A Quaker’s Guide to Concern

by Jace Williamson June 8, 2021

Another crisis. Another outrage. Another cause to get behind.

It seems that we are endlessly bombarded with social concerns that we should not only be aware of but be adamantly for or against. The list is exhaustive—Pro-this and anti-that. But, good news, there is no middle ground and a label to go along with every decision you make. Isn’t that great?

Socially, there is the pressure of being “in the know” about virtually everything that crosses our news cycles and our social media feeds. I believe this is leading us down many dangerous roads. At the forefront, I fear that the result is a generation of people aware of everything yet centralized in nothing, left overwhelmed and exhausted, or even worse, apathetic. How do we strike this balance of being rightly concerned, but not overwhelmed? Aware, but not exhausted? How do we fight the urge to become apathetic or bitter?

Thomas Watson was a Quaker missionary who wrote a short book called “A Testament of Devotion.” In one chapter, he tackles what he calls “The Nature and Grounds for Social Concern.” He argues that when you experience the love of God in Christ, it creates a “tenderness” for the things God loves.

He says: “There is a sense in which…we become one with God and bear in our quivering souls the sins and burdens, the benightedness and the tragedy of the creatures of the whole world, and suffer in their suffering, and die in their death.” (A Testament of Devotion, p. 81)

That wordy sentence says eloquently what the Apostle John says in 1 John 4:10-13. Love consists of understanding the depth in which God loves us. As creatures made in the image of God, there should be a genuine concern for your brother and the world because God cares for your brother and the world. John goes so far as to say that if you claim to love God, but hate your brother, you are a liar and the love of God is not in you. Watson establishes that a concern for people and social unrest is right and points towards your union with God himself as the foundation.

Watson states further that, “God’s love isn’t just a diffused benevolence.” Meaning God’s love is not scattered towards specific issues or troubles, like ours may be. He doesn’t pick and choose what to care about on a particular day. God’s love is an infinite love that covers all creatures and all situations, and there is never a point where He hits his capacity.

But what about us? This is where Watson writes about what he calls the “particularization of my responsibility.” He argues that the world is too vast, and a lifetime is too short to carry all the responsibilities for every issue and every person. He is not arguing for apathy. His point is that only one Person (i.e., Jesus) can fulfill the responsibility for universal love and saviorhood. Instead of giving us that burden, Watson says that:

“[God] puts upon each of us just a few central tasks, as emphatic responsibilities. For each of us, these special undertakings are our share in the joyous burdens of love.” (p. 82)

There is a sense in which mirroring our Creator causes us to have a universal love for all people and good causes that need attention. Watson says this is the “second layer” or a “background layer” that runs underneath. Think of it as sort of a peripheral vision. But, in the foreground, the first layer, there is a particular burden, a special yearning, that God places upon our hearts.

I agree with Watson that God puts “joyous burdens of love” upon us. He puts desires and yearnings within our hearts that come with particular responsibilities to pursue. Maybe it is born out of an experience you had or a conviction you carry. For missionaries, the joyous burden may be following God’s call to serve a specific people group. For others, it may be seeking to relieve the problems related to foster care, racial injustice, prison ministry, refugees, or poverty. These are all good and right things, but cannot and should not be carried out by one person.

This idea coincides with the inner-workings of the church laid out in 1 Corinthians 12. Though one body, the church comprises many parts working towards the same mission, as Christ as the head. Do you realize the freedom this gives you? Two people within the church may not have the same role, which is exactly how God designed the church to function. To use Paul’s analogy, “If the whole body was an eye, where would be the sense of hearing?”

When you realize that you have a brother or sister carrying out the particular responsibility that God has given them, you get to cheer them on and support them. Of course, there is some burden for their cause. You don’t just ignore some parts of your body, right? But, you realize that you are free from playing a role made for another person and carrying their joyous burden. In other words, the church needs those whose particular responsibility lies in teaching theology and others who are focused on local poverty. We need those who call us to care for the orphan and those who call us to evangelize our neighborhood.

The result is a balanced church whose scope of care and concern looks a lot like the God we serve: universal.

Watson sums up his call to simplicity in concern: “Too many of us have too many irons in the fire. We get distracted by the intellectual claim to our interest in a thousand and one good things….” (p. 84)

Christian, there are a thousand and one good things to which you could cast your concern. But, carrying the burden of every cause is a job reserved for the God of the universe. You are free from that. You can’t do it all. But, what you can do is find the “joyous burden” God has given you and go all-in.