What does it really mean to care?
Caring has been captured. I haven’t seen it reported in the news, and many remain unaware, but I see signs of it everywhere. Caring is variously defined as ‘displaying kindness and concern’ or ‘feeling or showing compassion’. But the way that the term ‘care’ (and the words used to define it) has been adopted by lobby groups in recent years gives it a political edge that is anything but kind. Under the rubric of compassion in its name, one such group is advocating the legalisation for doctors to be able to assist their patients in killing themselves. An opposing group, using care as the antithesis of killing, perhaps inadvertently suggests that anything short of killing constitutes care. Of course, this kind of linguistic power-play happens in parliamentary lobbying all the time. But, when the language of politics permeates the pastoral care of souls, winning for the cause can override the provision of help to people in need.
In the sense of showing kindness and compassion to others, caring is (of course) a biblical concept, though one shared by the three Abrahamic faiths. The New Testament (NT), however, shines some explicitly Christian light on the concept. The NT uses the two Greeks words most frequently translated as ‘care’ in English in apparently contradictory ways. This is helpfully made explicit in 1 Peter 5:7, where the two most familiar Greek words helpfully both appear in the same verse, “Casting all your care (merimna) upon Him, for He cares (melo) for you” (NKJV).
Merimna most frequently refers to our anxieties and things that concern us (i.e. we care about). Jesus uses this word in all three accounts of the parable of the sower in the synoptic gospels when He refers to those who hear His word, which is subsequently choked by their cares and riches of this world (Matt 13:22; Mark 4:19; Luke 8:14). Paul also uses merimna when he talks about all the many difficulties he has had to face in his ministry. He adds, as the grand finale, “besides those, the daily care of all the churches” (2 Cor 11:28).
In contrast, melo (and its cognates) is the word of choice for expressing compassion, and providing practical and emotional support and help. This is shown in the parable of the Good Samaritan, where the Samaritan brings the man ‘who fell among thieves’ to an inn and ‘took care of him’ (Luke 10:34) and instructs the innkeeper to take care of him as well (Luke 11:35). Paul also uses melo when he asks if God cares for oxen (1 Cor 9:9). The clear implication is that He does indeed, and so how much more does He care for us to whom He gives His word about caring for animals. This passage echoes Jesus’ words about our heavenly Father feeding the birds and clothing the flowers of the field, so how much more will He do the same for us. (Matt 6:26-30).
The two senses of “care” in the English language are mirrored in our practical experience of caring. Showing concern and kindness to others comes with a cost, and caring people are often prone to experience their care and compassion for others morphing into burdens for themselves that they cannot carry. No wonder then that Peter reminds us in 1 Peter 5:7 (referred to earlier) that God’s care in His loving kindness and compassion motivates us to share the weight of our concerns and anxieties with Him. When care burdens us, often from caring for others, our Lord Jesus tells us to come to Him and take His yoke on us and learn from Him. His yoke is easy, and His burden is light because He carries it with us (Matt 11:28-30).
The Uncaring Christ?
What recently struck me the most about the use of melo in the gospels is that it is most often used negatively in a context of not caring. Examples include the reference to Judas not caring for the poor because he was a thief (John 12:6), or where Luke recounts that Gallio didn’t care about Sosthenes being beaten up when he had done nothing wrong (Acts 18:17).
Strikingly, however, the person most frequently accused in the NT of being uncaring is Christ Himself. “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (Mark 4:38), he disciples accusingly ask Jesus as they wake Him up from His sleep. They fear for their lives in events over which they have absolutely no control, and don’t believe that Jesus has any control over it either. Sound familiar? Equally accusing is Martha’s complaint to Jesus about her sister’s perceived neglect of her in paying so much attention to Him, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” (Luke 10:40). Her telling Jesus what to do by ordering Him about in her parting shot is instructive here. She accuses the one who was to lay down His life for her, of not caring about her. But she was really trying to impose her will on Jesus. ‘Not caring’ was just a form of emotional blackmail. Later on, in John’s gospel, both Martha and Mary imply Jesus had been neglectful of them and their dead brother Lazarus when they both independently say to him, “If you had been here our brother would not have died.” (John 11:21,32). In their loss and grief, even the sister who had sat at Jesus’ feet, and the one who was too distracted by serving, both consider that Jesus didn’t care.
If Jesus Himself was accused of being uncaring by those facing a crisis point of overwhelming emotions, it is perhaps not surprising that those who seek to follow Him face similar accusations today. Nowhere is this more apparent than in relation to sexual expression. God’s gift of marriage between husband and wife should be understood as a parallel of the relationship between Christ and His Bride, the Church (Ephesians 5:32-33). But, so often today, it is seen as an uncaring limitation to be overridden by those who want to express their sexual desires outside of marriage. Almost any form of sexual boundary is challenged as uncaring (at best) and repressive and harmful (at worst).
Scripture unequivocally describes sex outside of the husband and wife relationship (e.g. in Matt 15:19, 1 Cor 6:15-18, Col 3:5, Gal 5:19) as porneia. This Greek word is shorthand for any kind of sexual immorality, and our word ‘pornography’ comes from it. Living a life of sexual purity, free from all the perils of porneia is increasingly difficult in our Western society where people are sexualised from infant school. This increases the cost of Christian discipleship, but does not alter its terms. We can protest about our sexual plight in the light of scriptural norms, but we all need to exercise sexual restraint for much of our lives, and for some, it is lifelong. However, when such a calling is due to being gay or lesbian, uncaring and even hateful attitudes are still sometimes expressed within churches.
However, this should not be so, and it need not be so. TFT has been a source of support since I first encountered it as a young Christian, and I have met no abusive practices in the churches I have attended. It is never a caring action to encourage sinful behaviour, sexual or otherwise. Our profession of faith is determined by our obedience to Christ’s commands. These mean, however, that we are consistent in expressing the care and compassion that we have received from Christ in our attitudes and actions towards others. As Christ Himself put it, “Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34).
This article was originally published in the autumn 2021 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.
Download the autumn 2021 edition of Ascend