The Bible is replete with calls for us as Christians, living in the same household of God to look out for one another’s interest. One example of this is in Gal. 6:2 – ‘Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.’ Yet, strangely, Paul seems to contradict himself a few verses down in vs. 5, ‘For each will have to bear his own load.’
Was Paul giving confusing signals? Not at all. In fact, this is Paul’s way of surfacing the significance of what he means. As a start, a simple way of differentiating the two is that both employs different original Greek words, which is helpfully translated in the ESV in vs. 2 as the call to carry each other’s burdens, and in vs. 5, where each one is to bear his own load.
Contextually, when Paul gives the exhortation in vs. 2 to, ‘Bear one another’s burdens’, he had said earlier in vs. 1, ‘Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.’ So, instead of feeling superior over a brother who has fallen under burdens or weights that are too heavy to bear, the call is to ‘carry each other’s burdens’. The teaching here is to lift up a brother who is overwhelmed, needing comfort, counsel and a pair of listening ears (or even dipping into one’s pocket to help).
But when Paul says in vs. 5, ‘‘For each will have to bear his own load,’ he has now moved on to talk about personal responsibility. A clue to understand this is the word ‘own’. It is one’s own load or responsibility.
Let’s suppose there is a year-end examination that a student has to take. However, he is weak in that particular subject. He may be weighed down by worries and concerns that he is not up to mark. What he might do is to look to others who are more adept with the subject to go through revisions with him. For another student to guide him along the way, it would be akin to “carrying one another’s burdens”, knowing that there may be other times when he will need to seek support from others in fields that he may himself may not be as adept. However, the student who is weak still need to ‘bear his own load’. It will not do the job for someone else to study on his behalf. He will himself still need to face the exam himself.
In a church environment, these aspects of “carrying one another’s burdens” on the one hand, and “bearing one’s own load” becomes significant in our body-life. For example, belonging to the same household of God, we are on the one hand to look out for each other in our journey on earth, lifting up a brother who has fallen or providing a word of encouragement. Yet on the other hand, we are also each one to take personal responsibility in disciplining ourselves to walk in a manner worthy of our calling as children of God.
Elder Richard Lai