Galatians 6:2 - Burdens are Lifted?
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ … for each one should carry his own load.Galatians 6:2, 5
Last year, in my address to the Assembly, I tried to indicate something of our message to the world — Hope for a Lost World. Tonight at the opening of this Assembly I want to focus on the message of God’s Word to us as the Church.
The world is in a mess, and God has given us the exact remedy the world needs: the Good News about Jesus. We believe in that remedy. We preach that remedy. And yet we see so little result, so little success. Of course there are bright spots. But the overall picture is one of decline — decline in every denomination, and decline amongst ourselves. Why is that?
No doubt there are many reasons. Most of the Bible is in the first instance addressed to Christians and to the Christian Church, and both Old Testament and New Testament are full of God’s words of warning and critique and even judgement to the Church. It therefore ill becomes us to be so critical of the world around us, while at the same time being so uncritical of ourselves: “Judge not, lest you be judged” and “If we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgement”. It is not the world that God will hold accountable for the failure to evangelise Scotland — it is his Church, of which the Free Church is a part.
It is impossible to address all the possible reasons for our lack of impact on our communities. But I want to highlight two areas: Community and Individual Responsibility, and the Biblical emphasis that it is both-and, not either-or.
We see these two emphases in the passage we read: “Carry each other’s burdens” (v.2) — that’s community; and “each one should carry his own load” (v.5) — that’s individual responsibility.
Now, these two may seem contradictory — an example of what critics may point out as evidence of illogicality in the Bible. But, as so often in the Christian life, we are being presented here with two things which must be kept in tension. Another example is the case of divine sovereignty and human freedom. These are apparently contradictory. But we know from science that there can be two apparently contradictory ways of looking at the same thing — the phenomenon of light is regarded both as waves and particles.
Here we see another of these paradoxical doubles — individuality and community — apparently contradictory, but actually complimentary.
The world around us will try to force us to take sides — for instance in politics, Conservatives may emphasise individuality, and Socialists community.
As Christians we can often be guilty of making this false choice. Either we lay all the emphasis on community and fellowship and supporting one another, or we lay all the emphasis on standing on your own feet and taking responsibility for yourself.
There is however “an absent corollary”. We might think that the necessary implication of divine sovereignty is that human choice is emptied of significance, but the Bible does not teach that. Or that human freedom means that God’s will leaves things uncertain, but again the Bible does not teach that.
Similarly here — we might think that because it says each of us should carry our own load, then that means we should tell others they should bear their own burdens, or that carrying others’ burdens means we can tell others they should bear our load. But the Bible does neither. These two are complimentary, and in a healthy church we will see both in operation.
These are two great Biblical principles of Community and Individuality — and they have a range of applications to many of the difficulties we confront.
We are told that carrying each other’s burdens fulfils the law of Christ. What is the law of Christ? There is no doubt about that.
A new commandment I give you: love each other as I have loved you.John 13:34
How has Christ loved us? And how does he love us still?
He bore our burdens (our sins). “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). This is absolutely unique. He, and he alone, made atonement for sin. But this also has a relevance to us loving as he has loved us.
Negatively, we must not increase the burden of sin and guilt of others. Jesus said of religious leaders in his day,
And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.Luke 11:46
This can be done by adding to God’s word as the Pharisees did — making people feel guilty over things neither commanded nor forbidden in the Bible. But although we might not be guilty of the actual error of legalism, we ministers in particular may indulge in a scolding, hectoring style of preaching. (There is a place for scolding — but always?!) Have we a tendency to always looking on the dark side, seeing only the mess society is in, and the mess people’s lives are in, and not the good gifts of God’s creation and grace and in people’s lives?
Positively, sin is a great burden, and repentance, forgiveness and restoration lift that burden. We are in the business of lifting burdens — we have Good News! Every sermon, all our activities, must major on the grace of God. We must be overwhelmed and delighted and amazed by God’s love.
In Galatians 6:1 the importance of restoration is stressed:
Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.
Restoration is not something we are good at. Sometimes people have drifted away from the church, perhaps because they have become out of sympathy for one reason or another. Sometimes people have even to be formally disciplined. But we find it hard to remember that one of the great aims of all discipline is to restore the offender. The word translated “restore” is used of setting a broken bone or of mending nets. That is indicative of the great, positive enterprise of restoration. We are told to restore gently. This word is often translated “meekly” and it derives from the idea of a horse that is trained or “broken”. It does not mean any kind of weakness or softness, but implies great strength under control. We must also realise our own vulnerability: “Watch yourself or you also may be tempted”.
In addition, Jesus relieves us of our burdens:
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.Isaiah 53:4, Matthew 8:17Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.Matthew 11:28Cast your cares on him, for he cares for you.1 Peter 5:6
Many are bearing burdens of anxiety and care — not only individuals, but congregations and their ministers and office-bearers. This can be true in small, isolated, struggling congregations. We have put ministers into these situations and we have said to them and to their congregations — “Get on with it! Go on yersel’!” This is utterly unrealistic. In Scotland about 10% of the population may attend church, but we put a minister into a community of 1,000 people (even smaller), with 2, 3 or 4 other denominations there — and expect him and his people to have a viable congregation! It is cruel! We are overburdening.
This also has a knock-on effect on the larger congregations. They have the responsibility of supporting the smaller congregations (“bearing each other’s burdens”). But it is not working! Our smaller congregations are dwindling and our large congregations are not growing. Paul said (2 Corinthians 8:13): “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality”. In our present system everyone is hard pressed and no one is relieved!
The only help that is generally given is money. And money is not providing the answer. It is just perpetuating a situation that is making the church weaker and weaker. The smaller congregations are not getting the support they need, and the larger congregations are unable to establish the kind of pastoral and administrative teams that are necessary for them to grow and develop into the kind of churches that are going to make a real impact in their large communities. The result is that ministers and office-bearers in these large congregations are often overburdened too. Often they are given heavy denominational responsibilities as well.
Jesus relieves our burdens. We must imitate him, we must be his instruments. He is concerned for us:
He was moved with compassion when he saw the crowds harassed and helpless.Matthew 9:36He sympathises with us in our weaknesses.Hebrews 4:15
We must be concerned about those who are overburdened.
In addition, he lived among us: “he was tempted in all points as we are” (Hebrews 4:15). He lived in our shoes. If we lived for one day in the shoes of the ministers or congregations we may be critical of, we might realise the burdens they are carrying!
Jesus also listens to us. He hears our cry. We too must listen to what people are saying. Jesus acts for us. He works for our good. This is so often where we fall down. We must act before it is too late — act to relieve the burdens. “Let us do good to all people, especially to the family of believers” (v.10).
What can we do? The answer is not abandoning the smaller congregations to dwindle away to nothing. The answer I believe is in team ministry — in the sparsely populated Highlands and Islands as well as in the cities and large towns. It is Biblical. Jesus got a team together — the Twelve. Paul didn’t work on his own.
Team ministry does not mean just pastoral teams. We need administrative workers too. “Gifts of administration” are among the gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:28). This lifts burdens off the preachers and pastors. We can also use technology: already DVD’s of sermons are being used successfully.
So, there is an obligation on us to love as Christ loved — to lift burdens, not increase them — thus expressing the community we have in Christ.
Paul also emphasises individual responsibility: “Each one should carry his own load” (v.5).
Human individuality derives from the fact that we are made in the image of God. Each life is precious and significant. We have amazing gifts and capacities. We also have individuality. It is revealed that the persons of the Trinity have individual characteristics: the Father begets the Son (Fatherhood); the Son is begotten (Sonship); the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son. The consequence is that each Person has an individual role: the Father sends the Son into the world; the Son achieves our redemption; and the Holy Spirit applies the benefits of redemption. Human beings are created in the image of this God — the God of individuality.
It follows that we have personal responsibility. What we do has significance, and God holds us accountable. One day we will have to answer — “a man reaps what he sows” (v.7). The old spiritual goes:
You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley.
You’ve got to walk there by yourself.
And no one here can walk there for you.
You’ve got to walk there by yourself.
There is another dimension to this. We are to act as Christ acted, to love as he loved. He loved us by taking personal responsibility for the burden that the Father had given him. No one else could do that. It was up to him.
You too must take responsibility. You must take responsibility for your salvation. Joshua said, “Choose this day whom you will serve”. Jesus asked, “But who do you say I am?” Paul said, “Let a man examine himself”. You must also take responsibility for your service of Christ. Jesus replied to Peter’s query about John, “What is that to you? You follow me!”
And so, “Each one should carry his own load” (v.5). Jesus gives us a personal load to carry: “Take my yoke … for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30).
There is a certain proper pride (v.4) in discharging one’s responsibility — a glory, not a false pride (“thinking himself something when he is nothing”, v.3). When Paul says that we should not compare ourselves to others, he is talking about this false pride, not about learning from the examples of others (he often even encourages people to follow his own example).
One of our commonest human faults is not taking responsibility. Ever since Adam blamed Eve, and Eve the Serpent, we have been adept at passing the buck! “It wisnae me!” We can even use our communal responsibilities (“bearing each other’s burdens”) as an excuse. Because everyone is responsible, nobody does anything.
There’s a little story about four people called Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody:
There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought that Anybody could do it, but Nobody realised that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.
We can’t pass the buck! You cannot blame others for everything! So often we say “the Church” or “the Presbytery” or “the Committee” or just “Them”. It’s somebody else’s fault! We have to grow up and shoulder our responsibilities!
We are facing challenges in our congregations, and a challenge to the continuing viability and effectiveness of the Free Church itself. We must rise to that challenge, by each individually taking responsibility for his or her part.
Inaction is killing us. It may come from disillusionment, false humility, false theology or just downright laziness! Maybe many are overburdened, but others are under-burdened — and perhaps we are all under-burdened in some ways!
If you agree that the present situation in the Church is intolerable, then you must take action. It’s no good saying, “The Church should do something”, “Edinburgh must do something” or “the Presbytery must do something”. In the particular frame of responsibility God has given you, you are the Free Church! Just do it! And don’t give up!
There are these twin great principles in the Bible: Community and Individual Responsibility — “Carry each other’s burdens” and “Carry your own load”. We must take both of these seriously and take them equally seriously. In this as in every other area, our Lord is our example.
Love each other, as I have loved you.