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On Bearing One Another’s Burdens


Galatians 6:2

Some of the things we call “burdens” scarcely merit the label. They are niggling nuisances, annoyances, irritations, to be sure, but we exaggerate if we call them burdensome. Like arthritis in one knuckle only. A teenager who sits on the living room sofa still wearing his fix-the-car trousers. A husband who leaves dishwater in the sink. Irksome matters. But not worthy of being called burdens.

And then there are real burdens. If the burden is bad enough we speak of “dead weight”. “Dead weight” suggests that this burden is threatening to collapse us.

Will it submerge us? Even crush us? Perhaps not. You have seen the picture of the two tousled-haired boys, one carrying the other. The first fellow is staggering under the weight of the other. Nonetheless he smiles cheerfully and says, “He’s not heavy; he’s my brother!” He’s not heavy? Not true! He is so heavy that the first fellow is wobbly-kneed. Nevertheless, “he’s my brother”. And so the burden is shouldered gladly, without complaint, without resentment, without calculation as to whether burden-bearing is even possible.

St. Paul insists there is a burden which you and I as Christians ought to carry, and even to carry gladly: the burden of someone dear to us who has taken a spill; “overtaken in a trespass” is how the apostle puts it. From time to time someone in our Christian community, someone among our friends, even someone in our family runs off the rails. She is caught in or confesses to behaviour which we find scandalous. What happens next to that person? What happens next to her, what happens within her, depends chiefly on what we do.

Paul insists there is only one thing we are to do with such a person: “restore him in a spirit of gentleness”. But why should we bother to restore him at all, never mind restore him gently? Hasn’t he disgraced himself? Hasn’t she embarrassed the family? Hasn’t he brought a knowing smirk to the face of those who say that Christian faith is froth and phoniness? Then why should we bother to restore such a person?

There are many reasons. In the first place, we are only one step away from the same spill ourselves. More likely half a step away! “Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted”, says the apostle. We must not think we possess a spiritual superiority, a moral superiority which makes us impervious to the very temptation which has overwhelmed our sister or brother.

One day a member of the congregation is arrested for embezzling. “How could he have done it?”, some people wonder out loud. But haven’t you ever been under severe financial pressure yourself — for who knows what reason — when just a few hundred extra dollars for just a month or two would get you past the squeeze? The fellow just arrested had convinced himself that he was only going to “borrow” the money. Certainly he intended to pay it all back as soon as he could. It just happened (according to his unrecognized rationalization) that he “ran out of time”.

The sweetest woman in the congregation is found to have injured her three year-old. Tongues wag. “How could she have injured her own flesh and blood, a defenceless bundle of love at that?” I have no difficulty understanding how. Young Mrs. “X” had already been up three nights in a row with another child, a sick child. Her sleep-deprivation had put her on the ragged edge. Besides, it was only the third week in the month and her husband’s paycheque, sorely needed, was still eight days off. So many more things had piled up on her that her nerves were quivering the way a horse’s legs will quiver when it is whipped. And then the three year-old himself behaved with that mean, miserable ugliness which unfailingly confirms the doctrine of original sin. This time it pushed sweet mother over the edge. Now she is humiliated. She feels that everyone is looking sideways at her, as though she were uncommonly cruel or unusually unstable, when in fact she is neither. Shame. Guilt. Disgrace. But before we point a finger at her or think out loud behind her back we have to hear Paul’s caution: “Look to yourself”.

Somebody has an affair. Betrayal of one’s wife or husband is a very bad thing. But it’s not the only bad thing about the affair, not necessarily the worst thing. Think of the utter self-falsification which characterizes the betrayer finally. But he didn’t start off sunk in self-falsification. Affairs advance a step at a time, proceeding incrementally. Each step is rationalized subtly; that is, uncritically lied about, usually to others and always to oneself. With each step the situation becomes more complex and more ridden with deceit. By now falsification has become a way of life; it’s the currency in which one traffics every day; it’s the atmosphere one inhales and exhales unthinkingly. At this point someone has cloaked himself in falsehood for so long that he becomes the very cloak he’s wearing. Now he’s a walking lie. And he no longer knows who he is.

Then one day a shaft of light, a ray of truth penetrates the falsity like a laser. He sees what he is. And he can scarcely believe it. Or endure it. After all, when he was sunk in self-falsification, at least he was as happy as anyone else who lives in a fool’s paradise. Now that the truth about himself has broken in upon him, he’s devastated. He is himself the very thing which he has always despised in other people. Our friend has looked into the mirror. What has looked back at him has frightened him and saddened him and disgusted him all at once.

Those of us whose sin is less dramatic, less lurid, yet know the depravity which lurks in our heart. We ask ourselves the same question. As we do we stop wondering why we should even bother with the person who has stumbled. We realize that we are only a step away, half a step, from similar offense ourselves. And if it had happened to us, we’d be desperate for someone to bother with us!

But there is another reason, a better reason, for restoring our sister or brother: we are inwardly constrained to reflect the mind and spirit, the heart and hand of Jesus Christ. Our Lord never disdained those who had been overtaken in a trespass. Yes, he did speak with terrible severity of those who planned and plotted and protracted their degenerate behaviour. But those who were “overtaken”, surprised at their trespass — these people he always restored gently.

Knowing this, Paul maintains that as we restore others gently we “fulfil the law of Christ”. We walk the way which our Lord calls us to walk, the way which he walks with us.

The word “trespass” is really an old fashioned expression for “misstep”. You are walking down a flight of stairs when you miss a stair, stumble, and jar yourself. (When you miss a stair the element of surprise is always startling, isn’t it?) You are stepping briskly along a leaf-covered sidewalk; because of the leaves piled up and strewn around you don’t see the curb. You misstep, stumble and jar yourself. (Another unpleasant surprise, usually painful as well.) This is the kind of trespass Paul speaks of and this is the kind of trespasser whom Jesus always restored gently. Reason enough for Christians like you and me to hear and heed the apostle!

Therefore when we are face-to-face with someone who has misstepped, someone who has been surprised and jarred as trespass overtook her, do we deflect her shame back into her face or do we own her shame as ours as well? Do we rub her nose in her humiliation or do we absorb it ourselves and put an arm around her, affirming our solidarity-in-sinnership? Do we regard ourselves as superior, or do we say, “Take my hand, brother, I know the way to the cross.” We must cherish him as much as we have ever cherished him, and do so manifestly. Our concern must be as evident as his collapse is undeniable.

Let’s not underestimate what is at stake here. In restoring the person surprised by trespass we are not doing something trivial or pointless or ineffective. On the contrary, we are doing something of remarkable importance, something of extraordinary effectiveness.

The English word “restore” translates a Greek word (katartizein) with three meanings. First of all, the Greek word means to set a broken bone. A broken bone is both painful and useless. The broken leg doesn’t walk. The broken hand doesn’t grasp. The broken limb simply doesn’t work. And it is painful. In restoring those who are overtaken (surprised) in a trespass — whether in our family (where shame seems to spew in all directions and land on everyone) or among our friends (who never needed us as much as they need us now) or within our congregation — wherever — in understanding and cherishing these people we are restoring them to usefulness (they can function among us once more) and we are reducing their pain.

But the Greek word for “restore” has an additional meaning: to remove a tumour. A tumour, of course, is life-threatening. In restoring those who have misstepped we are removing something which threatens them, to be sure, and which threatens us as well. After all, if I don’t cherish my sister or brother who has been overtaken, then I have clearly sundered myself from Jesus Christ who does cherish them! My refusal to restore others — not grudgingly but in the spirit of Christ — is always a spiritual threat to me!

The third meaning to the Greek word for “restore” is more common: to repair, to put back together what is broken, even what is broken down. So what exactly are we doing when we gently restore someone whose sin has sneaked up on her and submerged her? We are repairing what is broken and restoring it to usefulness; we are setting a fractured limb and reducing pain; we are removing what is life-threatening and promoting wholeness. This is no small matter. In doing this, Paul says, we are fulfilling the law of Christ, the Torah of Christ. And Torah, our Jewish friends tell us, is not merely truth to be understood but a way to be walked, the way, in fact. The result of our walking this way is that someone is raised from the dead; someone is infused with new life.

We do all this as we “bear one another’s burdens”. Is it a burden? Yes! Sharing someone else’s shame and humiliation and guilt really is a burden. Then is it also a dead weight, on the point of crushing the breath out of us? No! We have to be like the little fellow who, even as he staggers under his load, says cheerfully, “He’s not heavy, he’s my brother!”

For this reason Paul concludes this paragraph in his letter to the congregation in Galatia, “Let us not grow weary in well-doing; for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart”. We musn’t lose heart in this endeavour. We mustn’t grow weary. Its fruit is going to be reaped. It will raise the dead and infuse new life into all of us.

“She’s not heavy, she’s my sister”

Then we shall bear one another’s burdens gladly, knowing that our Lord counted himself among the transgressors, burdened himself with us sinners, and therein appointed us all to the glorious liberty of the daughters and sons of God.

                                                                      Victor Shepherd

September, 1996            

 “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”