Bearing one another’s burdens

I’ve noticed that most people have a tendency to apologize after asking for help. “I’m sorry to lay this on you,” we say. “I’m sorry that was so much.” We apologize because we know firsthand how hard this burden is to carry, and now we’ve gone and laid part of it on someone else’s shoulders. 

When my friends apologize to me, I usually respond by quoting Galatians 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” I mean what I say, except that I live out a slight alteration: “Bear others’ burdens.” Full stop. I want to help my brothers and sisters carry the weight of living in a broken world, as Paul calls the Galatians to do. I want to use my hands and words for mercy and justice and to stand by my siblings’ sides as they fight their battles. Yet though I am ready to be leaned on, I am hesitant to lean on others. For as long as I can remember, I have not only felt uncomfortable with allowing others to carry my burdens; I have felt that I myself am a burden. I don’t share my burdens except when I can’t hide them anymore. I know you’re busy, so I won’t ask if you can call, I think. I don’t think you’ll care, so I’ll carry the weight. 

It was about a year ago, when the world shut down and I ended a relationship and had to reckon with my post-college plans, that the dam finally broke. Last year took an emotional toll on me that showed in everything I wrote, did, and said. I couldn’t hide it. I started having to lean on other people in a way that I was used to being leaned on, and I hated every minute of it. I felt powerless and selfish. I hungered for advice from friends older and wiser than myself, but it was difficult to pick up the phone and call them. I needed a listening ear, but I hated the thought of anyone hearing me ask for it. 

And when I did start asking for help, I didn’t want to call this thing that I was carrying a burden. Burdens are things that no one wants to carry. To soften the blows I felt I was inflicting on others by sharing my burdens, I wanted to call them something softer, like “problems” or maybe “issues.” But grief, loss, and pain are burdens. I didn’t want to carry them, and my friends didn’t want to carry them, either. When we open up to others, we are asking them to sacrifice time, spend emotional energy, and maybe even revisit painful parts of their own past that they’d rather forget. We are asking them to help us shoulder something unpleasant. We are asking them to bear our burdens.

Knowing this, it’s tempting to try to white-knuckle it rather than inconvenience someone else. We often cling to the misguided notion that our wounds will heal on their own if we can just wait long enough. Yet if there’s one thing I wish someone had told me four years ago, it’s that hardship doesn’t go away no matter how many milestones you pass. Everything does not click into place as soon as you go to college or move into your first apartment or get your first job. I am not married and I do not have children, but I suspect that this is the case for those milestones, too. Though every season of life comes with its own blessings, it also comes with its own burdens. We cannot wait out hard seasons by gritting our teeth and telling ourselves it will be over soon. Like Christian at the opening of Pilgrim’s Progress, we are all carrying “great burdens upon our backs.” 

There’s no way around it: sin has marred our world. The ways we relate to God, others, ourselves, and God’s good gifts to us are broken, and we shoulder the fractured pieces: death, illness, broken families, broken relationships, bodies that don’t work for us, brains intent on causing us harm, secret sins we barely admit to ourselves, loneliness from a move to a new city, a job that didn’t turn out like we expected, a faith we’re still trying to figure out. Whatever our burdens, they all come from sin. Not all are direct punishments for sin, of course. Some spring from others’ sins against us in our past, others from our own sins in the present, and still others from sin’s entrance into our fallen world—but sin lies at the heart of them all. 

And sin, the root of all our burdens, is the very burden that Jesus already bore: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). In Pilgrim’s Progress, it’s when Christian encounters the cross that “his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in.” He responds with a beautiful tribute to the freedom that comes from sacrificial love:

“Thus far did I come loaden with my sin,

Nor could aught ease the grief that I was in,

Till I came hither: what a place is this!

Must here be the beginning of my bliss?

Must here the burden fall from off my back?

Must here the strings that bound it to me crack?

Blest cross! blest sepulchre! blest rather be

The Man that there was put to shame for me!”

We lose our burdens at the foot of the cross. 

Can we recognize that reality while still acknowledging our present burdens? I think so. In an eternal sense, the weight of sin has been lifted from our shoulders. This gift has real consequences in the present: we are free from sin (Romans 6:18). Yet here in the already but not yet, the time between Christ’s first and second coming, sin’s consequences still linger. As a result, the practice of bearing one another’s burdens is not only called for; it is a critical part of the Christian walk.

Any call to bear one another’s burdens is incomplete without the cross, and any understanding of the cross is incomplete without bearing one another’s burdens (1 John 4:20). In Galatians 6:2, Paul equates bearing one another’s burdens to fulfilling the law of Christ. Earlier in his epistle to the law-obsessed Galatians, he writes, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14), echoing his words in Romans: “Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10). No one knew what it meant to fulfill the law better than Jesus, who came “not to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). Christ did indeed fulfill the law, not only by keeping it perfectly but also by loving us so much that He bore the burden of our sin on the cross (John 15:13, Romans 5:8, Romans 8:4). His is the love we are called to emulate: “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). To bear one another’s burdens is to fulfill the law (Galatians 6:2). To love is to fulfill the law (Romans 13:10, Galatians 5:14). To bear one another’s burdens is to love. 

If you are carrying your own burden, a heavy one, the kind that slumps your shoulders and plants tears behind your eyes ready to fall at the slightest provocation, take heart. That burden is real and its weight is significant—and Christ bore it and all the sin from which it grew. He knows you, He sees you, He loves you, and He’s been gracious to call others to help you bear your burdens. And, hear me when I say this: Shouldering burdens does not make you, in your entirety as a being, a burden. That’s the Enemy’s lie. Your burdens do not define you. And by asking others to help you, you allow them to love you as Christ has loved them. 

If you are helping to shoulder your sibling’s burden, a heavy one, the kind that keeps you awake and tears at your soul, take heart. Christ bore that burden and all the sin from which it grew for her on the cross, and by helping her carry it, you are loving her as Christ loved you. And, hear me when I say this: It is not your responsibility to make that burden go away. Christ has already done that on the cross. Just help her carry it. Just come alongside her and say, “That looks heavy. How can I help?” 

No one is pretending that it is easy to bear one another’s burdens. It is hard to sit with a friend as she cries, and it is just as hard to be the friend that’s crying. Watching one of your best friends battle sin, wanting to go to war for them but knowing that your job is to guard the hearth, is hard. So is admitting to a friend, again and again, that you’ve fallen into the same sin as last week. It is not easy to carry one another’s burdens. It is not easy to love. But we love because He first loved us.

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