One of the things we like for people to know, is what we really care about. Back in the age of dinosaurs, when I grew up, we used to advertise what we cared about by putting a bumper sticker on our car. For some reason, we all felt the need to tell the people driving behind us that we cared about the Blue Jays, or about saving the whales, or about Pierre Trudeau’s energy policies. We didn’t know the people behind us, but we still wanted them to know what we cared about.
This was true when I was growing up, but today it seems like we are pushed more and more to tell the world what we care about. Something in our culture today tells us that we really should care about the things going on in the world—both profound and trivial. Social media is a big reason for this, because it makes it hard not to care. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of invitations to care about one cause or another, and to advertise my care through liking or re-tweeting the latest meme of TREMENDOUS IMPORTANCE. We all do it, myself included. Thus, my Twitter stream is littered with the things people simply must know I care about.
So, we all care about a lot of things. What’s the problem with that? Aren’t Christians supposed to be caring people? Isn’t it good to be concerned about the world and its goings-on? I think the answer is no. I think that, because Christ didn’t tell us to care. Instead, He told us to love. Those things may seem like they’re the same, but they’re not. There’s a big difference between them, and if you miss it, you’re liable to condemn yourself to a life of both anxiety and self-righteousness.
Think for a moment about the things crying out for our concern. Maybe it’s the election in the United States or a spending scandal in the government, or a war in a far-off part of the world. These are important things. They affect real people’s lives in serious ways. When we are in a position to do something about them, it is our Christian duty to do so.
However, when I am most honest I must admit that I can’t do anything about them. In fact, my care about these things usually has the opposite effect: they occupy my mind and distract me from the things I actually can do. My care can even puff up my pride, where I pat myself on the back for “caring” about the right things, without actually making any of the sacrifices that would make a difference. Instead, it tends to breed inaction and self-righteousness.
One of my favourite blogs is on a site called Glory to God for All Things, written by Stephen Freeman, who is an Orthodox priest in Tennessee. In a recent post he writes about this phenomenon, saying:
We “care” about something, but we have nothing in particular that we can do about it. We are angry over extended periods about things that are greatly removed from our lives. Our attention itself becomes a passive response rather than a directed movement of the soul. Our lives largely become an experience of manipulation – only it is we ourselves who are being manipulated. Against this is the life of Christian virtue.
He’s right. For all our concern, we aren’t actually growing much in real virtue. This tendency of modern life—the tendency to care passionately about things we cannot change, while ignoring the things we can—is deeply destructive to our souls. It’s hurting our ability to love the people we can actually help, and leaving us more shallow, more distracted and more self-absorbed.
We so easily chase after likes and tweets, and we worry ourselves over having the right opinion, but are we aware of what happens to us when we do this? What being immersed in the world of caring for things far away from our lives, really does? It doesn’t make the world a better place. What it does, is train our hearts to crave distraction instead of lovingly attending to the reality God places in front of us.
Notice how different this is than the way Jesus shows us. Jesus’ way is different from what our modern world offers us. He doesn’t tell us to express concern for abstractions or shout out what we like. No, he tells us to love our neighbour, and holds this up as the highest ideal next to loving our Creator Himself.
To love a neighbour means more than to be concerned, or to feel a certain way. It means more than having the right opinions. Instead, loving our neighbour means learning from what Jesus tells us in the parable of the Good Samaritan: to actually help the people God has placed in our path. To the Samaritan, loving his neighbour meant taking the risk of helping someone who might hurt him in return. It meant sacrificing some of his time and money for a Jewish stranger, even though he knew the Jews hated his people. It meant doing these things because he knew that God had placed this injured stranger in his path, and was calling him to help. This is what it means to love our neighbour as ourselves. It means loving people in real, tangible ways—often at great cost to ourselves.
So what are we to do, when the world presents us with so many things to care about? Here are a few suggestions. First, be honest with yourself. Really honest. Is there anything I can do about this? If not, give the situation to God in prayer, and do your best to forget about it.
Second, where important issues are too big for you to fix yourself, are there ways you can still make a difference? Global warming, for example, is a serious threat imperilling our planet. Neither you nor I can fix it, but are there things we can do locally? Can we drive less, walk more or advocate for better zoning? Before signalling your concern about global issues, are there local actions you can take which make a difference where you are?
Third, start incorporating into your prayer life, a request that God help you see clearly what He has placed in your path. Is there someone you work with or live with, who you should be paying more attention to? Or a situation you can and should be improving? Maybe you’ve been letting a friendship weaken through indifference, or you’ve not been paying attention to the things that matter to your child. Perhaps there is a conflict at your workplace which you should resolve, or a sick person you should be visiting. If so, then resolve to pay attention to the real people God has given you rather than the abstractions which clutter up your twitter feed.
Finally, when some issue or situation works its way through social media, stop before you like or re-tweet. Ask yourself, will this accomplish something? Will it inform people who need to be informed? Will it improve the lives of those who are likely to read it? Will it support someone who needs support? Or will it just tell everyone you have the right opinions? If that’s all it does, don’t post. The world doesn’t need more virtue-signalling.
We live in a complex world, full of wars and rumours of wars. But Jesus tells us not to let these things trouble us. The world we live in is fallen, and true sorrows are sure to come. But Jesus doesn’t ask us to concern ourselves with what lies outside of our ability to change. Instead, He reminds us that we have a Father who knows our needs and takes charge over the things we have no power to control. So, instead of worrying about the things we cannot change, why not open yourself up to His grace and change the things you can. Let your prayer be as the psalmist once wrote:
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore. (Psalm 131, ESV)