“Bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2
In my experience, when people encounter God they inevitably grow more humble. They get a clearer sense of what Paul meant when he said that those who think they are “something” are deceiving themselves (Galatians 6:3). Experiencing God’s presence also leads to the realization that there is a connection between loving God and loving others. It becomes possible to take in one of Paul’s statements that might otherwise seem entirely too extreme: that God’s love can transform us into “slaves” to each other (Galatians 5:13b-14).
The context of Paul’s message about mutual burden-bearing (Galatians 6:2) is a situation in which someone has been “detected in a transgression.” Of course, as Paul points out God’s love will lead the Galatians to carry out the restoration of the one who has fallen “in a spirit of gentleness.” As they correct another, God’s love will keep people all-too-humbly aware of the temptations that are close to their own hearts.
But in order for there to be a process of restoration, the community needs to have standards. Early Friends were extremely conscientious in examining all aspects of their conduct, keeping the focus on doing right in God’s eyes.
But Paul is talking about mutual burden-bearing, which is a two-way street that transcends the dynamics of “helper” and “recipient.” Such mutuality is possible when God is at the center, when God enables barriers to be overcome and burdens to be shared in surprising ways. Such mutuality is not just a rare gift, but a way of life.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians testifies to the possibility of living as new creations in Christ, moving beyond the ways of the world, the flesh and the law. We can stop superficially justifying ourselves by making mental lists of the bad things we manage not to do, embracing the fact that God’s way of loving, measuring and judging is a Divine mystery that is utterly beyond any conceivable rule of life.
Of course it’s tremendously challenging to maintain a healthy balance between self-emptying love on the one hand, and God-honoring standards on the other. Our spiritual forbearers had their struggles and so do we.
To begin with, we all have different temperaments. For some of us, empathy is in short supply. We resist the challenge to “bear another’s burdens” because it conjures up images of being trapped somewhere and forced to listen to one sob-story after another. But I don’t think that’s what Paul is talking about. The mutual sharing of burdens has a sweetness that heals and empowers, as Truth becomes clearer for all parties.
Some people have a naturally empathetic temperament. They have no trouble listening to people even if they go on and on. However, as satisfied listeners they feel superior to others who don’t have their listening gift, or they may lose track of themselves and begin living “through” others. An over-identification with the needs of others may lead them to not pay close enough attention to their own, all-too-real issues. For such a person, Paul has the following advice: “All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads” (Galatians 6:4).
Whatever a person’s temperament, the commitment to engage in the hard work of relationship-building and mutual burden-bearing brings the person and the community closer to the Quaker experience of unity — a peculiarly Quaker ideal.
At the very beginning of the Quaker movement, as historian Rosemary Moore compares Friends to other denominations, one quality unique to Quakers was their emphasis on building a central administrative structure to enhance communication and relationship-building among leaders and among congregations.1 They did this because they recognized the need to cultivate communal spiritual health, since they saw the community as the place where divine grace was mediated, through Friends’ direct experience of God. Other denominations, such as Presbyterians, Independents and Baptists, emphasized the importance of the Word — as preached by clergy — and the formal ordinances of the church, in mediating divine grace. Compared to Quakers, they didn’t see grace as being as fully dependent on the way in which each worshipper participated in the worship, and the way in which each person related to others. So these denominations could put more emphasis on maintaining the quality of practice and belief of their congregations. They could tolerate local independence as long as a certain level of “quality” in the doctrine and worship was maintained.
If we are to be faithful inheritors of the peculiarly Quaker emphasis on spiritual unity, we need to continue to devote time and energy to the hard work of relationship-building. In other words, we need to keep working at it. “Let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith” (Galatians 6:9-10).
Yes, this hard work is possible because the long-haul staying power comes from none other than the risen Christ!
“Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.” Psalm 55:22
In this spirit we can indeed bear each other’s burdens, being encouraged and inspired by those who have gone before us. As George Fox wrote in 1689:
all walk in the power and spirit of God that is over all, in love and unity. For love . . . is that which overcomes evil, and casts out all false fears; . . . and unites all the hearts of his people together in the heavenly joy, concord, and unity.
1 Rosemary Moore, The Light in their Consciences: The Early Quakers in Britain, 1646-1666, the Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000, p. 141.
Helene Pollock is a member of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She worked for many years in the Quaker Affairs Office of Haverford College and is now retired. Helene has done volunteer work with many Quaker organizations and has worship and fellowship experience with all branches of Friends.