Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. — Matthew 11:28, NIV Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. — Galatians 6:2, NIV
When I was a brand new Boy Scout, my troop set off on an overnight camping trip that required a long trek through a local state park. I was outfitted with a crisp Boy Scout canvas backpack, cooking and eating utensils, first aid kit, my Scouting Handbook, sleeping bag and ground cloth, hatchet, Swiss Army knife and Lord only knows what else. The Boy Scout motto is be prepared; I had 40 pounds of gear for every eventuality strapped to my 75 pound frame, as I stumbled single-file on what I became certain would be my very own Bataan Death March.
I didn’t die, but I was dragging along in the rear, and at more than one point I was sure I wouldn’t be able to take one more step. It wasn’t the distance — I often spent my days wandering through the local woodlands in search of adventure. It wasn’t the distance, but the burden on my back that turned my legs to rubber and drained my last ounce of strength before we finally made camp.
The burdens we carry wear us down, and we all have burdens to carry. In Mexico, I’ve watched wiry men hoist buckets of concrete onto their shoulders and trudge up a slender scaffolding to pour the roof of a new home. It’s grueling work, but at least at the end of the day, the laborers are able to put those buckets down and unburden themselves. Despite sore muscles, they experience instantaneous relief once that last bucketload has been dumped for the day.
But there are burdens we can’t seem to let go of. When you have a gravely sick child, it’s a burden that stays with you. When a loved one goes to prison for doing something unthinkable, that’s a burden you can’t lay down. When a son is killed in war, or a spouse is diagnosed with cancer, or a friend commits suicide, or you’re out of work and there are 500 applicants for every job…
Most of us are incapable of slipping these burdens off our shoulders, not even for a few moments of longed-for relief. The bonds of love create burdens of care and concern.
But the New Testament tells us that these burdens can be shared. In the two verses at the top of this post, Jesus promises rest for those who are loaded down, while Paul reminds us that we embody the love of Christ when we help carry each other’s burdens.
But how does that work, exactly? How do we carry someone else’s pain and suffering? How do we share someone’s grief and heartache? How can you experience rest and peace, when worry or sadness keeps you awake at night? It’s a nice thought, but is it possible?
I think the answer is that at our lowest and most vulnerable moments in life, we have an opportunity to discover something fundamental about what it means to be human, which is that God did not create us to experience life in isolation or to bear our burdens alone. We were designed for community, and in community with each other we experience something about our human nature that takes us all the way back to when God said, in Genesis 2:18: “It’s not good for man to be alone.” This is how the 16th century poet John Donne famously put it:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
It’s easy to dismiss those words as romantic sentimentality, until you have actually experienced the encouragement of the community of believers and the strengthening hope that comes from the presence of the living God.
But if this body of burdened believers is to support each other as God intended, we have to have our eyes open, we have to look for opportunities to lift each other up. Our gaze has to be focused outward, not inward.
Sometimes, like a kid wearing ear buds as he pushes through a crowd, head down, mouthing words silently while gazing intently at a dancing colored screen, all manner of human suffering passes us by without our paying the slightest attention. That isn’t how the body is supposed to function. At another place, Paul writes:
We who have strong faith ought to shoulder the burden of the doubts and qualms of others and not just go our own sweet way. Our actions should mean the good of others — should help them to build up their characters. For even Christ did not choose his own pleasure, but as it is written: The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” — Romans 15:1-3, J.B. Phillips
When the church is functioning as Christ intended, it becomes a safe haven where we can be transparent about our struggles, as well as a hospice where prayer, encouragement and practical help are lavished freely on those who are suffering. As we carry each others’ burdens, we fulfill the law of Christ, which is to love one another as he has first loved us.
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