Updated: May 16, 2020
Three years ago, before I started my blog, I began writing just for myself as a way to process all the things going on in my head. At the time, I wrote down this story about my kids – Ava was 4 and Jax was a couple months shy of 2…
The other day, as I was otherwise occupied (trying to pee in privacy), I heard both my kids yelling and screaming from the kitchen. As I was unable to effectively intervene in that particular moment, I also joined in the yelling from the bathroom. Finally, Ava came into my room, crying, as I was finishing up. When I asked what was going on, she told me that she was trying to stop Jax from pulling snacks out of the cabinet because it wasn’t snack time. (That’s my little rule-follower.) She said that she was just trying to be a good sister, but she couldn’t because Jax was telling her “No!” Over and over again, she said, “I just want to be a good sister.” Together we sat on the floor as I tried to reassure her that she IS such a good sister, that she DID the right thing, and that she was NOT RESPONSIBLE for her brother’s sad choice. It broke my heart to see her question herself and her identity because her brother (being the toddler that he is) made a sad choice.
Fast forward three years…
A few days ago, I sat in Ava’s bed holding her as she cried. She was upset because so often when she tries to help Jax, he doesn’t let her. We have this same conversation over and over again. “Ava, I love that you want to help your brother. You are so kind and loving. But Jax gets to make his own choices, and if he doesn’t want your help, you have to accept that.” This time, though, as I spoke those same words, I also felt led to acknowledge and sit in the sadness with her. “It’s really hard when we want to help someone but we’re not able to,” I told her.
I see Ava’s compassionate heart, and I understand her sadness and frustration. In so many ways, that little girl is so much like me. When we see a need, we want to help. That’s a really great quality. But often times our best qualities can also become our greatest faults. When our desire to help turns into a need to control or when our identity gets wrapped up in what we do for others and how they respond, that becomes harmful for us and those around us.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple years trying to pry my identity away from what I do for others. I’ve made some progress and experienced some freedom in this area, but it’s still a struggle. It’s so easy to fall into the lie that the world rests on my shoulders. It’s easy to believe that the outcomes of other people’s lives are an indicator of how well I have loved them.
When someone close to me is struggling – whether it’s because of their own choices or wrong done to them or the effects of living in a broken world – I often feel that the responsibility lies on me to make it better. And when I try and things still turn sour, I feel like I have failed. My mind immediately goes to, “What could I have done differently? What should I have said? How could I have supported them better? Where did I go wrong?”
I suppose if either Ava or I asked ourselves that age-old question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” we would answer with an emphatic “yes!” But the truth is we’re not responsible for the fate nor the actions of others. That’s a lot of weight to carry around – more weight than we are meant to carry.
But are we allowed to just remove ourselves from all responsibility? Should we just take care of us and allows others to take care of themselves?
Are we supposed to be our brother’s keeper or not?
The answer is not a simple yes or no. If we look to Galatians 6 where the apostle Paul is explaining how to care for others, we see two commands that sound contradictory at first glance. In verse 2, Paul tells us to “carry each other’s burdens.” This is later followed up in verse 5 by “each one should carry their own load.” What’s interesting to note is that the Greek word used in verse 2 for burden is a word that means a heavy load, one that is too heavy for someone to carry on their own. The Greek word in verse 5 refers to the type of pack that someone might carry on a daily basis, the load that they are individually responsible for.
We see this tension here in which each person is responsible for their own actions and how they respond to the brokenness both within themselves and within the world, and yet we were not made to be solitary creatures. We were made for community from the very beginning, and we were made to love God and love others. We were created to love with the same kind of life-giving love of Christ.
We have this example of a God who saw us in our brokenness, who saw the pain that we brought on ourselves and the pain caused by others, and he wasn’t content to just let us figure it out on our own. He came to be with us, to walk through our pain with us, to show us how to live in a way that brings about more peace, joy, and goodness, and to restore us.
When we really receive that kind of love and learn to walk in the truth of it, of course we’ll want to love others in that same way. But we have to start with the acknowledgement and the acceptance of that love that’s been given to us. If we don’t start at that place, we’ll be tempted to either try to earn that love through what we can do for others and how they respond to us or we’ll refuse to give that kind of love because we don’t believe it exists for us. We’ll either choose to be our brother’s keeper or reject our brother altogether.
The balance between these two extremes is love. We love without agenda. We love without judgment. We love without trying to prove ourselves. We love because we are loved.
The measurement of whether or not we are living in the way that God intended for us is the way we love. It’s not dependent on whether others choose to receive that love or not. It’s not dependent on being right or being good. It’s not dependent on saving ourselves or others. It’s not dependent on how we compare to others. Love alone is the measure.
In the words of the apostle Paul,
The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. – Galatians 5:6
Do you tend to lean toward being your brother’s keeper or leaving your brother to take care of himself?
If you lean toward being your brother’s keeper, what is one step you need to take toward letting go of control and releasing the pressure you put on yourself to save others?
If you lean toward leaving your brother to take care of himself, what is one way that God might be calling you to love your neighbor?
Do you really trust that you are loved just as you are?