Making burdens light without making light of burdens

  • Ruth Baker
  • 4 September 2017

“A problem shared is a problem halved”—but sometimes a problem shared is a problem now two people have.

Paul tells us to carry each other’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ (Gal 6:2). We stumble, we fall, we crumble, we hide; our transgressions beat us down. As the community of believers, as God’s family, we lift each other up again. In Christ, we are joined together and rise to become a holy temple in the Lord (Eph 2:21). It's a lovely image—but is it realistic? Jesus’ burden is light, but sometimes we feel like the burdens of our brothers and sisters are heavy.

As Christians, we listen to others’ fears and woes, panics and pains, and emotional anguish. We hear them weep and cry out to God, and we try to help and support. We pray and we pray, and we hold their hands and walk with them as best we can. But then their problems can become our problems. We own them. We think about them, mull on them. “I must help them”, we think. “I need to give them time and energy and investment. To love my neighbour as myself, I have to give them everything.” There’s your Bible study group, people in your congregation, your friends, your kids—all who need the same. Suddenly we are so burdened we can’t think straight.

Is this what Paul intended? Is this what Jesus expected when he told us to love our neighbour as ourselves? I don’t think it is, which means we must be doing it wrong.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘burden’ as “a load, typically a heavy one”. Think trying to carry heavy bags of shopping, or moving furniture, or struggling under the weight of suitcases. But in Galatians 6:2 barē/βαρη (from βαρος, burden) is a weight, but of personal significance. So it does call us to bear each other’s ‘weight’—but in a non-physical sense.

In Matthew 11:28 when Jesus says to come to him all who are weary and burdened, he uses the word pephortismenoi/πεφορτισμένοι, from phortizó/φορτίζω, which means “loaded up to the point of being weighed down”—think those suitcases again. Then in verses 29-30 he calls us to take up his yoke for his burden is light. Here, the word for burden is phortion/φορτίον, which is a personal, non-transferrable load, like your own purse or suitcase that you take as you go.

So, while remembering we can take our burdens (pephortismenoi) to Jesus because his burden (phortion) is light, how do we bear each other’s burdens (barē)?

Firstly, there are many different kinds of burdens. The three mentioned here are not the only words used in the Greek New Testament. This difference can give us pause. We can step back and take a moment to just look at what kind of ‘burden’ it is—not all of them will be heavy burdens, so we need not assume that all of them are.

Secondly, we need to balance bearing each other’s burdens with loving others as ourselves. When I feel my own burdens, they are heavy. But when I love myself it doesn’t feel burdensome at all. We are to bear each other’s burdens to fulfil the law of Christ. The law of Christ is loving God, and loving our neighbour as ourselves (Mark 12:31). So our focus might be in the wrong place: on the burden rather than the loving.

We may think that loving others equals bearing their burdens, but this is not necessarily the case. What might it look like if we loved them, rather than getting caught up in the burden itself? This could include praying with them, praying for them, reading the Bible together, short visits, text check-ins, meals, babysitting, transport assistance, a card in the mail, a care package or a small gift… the options are endless, with no fretting in the early hours of the morning. But two things can really maximize the impact of this:

  1. What is your personal load capacity? Some people have more capacity than others. Our capacity is a resource, and we need to use it wisely. We are stewards of our money. We try not to spend more than we have. The same needs to be true of our capacity to bear our Christian brothers and sisters’ burdens.
  2. Agree with the person what your support is going to look like. With an awareness of our load capacity, we can agree with the person about what we are going to do to support them. This is not meant to be an unfeeling transaction, but a mutual agreement in love. For example, if your load capacity is such that you feel you can manage a weekly visit, then that’s what you can promise. If further need is there, you can seek assistance from others to share the load.
    If we communicate this openly, then expectations are appropriate and it amplifies the honouring and loving of the person as we seek to bear their burdens as a body. This is particularly important if you have a “jump in and save” instinct. It is also important if someone wants to place more of a load on you than you are able to carry.

This helps practically to manage the boundaries, but what about when we feel people’s load very heavily? God made us to be emotional beings. This makes us beautiful and wonderful, and also fragile and vulnerable. That’s why Jesus told us to go to him when we are weary and weighed down. It’s something we know in our heads but can forget in our hearts. It can come down to a simple diagnostic question: do we believe that prayer works? When bearing a heavy load, sometimes a re-invigoration of our prayer life can be the key. There is so much more that can be said on this but drawing closer and laying ourselves before God openly, honestly, humbly, trustingly and expectantly is the answer with all our burdens—and the burdens of others.

We need to bear each other’s burdens. We were built to be in community and bear with each other in love. But we need to seek wisdom in this just as much as every other aspect of our Christian walk. If we walk together in wisdom and love, there is so much power in the community of believers. It illustrates the most beautiful elements of the Christian life and the love of Jesus in stark contrast to the world.

Together Through the Storm