Bear with One Another
July 19, 2015 – Kevin Rees - audio file at kevinrees.sermon.net
How we treat those who are burdened reveals our true nature.
“Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). Jesus’ sublime invitation has comforted and inspired millions … billions … of downtrodden people since he uttered them in a dusty corner of Israel two-thousand years ago. The fact is: living out of our own resources, based on our own wits, toward our own goals is, frankly, soul-crushingly exhausting. There is a force of gravity ever-exerted upon the soul; a force that is never satisfied … that never says, “Okay, that’s enough. I’m done. Take a break.” The universe was not designed to be this way, but when we declared to God with finality that we could do life on our own, he let us try. However, it was not freedom that we harvested. We reaped struggle, thorns, and death. This weight of concern pulls us down into despair. We all take our turn in the ring. We all take our bruises. But Christ arrests our tailspin.
But, aside from our own burdens, how we treat those who are burdened tells a lot about us. How we deal with the brother caught in sin, or the sister who has sown chaos into her field only to reap catastrophe, or the neighbor who gets bludgeoned by surprise trials, or a stranger who collapses from fatigue on our front step—how we treat those who are burdened reveals our true nature. We are not called to bear one another, to carry each other entirely, which is somewhat of a relief because we can barely carry ourselves. But instead, we are called to help each other bear up; to help shoulder one another’s excessive burdens without excusing any of us from the responsibility to “carry our own pack.” This is a balanced, mature, responsible call to community.
When I think of bearing the weight of the world, I cannot help but picture Atlas in Greek mythology bearing the awful weight of the sky on his shoulders. (There is a common misconception that Atlas held up the world, but he actually was punished by Zeus, after Zeus defeated him in battle, to hold up the sky at the westernmost part of the known world giving name to both the Atlantic Ocean and the Atlas Mountains.) Supposedly a thousand years later, Atlas also plays a role in the eleventh of Hercules’ twelve heroic achievements which earned him deification. Atlas’ daughters guarded a treasure of golden apples, which Hercules had to retrieve, but Hercules didn’t know where or how to get these golden apples, so he went to Atlas for help. But Atlas, wearied from carrying the sky, attempted to trick Hercules into switching places with him and never to return. Alas, Hercules double-crossed Atlas and tricked him right back, pretending a willingness to switch places with Atlas if Atlas would only allow him to shift the weight and find some padding. Hercules left with the golden apples to get his reward while Atlas resumed serving his sentence of hard labor. But neither mythic character portray the way the true God instructs us to deal with burdens and with other people who are burdened.
Counterfeits always lurk around the genuine; it is no different with our call to bear with one another. Helping others often descends into a game of trickery and sucker-punching to see who will be left bearing the burden at the end of the day—like Atlas and Hercules, sadly, act out in mythology.
Aware of such trickery not only in mythology but also in the church politics at Galatia, Paul leads us along a tightrope of responsible, social consciousness in the church in Galatians chapter 6. To fall off the one side is to be like the legalist who heaps burdens on others without lending a finger to help. The legalist sets others up to fail so that he can emerge, by comparison, with the better public reputation and social leverage. To fall off the other side is to be like the libertarian who, while doing whatever he fancies without regard for long-term ramifications, seeks to dump his burdens on others to mop up. The libertarian maintains a double standard of doing whatever he likes while at the same time expecting others to support him, aid him, and cover for him in his pursuit of self-centered gratification.
But the Christian—or as today’s passage phrases it, “the spiritual one” or “the mature one”—is called to help with great discernment his brothers and sisters as they bear excessive burdens. However there are two important caveats—(1) to help in such a way that does not short-circuit his own boundaries in the act of helping and (2) to help in such a way that does not bypass the other person’s responsibility to bear his own load. It is a fine line that the church simply does not do well. We tend to flip-flop between condemnation and enablement. But the spiritually mature ones will, by keeping in step with the Spirit, help others without hurting themselves or others in the process. Let’s walk this tightrope.
I. Bear One Another’s Burdens (vv. 1-5)
1 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.
2 Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
3 For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.
4 But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor.
5 For each will have to bear his own load.
Walking this tightrope is the thrust of this passage—between bearing one another’s burdens and maintaining personal responsibility. It is noteworthy that just two verses before our passage Paul writes, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (5:25). We can only walk this tightrope as we live by the Spirit and keep in step with the Spirit. Any other scenario of bearing burdens and interacting with people who bear burdens will involve some form of trickery, manipulation, and sin.
“Brothers”—this is a Christian application, in the church. But having said that, Paul is clearly dealing with very fleshly patterns in professing Christians and in nominal churches. Nevertheless, we see the skeleton of our calling to live in community with brothers and sisters who encounter burdens. We cannot export our burdens or our burdened people elsewhere to heal; they comprise part of our community of faith and we have the honor to walk alongside them to the glory of Christ.
“If anyone”—this hypothetical scenario is very likely to be a real situation in any church—“is caught in any transgression.” The language is that of a surprise wave of sin overtaking a brother who was trying to run to safety but was not fast enough to outrun the temptation. In contrast to last week’s sermon in Ephesians 4 where the sins listed were habitual and prolonged, this hypothetical sin in Galatians 6 is—while not excusable—not premeditated. Either way, great danger and damage comes in the wake of sin.
The instruction in Ephesians 4 falls to the individual to “put off” the old and “put on” the new in Christ. The instruction in Galatians 6 falls to the rest of the body; or more specifically to a sub-group of the rest of the body representing the whole—“you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (vs. 1). “You who are spiritual” is to say, you who are mature; you who are walking in the Spirit. It is up to the spiritually wise and the spiritually skillful to attempt to “restore” the sinning brother.
Remember our contrast here between the legalist, the spiritually mature, and the libertarian. The legalist has no motive for another’s restoration; he is all about condemnation of others so that he can rise up in reputation and social leverage. Jesus called out the Pharisees on this very point: “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men” (Mat 23:4-5a). The libertarian has no motive for another’s restoration either; he is all about self-gratification. He helps no one unless he benefits from the transaction. But the spiritually mature has the motive to “restore” his brother.
A fabulously beautiful and rare action—to “restore”—it is not for the faint of heart, however. It is the same verb as used for a physician to set a bone or for a fisherman to mend a net—it is a highly developed skill. Though the attitude is “gentleness” and “humility,” the act itself is courageous. Think some about setting a bone. Have you ever broken a bone? Would you want just anyone to set the bone? Or for that matter, would you want just to leave it unset? Of course not. Neither option is viable. You need a skilled medical worker; experienced, technical, wise, and yes, tender. The alternative is potential lifelong disability and pain. Yet, who rushes in to give spiritual advice to the sinning brother in the Christian community? It is often the untested rookie who thinks he knows everything straight out of seminary or the self-coronated yet unmentored king in the church. But Paul is not listing education or a strong personality here; he is listing spiritual maturity and technical skill accompanied by gentleness and humility. Send that one in to restore a brother in sin; the one who “keep[s] watch on [him]self, lest [he] too be tempted.”
The church in Galatia, and the church today, is riddled with untested ministry leaders who stand on education or social reputation or just the strength of a loud voice and domineering attitude. But every congregation has a few who walk by the Spirit day after day, year after year, who are conscious of their own propensity to sin yet have the mind to be their brothers’ keeper, in the truest sense. Send those!
“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (vs. 2). While it is unacceptable to send untrained, inexperienced people to minister to deeply burdened brothers and sisters, it is also unacceptable just to let brothers and sisters founder on their own. The one who is close to Christ will be engaged with others who are dear to Christ. The more in step we march with the Spirit, the more restorative ministry we will see and attempt.
The language is particularly important here. To “bear” (Gr. bastazo) is to lift up. A “burden” (Gr. bare … from which we get our word “barometer” … that device that measures pressure) is an excessive weight that carries a negative tone, probably connected back to the brother caught aware in a trespass—like his arm is caught in the wreckage on the Interstate. Get in there, Christian, and help lift your brother out from under this emergency spike of pressure. Don’t be the bystander. Don’t succumb to the paralysis of fear that you might be sucked in or burdened from getting involved. Get in there and help lift the weight that is pinning your brother down.
But be warned—if you think that you are exempt from trouble, beyond the grip of sin, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, please think again. You are in danger if you help others. It is good, but it is not safe. Because yes, people do shoot the messenger; and they do murder the mediator. “For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load” (vv. 3-5).
The setup is pristine. Paul writes, “bear one another’s burdens” and “each one will have to bear his own load.” On first take, it sounds like a contradiction … but it is anything but contradictory. It is a sharp balance between being helpful and being responsible—we must have both to have a fully functioning response to burdens in the church. To help without requiring or expecting personal responsibility is not help; it is short-sighted and unwise. It actually hurts instead of helps. To require personal responsibility without extending a willingness to help is, in the long term, irresponsible. We need both in harmony.
But back to the specific language, for the words used between verse 2 and 5 are not the same—and that tips us off as to the best way to interpret this passage. Listen for the difference with my paraphrase of verse 2. “Help to lift up one another’s excessive, surprise burdens in life that are probably (but not always) connected to (either directly or indirectly) sin (personal or someone else’s or in general).” Sickness. Widowhood. Abandonment. Imprisonment. Whatever. It wasn’t planned, but nevertheless it caught a brother off guard and now he is treading water with a real possibility he might go under at any moment. Compare that to my paraphrase of verse 5, “Each one, like a soldier, must carry his own everyday standard-issue pack.” I will help you shoulder the extra burdens if they come up, just like you will help me shoulder mine, but you have to carry your own pack just like I have to carry my own pack. It is not my responsibility to carry your pack for you. It is not your responsibility to carry my pack for me. It is our mutual ministry to encourage one another to bear up under the pressure of life, but it does neither of us a service to relinquish personal responsibilities. The soldier mentality holds, I won’t leave you behind enemy lines, but I’m not going to rinse out your socks. This is a mutual commitment to help each other without bypassing personal responsibilities.
II. Maintain Personal Responsibility (vv. 6-10)
6 Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches.
7 Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.
8 For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.
9 And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.
10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
Maintaining personal responsibility gets more explanation in verses 6-10. The first specific example is a commitment to share materially with our spiritual teachers—“Let the one who is taught the word share all good thing with the one who teaches” (vs. 6). Paul refuses this right to make a living from ministering the gospel, but he teaches it frequently for the sake of the rest of the ministerial community that has to forsake other vocations to teach the Scriptures. While little time is spent here on that principle—but the idea is revolutionary because in Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures religion merged with the state. The state collected or allowed for the collection of taxes to prop up state recognized religion. It is still the case in some modern countries. But the Christian church never operated that way; they operated by the voluntary giving of the people of God as they obeyed the teaching of God to share.
We will just leave Christian giving there for this morning, for Paul moves from this specific example to the overarching principle of sowing and reaping. “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (vv. 7-8).
Sowing and reaping raises the question of “What?” but more specifically the question of “Where?” What are you sowing, but also where are you sowing; which field? In the field of the flesh or in the field of the spirit? Are you investing in people or things? Are you profiting from a lack of character or through an abundance of character? And back to our “one another” of the week, are you “doing life” as a community or as a rugged individualist? Are you leaving margin in your life so that if called upon you can help bear one another’s burdens or are you expecting others to drop everything to help you alone?
How you treat others who are burdened reveals a lot about you! You might be able to trick the kindhearted people at church out of $30 every couple of weeks, but you can’t fool God. You might be able to dump the ramifications of your irresponsible choices on the suckers who fill the pews, but you can’t escape God’s principle of sowing and reaping. Yes, forgiveness comes in just a moment, but most times the consequences last. The church is often happy to help in true emergencies, but you are responsible for your own pack. Not blind karma—you get what you give—but the intelligent and equitable principle of sowing and reaping. You are free to choose, but not free from the consequences of your choices.
“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who of the household of faith” (vv. 9-10). Paul brings attention back around to the spiritually mature ones in the church; the ones who have probably been hoodwinked quite a few times by now in their kindhearted attempts to be loving in the church—don’t “grow weary of doing good.” This is where we naturally drift—toward disillusionment, toward cynicism, toward the reinforced attitude of indifference that has been galvanized over and over again by charlatans in the church. But no! Don’t allow that current to carry you off course. Why? The same reason the charlatans should stop thinking that they can get away with a life of personal irresponsibility—the principle of sowing and reaping. Doing good might not be rewarded in this life, but reward is waiting for those who sow to the Spirit in the field of the Spirit.
We don’t have to help everyone, but we have to be available to help whoever the Spirit nudges us to help—particularly (but not exclusively) inside the church. We are not primarily social workers. We are primarily ministers of the New Covenant who often, in following God’s lead, engage people in social work. But we must not lose our primary calling. Ours is not a life of reacting to need alone, but a life of responding to God by faith alone. Reacting is exhausting. Responding is resting.
Let me bring it all the way to the way we started, hopefully with renewed respect and admiration for the ministry of Christ. He said in Matthew 11, and the words should have heightened meaning from our time spent in this relevant sister passage in Galatians 6: “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). Can you hear the significance? “Heavy-laden” is the same word as in Galatians 6:5, “For each one will have to bear his own load.” So is, “my burden is light.” Even our own pack—our own load—which is our responsibility to shoulder Christ is inviting us to be joined with him. He will take our load, and we will take his, which he described as “light” (unlike Atlas’s load of bearing the sky). We are the bear one another’s burdens ONLY AS WE ARE JOINED TO CHRIST. We are the bear our own load ONLY AS WE ARE JOINED TO CHRIST. Christ goes where our brothers and sisters cannot go. Christ endures even when we ourselves cannot endure. As we are comforted by Christ’s companionship and his lightness of load, we are now qualified and empowered to repeat his ministry to us, to one another … and to our personal responsibilities.