Question: "What does it mean to bear one another's burdens?"
Answer: Galatians 6:2 says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” The word burden here means “a weight of personal and eternal significance.” It can refer to a character flaw, a struggle, or a moral requirement. Some have wondered at the meaning of this verse as it compares to Galatians 6:5, which says, “Each one should bear his own load.” Are these verses contradictory? How can we bear someone else’s burdens if we are each supposed to carry our own loads?
The Greek word translated “load” in Galatians 6:5 is phortion, which refers to an individual burden that is not transferable. We each have certain obligations for which we alone are responsible. For example, God has given each of us responsibilities for our families (1 Timothy 5:8), our churches (1 Corinthians 12:18), and our personal holiness (1 Peter 1:15–16). We cannot assume the responsibility for someone else’s behavior. We can, however, bear other burdens; we can come alongside a struggling brother or sister and help shoulder the weight of a trial or temptation that threatens to pull him under.
We can illustrate the idea of bearing one another’s burdens with the picture of a man staggering beneath a heavy load of grain. He must somehow get this grain home to his family, but he is about to crumble beneath its weight. A brother sees his distress and rushes to his aid, lifting a part of the burden and thereby easing the weight of it. Although the supportive one does not assume the whole load, his help allows the struggling one to carry on to his destination.
The church at Antioch is an example of believers bearing one another’s burdens. Acts 11:27–30 records that the church learned of a coming famine in Judea. Though they did not personally know the ones who would be affected by this difficulty, they took up collections to send to them by way of traveling apostles. The Antioch church did not assume responsibility for total provision, but their generosity lightened the load for those who would be suffering.
We are each responsible before God for the gifts and resources He has entrusted to us (Romans 14:12; 2 Corinthians 5:10). We cannot blame others, shift responsibility, or make excuses about why we were unfaithful with the assignments we’ve been given—we must bear our own loads. But there are also times when life threatens to overwhelm. A spouse dies. A child is injured. A job folds or a house burns down. As part of the family of God, we are to come to the aid of our brothers and sisters in need (Philippians 2:3–4). When a load suddenly becomes too heavy for one person, we are to bear one another’s burdens. The added strength and encouragement of others is often the difference between pressing on and giving up.
Unfortunately, there are a few who isolate Galatians 6:2 and make a career out of asking for help. They misuse God’s command to bear one another’s burdens to avoid their own responsibilities and habitually harass their church families with expectations of aid. Walking in the light of God’s Word is a delicate balance between selfless giving and responsible boundaries. If we err too far on one side, we become self-focused and overly independent. But erring too far the other way leads to assuming responsibility for other people’s messes. When we aim to bear our own loads, while always being available to bear the burdens of others as the Lord leads, we will strike that perfect balance.