Bear One Another’s Burdens
Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil* the law of Christ.
Putting a stop to bullying in schools can be a difficult task for teachers, but one woman from Murray, Utah, who found out that her daughter, was relentlessly teasing another student, decided to teach her a lesson by giving her a taste of her own medicine. The teasing of this other student involved name calling particularly aimed at how this other student dressed; such that the other student no longer wanted to come to school. When confronted by her mother this daughter showed no remorse with regard to her bullying. So the mother went to a local thrift shop and bought about $50 worth of clothing that she knew her daughter would never want to wear. The next morning her daughter awoke to find an unflattering outfit on the bathroom door with a pair of old sneakers below it. Mom explained to her daughter that she would be wearing the ensemble to school that day. “I died. I did,” said this daughter, who admitted she cried when she first looked at the clothes.
In the two days this daughter had to dress in the outfits selected, she admitted she became the target of unkind words. “They talk behind my back,” she said of her classmates. After just two days she understood the lesson her mother hoped she would learn. When asked why she should not bully people, she replied, “Because it’s stupid and it’s mean. It hurts them.”
I am not sure that I would recommend this mother’s course of action; many who responded to the news story offered negative evaluation. Some respondents said that the mother was a bully; used rather unbecoming terms to describe her action. People resorted to name calling to correct a mother who sent her daughter out to be called names to cure her of name calling. Does it ever stop?
“My friends,” wrote the Apostle Paul, “if anyone is detected in a transgression , you who have received the Spirit (Christians) should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” The gentleness called for in the restoration of a transgressor is an instance of the broader admonition to “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil* the law of Christ.” But are we willing to bear this burden for one another?
1. 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. The NRSV (our translation) reads “detected in a transgression.” The Greek word translated “overtaken” or “detected” means to be “taken by surprise.”
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! "Take care that you yourselves are not 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".
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. 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. 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.
But before we point a finger at these people or think out loud behind their back we have to hear Paul's caution: “Take care that you yourselves are not tempted ".
Those of us whose sin is less dramatic, less lurid, yet know the depravity which lurks in our heart. Frank assessment of our own hearts helps us to 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!
2. Amazon has been keeping a list of the 25 most highlighted Kindle passages. Surprisingly, 19 of those 25 passages come from Suzanne Collins' trilogy of Hunger Games books. This report from the New Republic notes that "The thing that makes you [highlight a passage from a book] is something that you recognize from your own life, or that makes you recognize something about your own life." Here are some of the most highlighted passages from Kindle books:
#1) "Because sometimes things happen to people and they're not equipped to deal with them."
#4) "It takes ten times as long to put yourself back together as it does to fall apart."
#12) "We're fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction."
There is a theme that runs through these highlighted passages. Missteps in life are closer than we think and harder to recover from than imagined. Which brings us to a more compelling reason for bearing these burdens in one another; our Lord counted himself among the transgressors; he burdened himself with us sinners. In 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". His command was that we love one another as he loved 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 one another, and do so manifestly; even as we have been cherished by the One who gave his life for us.
Our concern must be as evident as a person’s collapse is undeniable. I know this experience of collapse and am grateful for those who quietly and assuredly walked with me. In the midst of such turmoil many wonder, why would anyone want to be a friend to me? These friends never said the collapse wasn’t a collapse; they simply were willing to take me into their lives and walk with me towards putting life in as good an order as possible.
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 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.
3. Scientists Train People To Not Be Jerks, so went the title of the article. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison say they've shown it's possible to increase compassion in adults by using the Buddhist technique of compassion meditation. “It's not entirely clear how long this effect lasted, but it's reassuring to think that there are ways of increasing niceness in the world,” wrote the article author who then concluded by saying, “If only we could forcibly give it to the people who cut us off on our work commutes.
Forcing someone to be nice or compassionate seems to me to be using a methodology that is incongruent with the desired outcome. There is a line in the hymn “I am The Light of the World” (Voices United #87) that strikes me the same way; “to make the powerful care,” reads the line in this hymn. In reading the stories of Jesus’ life and ministry I do not see where we could conclude that he “made the powerful care.”
“For all must carry their own loads,” writes Paul in this same paragraph. It has the sound of a paradox to say, on the one hand, “Bear one another’s burdens” and then, on the other, to say “for all must carry their own loads.” But I do not think these contradictory. Only you can be you and carry the things that are yours. In bearing one another’s burdens we still recognize that these are a burden to the person we help.
All are held accountable for their own actions; you reap whatever you sow. “Bearing one another’s burdens” is not to be read as a recipe for shifting responsibility to someone else. As if the believer is now entitled to say—get over here and take this load for me. This reminder that “all must carry their own loads” guards against any sense of entitlement. In this reality there are certain things only the person who has misstepped can do.
The organization known as Boys Town was first founded as a boys' orphanage in December 1917 by Father Edward J. Flanagan. In December of 1941 Father Flanagan came across a magazine with a line drawing of a young boy carrying his brother. The caption read "He ain't heavy Mister—he's m' brother!" Flanagan felt that the drawing illustrated the work done at Boys Town and received permission from the company to recreate the drawing in color with the caption "He ain't heavy, Father . . . he's m' brother." The phrase became the motto of Boys Town. Eventually this motto became popular in the song "He Ain't Heavy... He's My Brother."
Are the burdens that the Apostle speaks of heavy to bear? The answer is yes; heavy for the person carrying their own load and for those sharing the burden. Paul concludes this paragraph in his letter to the congregation in Galatia, "So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up." We musn't lose heart in this endeavour. . Its fruit is going to be reaped. It will raise the dead and infuse new life into all of us.
We bear one another’s burdens, 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.