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Bearing Burdens


In Galatians 6:2-5 there is an interesting little contradiction. Paul says, "Let each person bear their own burden." But then, he also says, "Bear one another's burdens." It appears to be a contradiction, but in fact, it is a paradox.

In our Christian walk there is a need to first take care of our own responsibilities before we can begin to help others. Obviously, if we are all taking care of our own responsibilities, then there will be no need to help each other. But reality is that there are always going to be ways that we can assist one another.

The first verse is like the "capitalist" approach, and the second is like the "socialist" approach. And we do need to learn a bit of each. It's easy, in a commune situation, for people to expect others to do all the waiting on them. But these two apparently contradictory verses allow for the dilemma that exists when a genuine, sincere Christian leader sees that someone needs to learn to give, and not to be continually taking. While the leader needs to be prepared to help the other person with a burden, there are times when he or she must insist that the person carry his or her own burden. And this article will be looking at how to recognise when that time has come.

These two verses are also relevant when non-members or new members try to set themselves up as authorities on how much the rest of us owe them in terms of love. It simply is not their responsibility to tell us what we are obliged to do or not do as Christians. It is their responsibility to first learn to carry their own burden. And when they have learned to do that, it may also be their responsibility to carry someone else's burden as well. If they are not able to do that, then they are not leaders, and thus not qualified to lecture anyone on what should or should not be done for them personally.

I know that Jesus told us to give to those who ask, and even to give to those who demand (in the sense of taking us to court). However, I have often found the "fruit" of giving in to people who tell us it is our Christian "duty" to help them, is very dissatisfying. So I have had to ask myself why this has happened. I feel the explanation is that the person doing the asking was trying to take the role of Jesus, so when I gave in to their demands, I did so because I was responding to them rather than responding to Jesus.

There is a whole world out there asking for help; but we have to ask Jesus where to start. When we reach out to help others in obedience to Jesus, then the fruit in our own spirit will be positive. If our "love" is only a reaction to the demands of those who want to lecture us on our Christian obligations, then the fruit will be negative.

Jesus was chased by a greedy crowd asking him for bread, and he refused to give it, because he said that their spirit was wrong. (John 6:26) Here he was, failing to practise his own principle of giving to those who ask! And yet there was ample evidence that he gave of himself constantly to the multitudes as well as to his disciples. The difference was that he reserved the option of choosing which askers he would give to. He didn't need to give to all who asked. So he gave to those who were most worthy first, as well as giving to a lot who were not worthy. But at the very bottom of the list were those who sought to lecture him on what they regarded as his spiritual obligation to them. The multitudes argued that Moses had given the Israelites bread to eat, and so Jesus, if he was the Messiah, was obligated to do at least as much for them. Such selfish people, who are experts on what everyone owes them, but idiots about their own obligations, are the least worthy to receive anything from God's people.

I remember when I first started living by faith: I found myself one cold night with no place to sleep; so I went to some of my church friends and asked if I could sleep at their house. They strongly disagreed with what I was saying about living by faith, and so they refused to put me up. I did not say so, but I was very angry with them for their behaviour. It was shockingly callous, and unchristian. But then I was out hitchhiking with another Christian one day, and when we had been there quite a while without getting a lift, he began to shout abuse at cars that whizzed by without picking us up, and I could see that his spirit was not right.

"They don't owe us anything," I explained. "We chose to live the way we do. If we wanted, we could get jobs and have cars of our own." I didn't think of the friends who refused me accommodation at that time, but I can see now that it was a similar situation. It probably was unchristian of them not to help, and it was probably unchristian of the drivers not to stop for a couple of hitchhikers. But the bottom line is that we had a responsibility as Christians ourselves to first bear our own burden, and then set about bearing the burdens of others. We would only make ourselves (and others) miserable by lecturing them on what they owed to us.

One day we might find ourselves in a situation (like I am in today) where we are leaders of other Christians. Then we can teach them the Christian principles of helping others, as I am trying to do with this article. But first I had to learn to bear my own burden. And so, it is important for each of the individuals and each of the teams in our big extended family to learn to be self-sufficient (even if it seems cruel of your leaders to expect you to do so). True, there are "socialist" verses about those who gather much sharing with those who have gathered little, and we do apply them at times. But there are also "capitalist" verses about refusing to feed those who refuse to work. It is up to the leaders to determine which verses apply in each situation. The clay doesn't tell the potter what to do.

And followers need to learn to carry their own burdens before they can even begin to think about telling someone else to carry their burden for them.

(See also Giving to Those Who Ask.)

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