Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.The "law of Christ," I take it, is first, Jesus' great commandment, summarizing the two tables of the Ten Commandments, that we love God with our whole beings and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
I take it also to mean the new commandment that Jesus gave to His followers to love fellow believers as Christ has loved them, with their whole lives.
Finally, I take this "law" to encompass Jesus' great commission that all who are part of His Church make disciples.
But since Galatians 6 deals with the internal life of Christ's Church, I think Paul has in mind the first two components of what I believe he means by the "law of Christ."
The thrust of the passage is that, even in restoring those who have rebelled against Christ, being careful not to fall into temptation ourselves (v. 1), we in the Church are to bear each other's burdens.
I've seen this exemplified in the people of Living Water Lutheran Church in the days leading up to and following my wife's recent surgery. On the night before the surgery, during our Lenten midweek service, the people in attendance gathered around me (my wife was unable to attend) and prayed for her healing and for my encouragement. We received many calls, cards, and emails of encouragement, assuring us of people's prayers. On the day of the surgery, a couple from the congregation drove the hour-plus to the hospital to be with my daughter, mother-in-law, and me; they stayed all day. Someone sent us a gift card to a local restaurant. Several have brought or offered to bring meals. Some have offered to take my wife to where she needs to be, since she can't drive right now. These are the kinds of things, I believe, that Paul has in mind when he tells Christians to "bear one another's burdens." The love of Christ is seen and experienced in these acts and gestures of love, the power of Christ is demonstrated when we pray for one another.
I also have a friend who lives miles away who is wonderful about praying for people whose needs are brought to her attention. In addition, this friend is compassionate, generous, and forgiving of others, whatever their needs. All of these traits too, demonstrate the Christian bearing others' burdens.
But then we come to Galatians 6:5:
For all must carry their own loads.I'll never forget eating lunch, more than thirty years ago, with a seminary classmate at a fast food restaurant in Columbus. We were working on a project together and we both had our Bibles open, discussing the project. A middle aged man approached us, who, it became clear, had a bee in his bonnet.
"You know," he said, "if everyone studied the Bible the way you two are, we wouldn't need welfare or charity programs for the poor. There wouldn't be any poor."
My classmate asked the guy how he'd arrived at that conclusion. He pointed to Galatians 6:5 and said, if everybody carried their own loads, everyone would be working.
I'd half-forgotten that encounter until I read this passage again this morning.
Of course, even thirty years ago, I realized that the man at the fast food restaurant was taking one passage of Scripture out of context with no regard for the total witness of Scripture on what the believer's stance toward the poor should be.
For example, throughout the Old Testament moral law, God's people were told to make provisions for the poor, the orphaned, foreigners, and the widowed. Farmers weren't to harvest their crops to the edges of their fields and if, after harvesting, they realized that parts of their fields were unharvested, they weren't to go back to harvest the rest of their crops. All of these leavings were to remain for the benefit of the poor who could glean them.
Jesus and the New Testament commends a similar concern for the poor.
Whether any of this bears relevance to government relief programs is one question. But there can be no question that what the man called "charity" programs, at least those in which Christians who have give to others who have not, is both commended and commanded by God.
So, is Paul contradicting himself in Galatians 6:2 and 6:5?
I dug a little deeper today.
In Galatians 6:2, the word translated as burdens that Paul uses in the Greek in which his letter was originally composed is baros. The word he uses in Galatians 6:5 translated as loads is phortion.
While these words can have similar meanings, there are subtle shades of difference between the two.
According to one New Testament Greek-English lexicon, baros, carries the meanings of "heaviness, weight, burden, trouble." In the context of Galatians 6, the burdens referred to are clearly those experiences in life that weigh us down, things like physical illness, relational discord, financial troubles, worry over loved ones, poverty, grief, heartbreaks, depression. The call in Galatians 6:2 is for Christians to lighten the burdens of fellow believers when they encounter these weights of life.
That same lexicon says that phortion can mean burden or load, with particular reference to the cargo being carried by a ship. It can also reference burdensome religious duties or "faults of the conscience that burden the soul."
In the context of 6:5, a different meaning emerges: the obligations we have to respond to the free gifts of God's forgiveness and new life that comes to all who believe in Christ. This "load," to be borne by every Christian is what Paul calls in Romans 12:1 our "true and proper worship" or, in other translations, "spiritual worship" or "reasonable service."
In other words, concern and care for the poor and all who are in need are among the good fruits that will spring from the life a person made new by the forgiveness and grace of Jesus Christ.
In fact, Galatians 6:5 appears to have no direct reference to work for an income, but the work of every believer as a priest and minister of the gospel.
As with Jesus in His parable of the final judgement in Matthew 25:31-46, Paul isn't saying that we are saved by our good works, by shouldering some odious burdens, but that, touched and transformed by Christ, we will, almost as an involuntary Holy Spirit-created response to grace, do good works, including caring for the poor. (See Ephesians 2:8-10)
The "load" that Paul talks about in Galatians 6:5, is what Jesus also talks about when he tells those heavily laden either by the implacable demands of a dog-eat-dog world or by religious striving to be "good:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)The light burden to which Christ refers, I think, is taking His loving lordship over our lives, believing in Him as our God and Savior.
When we do that, in Martin Luther's words, Christians become "the Holy Spirit's workshop." God goes to work on us, transforming us even without our conscious awareness. It's as though we fall into Christ's orbit and can't always see the ways in which He is changing us. The "load" is to keep living in daily repentance and renewal so that the Master Craftsman can continue to to make us over in the image of Christ.
In dispelling the seeming contradiction between Galatians 6:2 and 6:5, The Lutheran Study Bible says simply: "Those who are willing to accept personal accountability for their own actions before God (bearing their own "load"...phortion) are more willing to to bear others burdens (v.2, "burden"...baros)..."
So, Paul's message in a nutshell, seems to be: "Christians: Bear the burdens of others. Your willingness to do so is the measure of God's grace operating in your life; it's your 'load' as a believer."
Salvation is a free gift and each believer is responsible to God for how they use their salvation.
To not use the power of God living within us as Christians to help others is like being gifted with the power to make music and never singing a note or playing a tune.
Or like having the power to do medical research that might save lives, but staying away from the lab.
Or being a gifted athlete and never trying out for the team.
Just as God wants Christians to use their spiritual gifts for the mutual upbuilding of all in Christ's Church, He also wants us to use His grace to take on the ministry of caring for others.