometimes this means providing for their tangible needs. Sometimes it means pouring out positive words and encouragement. Sometimes it means praying for them for things both spoken and unspoken. Sometimes it means bearing their burdens for them. Sometimes it means challenging them. Genuine love contains all these things, in appropriate measures, at the appropriate time. It requires prayer, discernment, self-control, and dependence on the Holy Spirit to guide us. And forgiveness for when we don’t quite get it right.
“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” -1 Peter 4:8
The media and general public today would have you believe that your words, beliefs, and actions should never offend anyone. Otherwise, you will be labeled judgmental, a hater, a bigot, a hypocrite (though they’re not shy about spewing their own opinions all over the internet). At the same time, they tell you to “Be true to yourself” and “Tell your truth”, saying “You do you.” What an impossible task, and a nasty, disorienting, divisive cycle to be stuck in! We are forced to choose between “authenticity” and “love,” and choosing either one comes at the great cost of sacrificing the other. This is not life at its fullest, and it’s not community. It’s barely relationship at all.
God says it doesn’t have to be that way, and he designed for us to live in community in a way that does both well. I don’t think it is possible to fully achieve this without him at work in our hearts, because it doesn’t come naturally to be humble, to accept criticism, or to respect views that oppose our own. Besides, it would be pretty difficult for those who don’t believe in God to achieve community that is both deeply loving and courageously challenging (and still peaceful), because you’d lack a common understanding of what is worthy of being corrected, what is right and wrong. There’s going to be a lot of disagreement, especially when you add sin into the mix, sin that’s not actively being repented of and overcome. We like to be right, and we tend to get defensive. This is what is occurring all over our society today (especially via technology), and it’s an ugly mess. When God sets the standards, and when he is at work purifying the hearts of both parties, it’s a whole lot easier (though still a challenge) to find consensus.
What if we trusted him enough to let him set the standard for us (also trusting that our failures would be covered in grace because Christ fulfilled the standard on our behalf)? What if we let him into our hearts and allowed him to cultivate the good and prune what needs to go, concerning ourselves with the purity of our own motives and actions rather than indulging our desire to point fingers at others first? What if we humbled ourselves enough to listen to each other graciously and love each other fiercely? What if we stopped being bent on giving our opinions, and yet stopped being afraid to speak up when He asks us to? What if we truly walked in love? I’d be glad to have friends like that to be keepers and overseers of my soul. By God’s power and provision and the courage, patience and faithful friendship of some dear ones, I do have those kinds of soul-keepers in my life, and they are some of God’s best gifts.
“A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” -Proverbs 18:24