What Does it Mean to Bear One Another’s Burdens?


“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” – Galatians 6:2 ESV

 

This passage recently came to mind as I was reading an article at The Gospel Coalition blog (http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2014/02/20/pastor-stop-lying/). We know what we have so often understood it to mean, what we’ve so often been told it meant, but since reading the aforementioned blog article, I’ve been wondering what it really does mean and what bearing one another’s burdens actually looks like (or, perhaps more accurately, should look like) in the Church today.

 

I don’t know everything and have never thought that I did. (Despite the evil and false accusations from some so-called brothers and sisters in Christ who hate the intelligence that I did not choose or cause and cannot change; intelligence is not knowledge and, frankly, I’m getting really sick of these wicked people presuming to tell me what I think or believe or feel about myself). There’s quite a lot that I don’t know – especially when it comes to things associated with relationships, such as this whole matter of bearing one another’s burdens.

 

In 21st century, post-modernist (some would even say post-post-modernist) America, it has become a fad in churches to want everyone to be “real,” “authentic,” “transparent,” and “vulnerable” – which I believe is code for “we want to know every detail about everyone else’s lives, but we don’t want others to probe too deeply into our own” and “you have nothing that you can say to me unless you can show me that you’re just as broken and hurting as I am.” (As if to say that not opening up and laying out our entire lives before others somehow means we’re not “real” or are lacking “authenticity,” another one of those faddish code words). We want all the juicy details about someone else’s life (especially those of the people in leadership). Some, perhaps, want to know all the details so that they can throw it back in our faces and say to you or to me “Your life isn’t perfect either: who are you to presume to tell me anything?”

 

About Galatians 6:2, quoted above, English Baptist theologian John Gill commented in his Exposition on the Entire Bible: “[bear one another’s burdens] may be understood either of sins, which are heavy burdens to sensible sinners, to all that are partakers of the grace of God; Christ is only able to bear these burdens, so as to remove them and take them away, which he has done by his blood, sacrifice, and satisfaction; saints bear one another’s, not by making satisfaction for them, which they are not able to do, nor by conniving at them, and suffering them upon them, which they should not do, but by gently reproving them, by comforting them when overpressed [sic] with guilt, by sympathizing with them in their sorrow, by praying to God for to manifest his pardoning grace to them, and by forgiving them themselves, so far as they are faults committed against them: or else the frailties and infirmities of weak saints, which are troublesome, and apt to make uneasy, are meant; and which are to be bore by the strong, by making themselves easy with them, and by accommodating themselves to their weakness, and by abridging themselves of some liberties, which otherwise might be lawfully taken by them; or afflictions may be designed, which are grievous to the flesh, and are bore by others, when they administer help and relief under them, whether in a temporal or spiritual way; and when they condole them, and sympathize with them, bear a part with them, and make others’ griefs and sorrows their own: and so fulfil [sic] the law of Christ; which is the law of love to one another, John 13:34 in opposition to the law of Moses, the Judaizing Galatians were so fond of, and by which Christ’s disciples may be distinguished from those of Moses, or any others. This is a law or doctrine which Christ has clearly taught, and recovered from the false glosses of the Pharisees; it is his new commandment, which he has strengthened and enforced by his own example in dying for his people, and which he, by his Spirit, inscribes upon their hearts. The Jews speak of the law of the Messiah as preferable to any other.”

 

The 19th century Presbyterian theologian Albert Barnes commented on Galatians 6:2 in his Notes on the Bible: “Bear with each other; help each other in the divine life. The sense is that every man has special temptations and easily besetting sins, which constitute a heavy burden. We should aid each other in regard to these, and help one another to overcome them.” He refers the reader to his notes on Romans 15:1 where he says that “here it [the phrase ‘obligation to bear with’ in Romans 15:1] is used in a larger sense; ‘to bear with, to be indulgent to, to endure patiently, not to contend with.’”

 

My favorite Bible commentator, English non-conformist theologian Matthew Henry, commented on Galatians 6:2 in his Commentary on the Whole Bible: “This may be considered either as referring to what goes before [in Galatians 6:1, about which Matthew Henry commented “We are here taught to deal tenderly with those who are overtaken in a fault”], and so may teach us to exercise forbearance and compassion towards one another, in the case of those weaknesses, and follies, and infirmities, which too often attend us – that, though we should not wholly connive at them, yet we should not be severe against one another on account of them; or as a more general precept, and so it directs us to sympathize with one another under the various trials and troubles that we may meet with, and to be ready to afford each other the comfort and counsel, the help and assistance, which our circumstances may require.”

 

It should be noted that Galatians 6:2 comes on the heels of the preceding verse: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” So, I wonder if there’s a connection between restoring someone who “is caught in any transgression” and “bear one another’s burdens.” Again, John Gill commented: “Or ‘be taken before’ in one; not, as Grotius thinks, before this epistle should come to them, which is a very jejune and empty sense of the words; nor before the conversion of the man, because sins before conversion do not come under the notice and cognizance of a church, or are liable to its reproofs and censures; but before the man is aware, through negligence and imprudence, for want of caution and circumspection, and so is carried away, either through the treachery of his own heart, and the power of corruption; or through the temptations of Satan, who goes about, and comes on the back of them, lays snares for them, and attacks them unawares, and takes all advantages of them; or by the ill examples of others, whereby they are drawn aside, and into sin. The apostle has no particular respect by a ‘fault’ to schisms in the church, or to any errors or heresies in doctrine, though the restoration of such in meekness should be endeavoured; but rather to immorality in life and conversation, and indeed to any of the works of the flesh mentioned in the preceding chapter; and especially he means any ‘fall’ of professors, as the word used signifies, into sin, through inadvertency and want of care and watchfulness, in distinction from a wilful, obstinate, and continued course of sinning; and intends not any man in the world, for those that are without, churches and members of churches have nothing to do with in a church way; but any man that is a brother, a church member, that stands in such a relation to them, when he falls into sin, is to be taken notice of by them. And so the Syriac version reads, ‘any one of you’; as does one of Stephens’s copies.”

 

Gill continues: “meaning not such who had greater spiritual gifts than others, their ministers, pastors, and ecclesiastical governors, though these may be so called; and to them it belongs to reprove and rebuke, recover and restore backsliders, which they should do in gentleness and meekness; but the apostle here addresses the brethren in general, the several members of the church, even all but those that were fallen: nor does he mean such as have more spiritual knowledge than others, in opposition to babes; nor regenerate persons, and such as had the Spirit of God, in distinction from carnal men; but such as live and walk in the Spirit, and are strong, and stand by the power and grace of the Spirit of God, as opposed to the weak, and who were fallen through the prevalency of the flesh, and force of temptation; whose duty it is, and on whom it lies, to restore such an one, that is overtaken and fallen.

 

“The allusion is to the setting of bones that are broken, or out of joint, which is done with great care and tenderness. Professors fallen into sin are like broken and dislocated bones; they are out of their place, and lose both their comfort and usefulness, and are to be restored by gently telling them of their faults, and mildly reproving them for them; and when sensible of them, and troubled for them, by speaking comfortably to them, and by bringing them again, and resettling them in their former place in the church, and restoring them to their former usefulness and good conduct: and which is to be done in the spirit of meekness: in the exercise of that grace which is a gift and fruit of the Spirit of God; or with a meek and humble spirit, not bearing hard upon them, and treating them in a supercilious and haughty manner, upbraiding them with their faults, aggravating them, and using them roughly, and with sharpness, which in some cases is necessary, but not in this: considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted: a spiritual man should consider himself as in the body, and as carrying about with him a body of sin, a corrupt and treacherous heart, that is full of deceitful lusts, by which he may be tempted also, and drawn away and enticed; and as being liable to the temptations of Satan, and of being overcome by; them, against which he should watch and pray; and should think with himself what he would choose, and should desire to be done to him in such a case, and do the like to others that are in it.

 

“This is a reason enforcing the exhortation; and indeed almost every word in the text carries an argument engaging to it. The relation the saints stand in to one another, as ‘brethren’, should excite them to seek each other’s welfare, and to restore any that are fallen, and to abstain from all roughness and severity. The persons addressed are ‘spiritual’, and therefore should behave as such as have the fruits of the Spirit, and, among the rest that of meekness; and, since they are strong, should help the weak, and raise up the fallen: the persons recommended to them, as the objects of their pity, care, and concern, are not such who have given up themselves to sin, but are circumvented by it, and ‘overtaken’ in it, suddenly, and at unawares. And besides, are men, frail sinful men, liable to sin, encompassed with infirmities, and exposed to snares and temptations, which are common to human nature, and therefore should be used gently and tenderly: The apostle having given an enumeration in the foregoing chapter, of the works of the flesh, and fruits of the Spirit, directs such as are in the exercise of the latter, how to behave towards those that fall into the commission of any of the former, which may be expected, since there is flesh as well as spirit in the best.”

 

So, again, is there a connection between restoring someone who “is caught in any transgression” and “bear one another’s burdens”? Is there any connection between bearing one another’s burdens and the current fad in the American Church of being “real” or “vulnerable”? Do we bear someone’s burdens merely by knowing all the juicy details of the failings in another believer’s life? I think that perhaps Galatians 6:1 provides the context in which we carry out Galatians 6:2. I don’t think it means we’re all to go around just indiscriminately telling each other our faults and struggles (though James 5:16 ESV does tell us “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working;” the word “faults” is used in the King James Version and I think this is why we misinterpret the passage as referring to any of our shortcomings, not just sins). I don’t think the scriptures are telling us to go around telling each other our faults and sins in a “You tell me your sins and shortcomings and I’ll tell you mine” sort of way. Even in James 5:16, the purpose of confessing our sins to one another seems to be limited to the specific purpose of having those others pray for us.

 

About James 5:16, I agree with Matthew Henry: “Christians are directed to confess their faults one to another, and so to join in their prayers with an [sic] for one another, James 5:16. Some expositors connect this with James 5:14. As if when sick people send for ministers to pray over them they should then confess their faults to them. Indeed, where any are conscious that their sickness is a vindictive punishment of some particular sin, and they cannot look for the removal of their sickness without particular applications to God for the pardon of such a sin, there it may be proper to acknowledge and tell his case, that those who pray over him may know how to plead rightly for him. But the confession here required is that of Christians to one another, and not, as the papists would have it, to a priest. Where persons have injured one another, acts of injustice must be confessed to those against whom they have been committed. Where persons have tempted one another to sin or have consented in the same evil actions, there they ought mutually to blame themselves and excite each other to repentance. Where crimes are of a public nature, and have done any public mischief, there they ought to be more publicly confessed, so as may best reach to all who are concerned. And sometimes it may be well to confess our faults to some prudent minister or praying friend that he may help us to plead with God for mercy and pardon. But then we are not to think that James puts us upon telling everything that we are conscious is amiss in ourselves or in one another; but so far as confession is necessary to our reconciliation with such as are at variance with us, or for gaining information in any point of conscience and making our own spirits quiet and easy, so far we should be ready to confess our faults. And sometimes also it may be of good use to Christians to disclose their peculiar weaknesses and infirmities to one another, where there are great intimacies and friendships, and where they may help each other by their prayers to obtain pardon of their sins and power against them. Those who make confession of their faults one to another should thereupon pray with and for one another.”

 

The discussion so far indicates that the concept of bearing one another’s burdens has to do with sin or other shortcomings in each other’s lives. Yet, I wonder if we can incorporate into this people’s struggles and hurts and other such things not related to sin or shortcomings – things like the pastor and his wife who just recently lost their daughter to cancer, or the person who feels he or she has been “abused” by pastors and congregations and, thus, is unwilling to commit to a local church, or the person who doesn’t have the slightest clue what it means to be in relationship with others and who struggles to deal with the communal nature of Christianity. To what extent can “bear one another’s burdens” be expanded to include Paul’s command in Romans 12:15 (ESV) to “weep with those who weep”? I don’t know.

 

So, what am I suggesting here? I’m suggesting the following:

 

  1. Bearing one another’s burdens doesn’t mean “You tell me your sins and shortcomings and I’ll tell you mine” or “We want everyone else to be ‘real’ or ‘transparent’ or ‘authentic’ or ‘vulnerable’ to us and they can only do this by telling us the juicy details of what’s going on in their lives.”
  2. Bearing one another’s burdens is directly connected to restoring those who are caught in transgressions (see Galatians 6:1-2). It’s about how we deal with sin in our own and each other’s lives. It’s about the attitude of our own hearts with regard to others’ sins and shortcomings. We are to, as Albert Barnes wrote, “Bear with each other; help each other in the divine life. The sense is that every man has special temptations and easily besetting sins, which constitute a heavy burden. We should aid each other in regard to these, and help one another to overcome them” and “to bear with, to be indulgent to, to endure patiently, not to contend with.”
  3. Along those lines, we’re to, as Matthew Henry suggested, “sympathize with one another under the various trials and troubles that we may meet with, and to be ready to afford each other the comfort and counsel, the help and assistance, which our circumstances may require.” Also, as John Gill wrote, we’re to “sympathize with them, bear a part with them, and make others’ griefs and sorrows [our] own.”

 

I admit that there’s a lot about all this “vulnerability” and “authenticity” and “transparency” and being “real” stuff I just don’t understand. What’s the value in being “vulnerable,” of leaving ourselves exposed and unprotected so that we can be attacked and harmed? (This is why I really dislike that word vulnerable). Granted, Jesus said in Mark 8:35 (ESV) “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” However, the context is persecution and the potential of losing our lives for the sake of Christ and the gospel (as really does happen in so much of the eastern world today), not opening ourselves to attack and to being hurt by fellow believers. Where does scripture tell us to open ourselves up to potentially being harmed by others? Why is it a virtue to risk being hurt? I really don’t get it!

 

On the other hand, what presumption it is to think we somehow have a right not to be hurt! We are dead and our life is hid with Christ in God (see Colossians 3:3): dead people have no rights! And who do we think we are to dare presume that we’re not going to forgive the person (or church) that hurt us or, if we do claim to forgive, to think that we’re not going to trust that person (or church) – if we refuse to trust, then we haven’t forgiven because we’re still holding that sin against the other person (or church). We are to forgive the way God forgives us (hint: He doesn’t say He forgives us and then go on to hold that sin against us by refusing to trust us or even just by refusing to forget that sin; He actively chooses not to remember our sins). So what if someone hurts us? We’re to forgive that person the way God forgives us. What are we doing going around preemptively protecting ourselves from others by refusing to risk having relationships with them?

 

Why is my private life any of your business? For Christians, is there even such a thing as a private life? As much as I dislike it, Christianity is a communal faith. It is lived in community with other Christians. We are to “bear one another’s burdens” and do a whole bunch of other “one another” stuff with each other. We can’t do that if we’re refusing to be “transparent” with each other, if we’re keeping significant parts of our lives to ourselves. However, I’m not sure that means we sit in a circle and go around telling each other everything that’s going on in our lives down to the minutest details of how long it took us to have a bowel movement and what color the fecal matter was.

 

I admit that I struggle with all of this. I’m not a social creature by nature. I like my alone time way too much. I’ve heard of loneliness, but I’ve never experienced it. (Loners are not lonely people; lonely people are not loners). Relationships make no sense to me whatsoever. I think social niceties (those things we say because we’re socially expected to say them) are fake and they really annoy me. (So, when I don’t say things that are socially expected, this is why). There’s a whole range of emotions that, frankly, I’ve never experienced; yet some of these particular emotions are ones most people seem to think are important.

 

So, as I’ve been reading things like the aforementioned TGC (The Gospel Coalition) blog article, I find myself unable to grasp a lot of it. These things are outside the realm of my experience. I want to understand it. To the extent that scripture commands us to do it, I want to be obedient. However, I’m not convinced that scripture teaches all this “vulnerability” and “transparency” stuff. What exactly does it mean to be “authentic” or “real”? These terms suggest the opposite (being “inauthentic” or “unreal”) is what most of us are being and that we’re somehow being deceptive by it. Are we being “authentic” or “real” by what we say (or how we say it) or wear (or don’t wear)? Or are these about what we do and about the attitudes of our own hearts? I get the impression that it’s the former and not the latter, that it’s about externals, about appearances, about what other people hear and see – it’s almost as if it’s more like “It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you talk about it openly using street language.”

 

I do okay with being able to sit with someone and listen – in fact, I’m the guy people (sometimes even complete strangers) often come to when they just need to talk. I can generally ask the questions (sometimes even hard questions) that will help a person come to the answers he or she is looking for. (Some people appreciate this sort of Socratic questioning while others find it annoying). But I’m sorry if I don’t feel what you’re feeling or if I don’t say to you “I know how you feel” or “I know what you’re going through” or any of the other things we’re socially expected to say as a way of showing we’re “sympathetic.” I’m sorry if I don’t think I have much to say about myself that’s important or that’s going to help you.

 

Again, I really don’t get it. I reluctantly accept that Christianity is a communal faith and that it’s a life lived in community with other believers (though not in the sense of some hippie commune). I want to live my life in community with other believers. I want to be able to “bear one another’s burdens.” At the same time, however, I’ve seen the damage done to brothers and sisters by churches that pushed this whole “accountability” and “transparency” and “vulnerability” thing to an extreme, in part because it was very often one-sided: you were supposed to be accountable and transparent and vulnerable to church leadership or to the person assigned to be your “accountability partner,” but they weren’t supposed to be those things to you, and as people in the church (especially pastors and their wives) sometimes gossiped about the things others were being vulnerable and transparent about. I’m pretty sure that isn’t supposed to be how it works.

 

It isn’t that I don’t want to be hurt (getting back to what I said at the start of the previous paragraph) – I really don’t care about that. It’s that I haven’t a clue how to have the relationships that are necessary for living life in community and for bearing one another’s burdens. I’m fairly certain, though, that bearing one another’s burdens isn’t a one-sided thing. If we’re bearing others’ burdens, we have to let others (though not necessarily the same others) bear ours – no matter how much we don’t like it or understand it.

 

If you’ve read this far, perhaps you’re asking yourself “So, what’s he saying is the meaning of ‘bear one another’s burdens’?” I suggested some things above based largely on what John Gill, Albert Barnes and Matthew Henry wrote, but I’m still not entirely sure what it means. There are elements of this, emotional elements, that I simply don’t get because they’re outside my realm of experience. I am certain, however, that bearing one another’s burdens has to be intentional, has to be something we actively choose to do and with a particular goal in mind. I think that maybe it has a lot less to do with emotions and more to do with actions. I’m probably wrong, but that’s what I think.