This past Sunday, in connection with the phrase “whatever your hand finds to do…” (Eccles 9:10), I mentioned the concept of moral proximity. In both 1 Timothy 5:8 and Galatians 6:10, the word “especially” calls us to give priority to those closest to us, both in our livelihood and our charity, in our daily tasks and our volunteering. Here are Kevin DeYoung & Greg Gilbert on this concept:
Moral proximity refers to how connected we are to someone by virtue of familiarity, kinship, space, or time…. The closer the moral proximity, the greater the moral obligation…. [This principle] reminds us that we can’t possibly be the same kind of good neighbor to everyone in the world, nor must we. Supporting AIDS relief in Africa is a wonderful thing to do, but a failure to do so does not automatically make a church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a gospel-less, selfish church. But if that same church did nothing to hep their people when the river flooded in 2008, then they do not understand the love of Christ. Moral proximity should not make us more cavalier to the poor. But it should free us from unnecessary guilt and make us more caring toward those who count on us most.
I have appreciated a related teaching as well, a teaching regarding the difference between responsibilities and concerns. This is not so much a matter of prioritizing between what we ought to do and what we might do, but rather distinguishing between things we ought do and things that we can’t do. Paul Tripp frequently makes this point by diagramming a circle within a circle. He labels the inner circle “responsibilities,” and the outer circle, “concerns.”
[The Circle of Responsibility, the inner] circle represents a particular person’s biblical job description. These are the things that God, in his Word, calls this person to do in his present situation and relationships. A man, for example, needs a clear sense of what God calls him to do as a husband, father, neighbor, relative, son, worker, and member of the body of Christ. The response of faith in this case is obedience….The outer circle, the Circle of Concern, represents those things that are important to a person (the love [from] a spouse, a child’s salvation), yet beyond his ability to bring about. Therefore, they are not his responsibility. The response of faith in this case is to entrust these matters to God in prayer….People confuse these circles in many ways. First, they allow the inner circle to expand into the outer circle, so that they function as mini-messiahs, trying to do what only God can do. Second, they shrink the inner circle and, under the guise of trusting God, neglect to do what God calls them to do.
Take some time today or in the next few days, and write out some observations about your own life and tendencies in regard to the above. Identify the people closest to you; distinguish between your responsibilities and your concerns. Prayerfully make some notes to yourself seeking more clarity about God’s calling upon your life.
Kevin DeYoung & Greg Gilbert, What is the Misson of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. Wheaton: Crossway, 2011, pp. 183-186.
Paul David Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change. Phillipsburg: P&R, 2002, pp. 252-253.