Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbour’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads. - Galatians 6:2-5
There are a number of ways of reflecting on a passage of Scripture. One way that is familiar and comfortable for me is to use a form of theological reflection in the Ignatian style. The passage is read and then the reader sits in silence for a bit, then reads it again and sees what stands out, a word or a phrase. This standout is a place to begin the reflection, and subsequent readings of the passage are drawn into it. The practice is called Lectio Divina, and it's been practiced for hundreds of years.
Looking at the passage from Galatians for today, the phrase that stood out for me was from verse 5, "[F]or all must carry their own loads." The more I thought about it the more certain I became that yes, we must, because no one else can do it for us. It fits with a number of times in my own life where I've had to face consequences of my own difficulties, work through diseases that have compromised my health, and have had to work through times of grief, pain, and utter confusion. Yes, I had a lot of support, which was a blessing. I had friends and family that cared and that helped me to get through the things that I had to get through. Ultimately, though, it was up to me to carry my own load. I was responsible for myself and my reactions to whatever came. I had to carry my own load.
I looked at the passage for the second time and this time something else struck me. In verse 2 Paul tells us "...[B]ear one another's burdens." This set up a question in my mind. If I'm supposed to carry my own load, how am I also supposed to carry burdens for others? It seemed like a dichotomy to me that I could not reconcile, so I sat with it for a while and thought some more.
I remembered times when I had a burden that I had to carry, I still had others who helped me and encouraged me without taking any of the burden on themselves. They were spiritual, sometimes physical, and sometimes financial supports that helped me bear the burden. Then it occurred to me that they were doing verse 2 while I was doing verse5. Suddenly it started to make sense. I went back to verse 2 again, this time reading the whole "...[B]ear one another's burdens, and in this way you can you will fulfill the law of Christ." Okay, maybe there's not such a dichotomy after all. There are times we have burdens and there are times we are called to help others with burdens. Traditionally, we are called to be one in the spirit, and if one is burdened, all the others would similarly be burdened or the givers of support so that the burden is shared. That's the way Jesus seemed to feel it needed to be done. That's what's behind "Love thy neighbor", and "do good."
Paul goes on to say "For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves." Certainly everybody thinks that their burdens are the worst in the world, and to some extent that's true. They are the worst in the world, because each of us has our own burdens and our own reactions to those burdens. The thing is, we can't ignore the others are having problems just because Paul in one place tells us we should concentrate our own. We can't be egotistical about bearing burdens. Paul continues "All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbors work, will become a cause for pride."
I never thought it was a source of pride to look back on the tough times and feel a sense of satisfaction (okay, pride) that I had gone through it, I had survived it, I had learned from it, and I had come out stronger because of what I'd been through. I don't describe problem or difficulty as coming straight from God, but from myself, or perhaps heredity, or perhaps just stuff that happens. God was present as support but God didn't cause my difficulties. God didn't take away beloved people in death. God didn't give me cancer. God didn't make my birth mother walk away from me as an infant. I don't think a loving God would deliberately cause things that would be hurtful or injurious to God's own children. God had been through that with Jesus, and I'm sure that one time was enough. Be that as it may, I lived through my problems, I still live through some of them because they're not all solved yet, but I can I have survived. I can't take pride in it because it didn't make me better than anyone else, it just made me a stronger and a survivor.
Then I get to the to the verse that I originally thought about carrying our own own loads. The passage makes more sense to me now that I've had time to actually sit and think about it. The question of bearing burdens for another and carrying my own load doesn't seem so separate that I can't think of them together.
Each of us has burdens to bear. Each of us has support people to help us. Each of us has God in our corner, and each of us forms a support for others who may be going through similar things or who are dear friends and loved ones we want to be helpful to and supportive of. Paul seems to link them together for a reason.
Maybe Paul is not always so hard to understand after all. It just may take a little Lectio Divina now and then.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, February 4, 2017.