“Bear one another’s burdens” (verse 2).
“Each one shall bear his own load (verse 5).
See! I told you the Bible was full of contradictions! To quote Bugs Bunny: What a maroon Paul must have been to contradict himself so obviously in just a few verses!
I’m chuckling to myself as I pretend to be a critic of the Bible. What a maroon, to think that Paul wouldn’t have seen his own contradiction, if it were one, and have corrected it.
But I’ll have to admit that such a jarring juxtaposition of apparently contrary ideas makes me think – and that’s a good thing.
So which is it? Are we supposed to carry our own burdens or to carry one another’s? The answer, of course, is “Both.” The older I get, the more I seem capable of understanding and accepting the complexities of life. Of course, it could have something to do with having completed a Ph.D. dissertation trying to explain what Anglicanism is!
The trick is in figuring out how the commandment to bear my own load relates to the commandment to bear the burdens of others. The answer, once again, is love. Galatians 5 and 6 and Paul’s commandments in those chapters may seem to have little to do with his hammering in Galatians 1-4 about the foolishness of seeking justification through the Law. In reality, they are intimately connected. The connection, of course, is love. Love is the fulfillment of the Law, and so everything Paul has to say from 5:14 through the end of the book is about love, which is the fulfillment of the Law.
Bear one another’s burdens, and bear your own burdens. How do these relate? Even the commandment “Love thy neighbor as thyself” implies both a bearing of the burdens of others as well as my own burdens. Loving my neighbor is therefore predicated on loving myself, something we are presumed to be able to do. Such a dynamic tension between self and other is the substance of love. I believe it’s a dynamic tension such as that found in the Holy Trinity, which is the essence of reality and life.
But a very strange thought has occurred to me. What if it isn’t always true that we know how to love ourselves? It’s true that we all seek the things that please us, but what if the things that please us aren’t really the things that are best for us? What if, in taking care of myself, that is, carrying my own burden, I have become the kind of person who keeps choosing what feels good instead of what is actually good? In such a case my ability to love others will also be severely impaired.
I think that it’s in taking care of ourselves first, in showing love to the body, mind, and soul that God has created me with, that I learn how to love others. This seems strange because it sounds like selfishness. But selfishness, as commonly defined, occurs only when we choose what feels good over what is actually good. Choosing to exercise my body and eat healthy foods and exercise my mind and train my will to choose God – these things certainly serve myself – but they are good things.
My first obligation is, believe it or not, to myself. Christians routinely get this wrong in 2 ways. On the one hand, we confuse serving self in love with serving self out of pride. The self-help gospels we hear, the materialism that Christians indulge in, and the self-pleasuring we fall prey to are not truly serving self, at least not in the sense of love. They are serving self in the sense of what we call self-serving, which should properly be understood in terms of choosing self over God.
There is, however, a way to serve self that is godly, and that is if we serve self in love, seeking God in all things and serving Him by submitting ourselves to Him. In this way, love of God leads to genuine love of self, and a self that is so loved by God and self is in a position to go out and love or serve others.
The other error Christians make in understanding how to serve or love self is that we don’t believe it should be done at all. There is a temptation for some of us to turn ourselves into mini-messiahs (or, for you Austin Powers fans, Mini Me-ssiahs). We may begin to believe that we are to so seek the good of others that we neglect ourselves. While this is noble, it may also be sinful, to think that we can go out and save others when we can’t even save or serve ourselves. It’s not selfish, for example, for a wife and mother to temporarily put aside the serving of husband or children to seek times of rest for herself or times of bodily exercise.
If you serve self in love and carry your own burdens then you will be equipped to carry the burdens of others. Who hasn’t noticed that those who have created a mess out of their lives never have anything left over to serve others or carry their burdens? They are always receivers of love and never givers. Our culture seems to have turned such dependency (which often comes from pride) into a virtue, so that it is more blessed to receive than to give.
But we are to have our own houses in order to the point that we can also carry the burdens of others. It turns out that the two are not mutually exclusive but mutually inclusive. Bearing your own burdens in love enables you to carry the burdens of others and bearing the burdens of others in love strengthens the love that must also be administered to self.
My first obligation, when I have been given a load by the Lord, is to turn to Him and ask Him to help me carry my own burdens, so that I am not unnecessarily a burden to others. If God has given me the resources to carry my own load, for example, my financial load, then it is not godly for me to go and beg from others or expect largesse from the state. And just because I have refused to make use of these resources or have been prodigal with them doesn’t automatically qualify me to go and beg. I am supposed to carry my own burdens.
But it is the state of things that we are often not sufficient to carry our own burdens, sometimes from our own sinfulness and sometimes only out of weakness. In fact, though our sad condition of being continually needy and in want is not a good thing, yet it delights the Lord to take the beggarly things of the world and transform them into His love and glory. The very fact that we can’t make it on our own is built into the human condition because we were created to live together.
For this reason, God created Eve from Adam, and for this reason we are the Body of Christ, and not just a colony of cells of Christ. We are actually a divine organism, patterned on the loving society of the Holy Trinity, that is connected. It’s not just that we go bumming a cup of sugar from our neighbors once in a while: we were created to be together in a more intimate and full way. We are created to be complete only together. In the sharing of our burdens with one another, we are bound together in mutual love. It’s therefore a tragedy when we believe too deeply the American myth of self-reliance. It’s a catastrophe when we think that we are islands, safe and secure, and when we build walls. We were created to live together, in intimate love, and that requires us to share our burdens with others.
But in this loving society, only healthy and functioning cells can help out their neighboring cells. And therefore, carry your own burdens that you may also carry the burdens of others. Love yourself and choose good that you might also love others and look outside of yourself, for this is the kind of centrifugal love that characterizes God Himself.
This is what the Law was really getting after, to get us to first bear our own burdens in love and second to bear one another’s burdens in love. It was in bearing our burdens, after all, that Jesus Christ kept the Law for us. And lest we think that even all together we are sufficient to carry our burdens, always remember that it is most truly Jesus Christ who carries our burdens for us and with us. He just happens to love to do it through His Body, the Church.
Prayer: O Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, I praise You for Your eternal love, out of which You created the world and redeemed it. By Your grace and by Your love, may You help me to love myself more perfectly that I might also love others. Carry my burdens with me that in all things, by Your love which is now also mine, I may fulfill Your holy Law. Amen.
Point for Meditation:
- In what ways have I not been taking heed to myself? What is one area where God is most calling me to take care of myself?
- What is one burden of another that God is calling me to help carry?
- Are there areas of my life where I may be confusing selfishness with loving self?
Resolution: I resolve to find one way to more perfectly bear my own burdens and serve myself in godly love today, that I might serve others.
Russian Jew Carrying Burden – U.S. Public Domain