What does it mean to bear one another's burdens?

The phrase "bear one another's burdens" is found in Galatians 6:2, which says: "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." This sounds like a truly noble calling, and it is, but what are the criteria for bearing one another's burdens? What things qualify as burdens, and are there limits to the burdens we should bear? After all, when we skip down to verse 5 of the same chapter it says: "For each will have to bear his own load" (Galatians 6:5). Each one of us has individual responsibilities or loads, and each of us also has burdens that we could use some additional help and support from others to bear.

When we look at the larger passage, Galatians 6:1–5, we see that we are encouraged to restore those caught in sin, bear one another's burdens, and test our own work—bearing the individual load of our own responsibilities. The Greek word phortion is translated as "load" in this verse and it is defined as a non-transferable personal burden. As individuals, each of us has non-transferable responsibilities that we are required to fulfill. For example, if we are parents/caretakers, we are to provide for our families (1 Timothy 5:8). As Christians, all of us are charged with seeking to live a holy lifestyle (1 Peter 1:15–16). We cannot expect others to do for us the things that God has asked us to be responsible for. However, even in carrying our personal loads, we need the help and encouragement of others (Hebrews 10:24–25). Similarly, we should help and encourage others in living out their lives. While we cannot determine how someone else behaves—nor be responsible for their decisions—we can support them in their desire to live holy and to fulfill their personal responsibilities.

But there are also things in our lives that we simply cannot bear alone. Part of being a member of the family of Christ is sharing in one another's burdens, and to do so is a mutual blessing. Bearing one another's burdens looks a lot like coming alongside for support. If we know of a fellow believer who is struggling with a difficult situation, we can help to bear their burden by helping to relieve some of the weight they are experiencing related to that situation. If someone recently lost a job, we may buy them some groceries to help relieve the financial stress or connect them with a promising job opportunity at our own place of employment. If we know someone is struggling with a particular sin issue, we may offer to come alongside them with spiritual encouragement and accountability. Bearing one another's burdens is compassion in action. Not only do we feel bad about one another's burdens; we do what we can to help.

In the Bible, the Church at Antioch learned of a prophesied famine that was about to take place and each individual donated as they were able to send food to Judea (Acts 11:27–30). They could not prevent or end the famine, but they did what they could to lighten its impact and the suffering it would cause.

Notice that each member of the church gave "according to his ability" (Acts 11:29). We are each responsible to steward the resources and gifts that we have been given by God (Romans 14:12; 2 Corinthians 5:10). Just as we do not have an excuse to live unholy lives, being disobedient and unfaithful to God, we also do not have an obligation to bear the burdens of others beyond what we are capable of. All people have unexpected overwhelming circumstances that happen throughout their lives: job loss, sickness of a loved one, or a natural disaster that destroys their home. As the body of Christ, we are to do our part to assist them generously however we are able (Philippians 2:3–4). Aside from the technical help provided in any given situation, the emotional and spiritual support are equally as valuable and help those who are suffering have the stamina required to persevere through the tough times.

Unfortunately, some people will try to abuse the true meaning of Galatians 6:2 and get people to do things for them that they alone should be responsible for, expecting others to bear burdens they are not capable of. It's important, as Christians, to use discernment in tricky situations where a person may be misconstruing or abusing the provisions within this verse. We do others no favors by doing the work God entrusted to them. On the opposite extreme, some are reluctant to ask for help or share their need, even when the burden is too large to bear alone. It is important that we help such people understand the value of receiving help and that we offer our support graciously. In our own lives, we need to be vigilant about carrying the load God has given us, helping to bear the burdens of others, and gratefully receiving help in bearing our own burdens. We must seek the Lord for wisdom and healthy boundaries with this issue, trusting that the Holy Spirit within us will prompt us in ways that help us meet a proper balance (James 1:5). In any circumstance, we rely ultimately on God whose "divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence" (2 Peter 1:3).

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