the dreaded word

Responsibility. I'm reminded of it again now because I find myself between an overly responsible person and someone reluctant to take any responsibility for their own life, trying to help them make sense of their relationship.

But for the past couple years I've been trying to eliminate the word "responsible" from my vocabulary. There's even been times when I've been called responsible and I asked that the person take it back. I don't want to be responsible. I don't think it's a good thing.

In conversations with Heather I've tried to replace the concept of "responsibility" with love instead. But I'm not sure that's clear enough. The problem I have with responsibility is not just semantics but the underlying idea, and all the connotations that go with that word. According to the Merriam-Webster definition, responsibility basically means having to respond, or answer for something. Which doesn't sound so bad. But who are we answering to? And what for? And are we even able to answer—should we be expected to answer?

The word has strong legal and political connotations, having to do with duty and office, answering to authorities or constituents, and paying penalties when we fail in our responsibilities. In these cases, the duties and penalties are determined by the people in power, and it is often hard to find a direct connection to God or a higher morality. Sometimes though, "responsible" is used to mean the ability to decide right and wrong. This would seem to refer to our responsibility for our actions before God, to whom we must all answer. This may be the closest to a meaningful use of the word.

Yet we are often held (or hold ourselves) responsible for things we cannot control. For the safety or happiness of another person, for instance, when there are so many factors in their life that we couldn't possibly understand or manage. Part of the meaning of responsibility includes "being the primary cause," and there is so little that we are truly the cause for.

And even that which we really are the cause for—our own choices and actions—do we really intend to take responsibility for those before God?

If so, we are in for a terrible surprise. Anyone who tries to stand before God and answer for their actions is going to experience a terrifying moment. Even the vaguest thought of it can produce deep anxiety. One of the clearest and best teachings in Christianity (emphasized especially by the more evangelical churches) is that we place the responsibility for our lives squarely on Jesus. Or rather, he takes this weight on himself for us. God takes responsibility for our life if we give that life to him.

In a redeemed life, the responsibility is God's. Just as in the whole of the created world, the responsibility is God's. He is the only one who can possibly answer for it; he is the only one who is the primary cause.

Of course, "responsible" also has some good connotations. Like dependability, trustworthiness. But I think the better word for that is "conscientious." Acting according to conscience, morally, carefully. With love. That's what can be expected of us, to obey what God speaks to us, to act with care, and to direct the trust of others to God. To encourage others to depend on God, just as we do.

Don't call me responsible (and definitely don't try to lay responsibilities on me). But I will do my best to be conscientious, loving. And I'll expect the same of you.