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'Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ. . . . 5. For every man shall bear his own burden.'—Gal. vi. 25.
The injunction in the former of these verses appears, at first sight, to be inconsistent with the statement in the latter. But Paul has a way of setting side by side two superficially contradictory clauses, in order that attention may be awakened, and that we may make an effort to apprehend the point of reconciliation between them. So, for instance, you remember he puts in one172 sentence, and couples together by a 'for,' these two sayings: 'Work out your own salvation'; 'It is God that worketh in you.' So here he has been exhorting the Galatian Christians to restore a fallen brother. That is one case to which the general commandment, 'Bear ye one another's burdens,' is applicable.
I cannot here enter on the intervening verses by which he glides from the one to the other of these two thoughts which I have coupled together, but I may just point out in a word the outline of his course of thought. 'Bear ye one another's burden,' says he; and then he thinks, 'What is it that keeps men from bearing each other's burdens?' Being swallowed up with themselves, and especially being conceited about their own strength and goodness. And so he goes on: 'If a man think himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.' And what is the best cure for all these fancies inside us of how strong and good we are? To look at our work with an impartial and rigid judgment. It is easy for a man to plume himself on being good, and strong, and great; but let him look at what he has done, and try that by a high standard, and that will knock the conceit out of him. Or, if his work stands the test, then 'he shall have rejoicing in himself, and not' by comparing himself with other people. Two blacks do not make a white, and we are not to heighten the lustre of our own whiteness by comparing it with our neighbour's blackness. Take your act for what it is worth, apart altogether from what other people are. Do not say, 'God! I thank thee that I am not as other men are . . . or even as this publican'; but look to yourself. There is an occupation with self which is good, and is a help to brotherly sympathy.173
And so the Apostle has worked round, you see, to almost an opposite thought from the one with which he started. 'Bear ye one another's burdens.' Yes, but a man's work is his own and nobody else's, and a man's character is his own and nobody else's, so 'every man shall bear his own burden.' The statements are not contradictory. They complete each other. They are the north and the south poles, and between them is the rounded orb of the whole truth. So then, let me point out that:
I. There are burdens which can be shared, and there are burdens which cannot.
Let us take the case from which the whole context has arisen. Paul was exhorting the Galatians, as I explained, in reference to their duty to a fallen brother; and he speaks of him—according to our version—as 'overtaken in a fault.' Now, that is scarcely his idea, I think. The phrase, as it stands in our Bibles, suggests that Paul is trying to minimise the gravity of the man's offence; but just in proportion as he minimised its gravity would he weaken his exhortation to restore him. But what he is really doing is not to make as little as possible of the sin, but to make as much of it as is consistent with the truth. The word 'overtaken' suggests that some sin, like a tiger in a jungle, springs upon a man and overpowers him by the suddenness of the assault. The word so rendered may perhaps be represented by some such phrase as 'discovered'; or, if I may use a 'colloquialism,' if a man be caught 'red-handed.' That is the idea. And Paul does not use the weak word 'fault,' but a very much stronger one, which means stark staring sin. He is supposing a bad case of inconsistency, and is not palliating it at all. Here is a brother who has had an unblemished174 reputation; and all at once the curtain is thrown aside behind which he is working some wicked thing; and there the culprit stands, with the bull's-eye light flashed upon him, ashamed and trembling. Paul says, 'If you are a spiritual man'—there is irony there of the graver sort—'show your spirituality by going and lifting him up, and trying to help him.' When he says, 'Restore such an one,' he uses an expression which is employed in other connections in the New Testament, such as for mending the broken meshes of a net, for repairing any kind of damage, for setting the fractured bones of a limb. And that is what the 'spiritual' man has to do. He is to show the validity of his claim to live on high by stooping down to the man bemired and broken-legged in the dirt. We have come across people who chiefly show their own purity by their harsh condemnation of others' sins. One has heard of women so very virtuous that they would rather hound a fallen sister to death than try to restore her; and there are saints so extremely saintly that they will not touch the leper to heal him, for fear of their own hands being ceremonially defiled. Paul says, 'Bear ye one another's burdens'; and especially take a lift of each other's sin.
I need not remind you how the same command applies in relation to pecuniary distress, narrow circumstances, heavy duties, sorrows, and all the 'ills that flesh is heir to.' These can be borne by sympathy, by true loving outgoing of the heart, and by the rendering of such practical help as the circumstances require.
But there are burdens that cannot be borne by any but the man himself.
There is the awful burden of personal existence. It175 is a solemn thing to be able to say 'I.' And that carries with it this, that after all sympathy, after all nestling closeness of affection, after the tenderest exhibition of identity of feeling, and of swift godlike readiness to help, each of us lives alone. Like the inhabitants of the islands of the Greek Archipelago, we are able to wave signals to the next island, and sometimes to send a boat with provisions and succour, but we are parted, 'with echoing straits between us thrown.' Every man, after all, lives alone, and society is like the material things round about us, which are all compressible, because the atoms that compose them are not in actual contact, but separated by slenderer or more substantial films of isolating air. Thus there is even in the sorrows which we can share with our brethren, and in all the burdens which we can help to bear, an element which cannot be imparted. 'The heart knoweth its own bitterness', and neither 'stranger' nor other 'intermeddleth' with the deepest fountains of 'its joy.'
Then again, there is the burden of responsibility which can be shared by none. A dozen soldiers may be turned out to make a firing party to shoot the mutineer, and no man knows who fired the shot, but one man did fire it. And however there may have been companions, it was his rifle that carried the bullet, and his finger that pulled the trigger. We say, 'The woman that Thou gavest me tempted me, and I did eat.' Or we say, 'My natural appetites, for which I am not responsible, but Thou who madest me art, drew me aside, and I fell', or we may say, 'It was not I; it was the other boy.' And then there rises up in our hearts a veiled form, and from its majestic lips comes 'Thou art the man'; and our whole being echoes176 assent—Mea culpa; mea maxima culpa—'My fault, my exceeding great fault.' No man can bear that burden.
And then, closely connected with responsibility there is another—the burden of the inevitable consequences of transgression, not only away yonder in the future, when all human bonds of companionship shall be broken, and each man shall 'give account of himself to God,' but here and now; as in the immediate context the Apostle tells us, 'Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.' The effects of our evil deeds come back to roost; and they never make a mistake as to where they should alight. If I have sown, I, and no one else, will gather. No sympathy will prevent to-morrow's headache after to-night's debauch, and nothing that anybody can do will turn the sleuth-hounds off the scent. Though they may be slow-footed, they have sure noses and deep-mouthed fangs. 'If thou be wise thou shalt be wise for thyself, and if thou scornest thou alone shalt bear it.' So there are burdens which can, and burdens which cannot, be borne.
II. Jesus Christ is the Burden-bearer for both sorts of burdens.
'Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ,' not only as spoken by His lips, but as set forth in the pattern of His life. We have, then, to turn to Him, and think of Him as Burden-bearer in even a deeper sense than the psalmist had discerned, who magnified God as 'He who daily beareth our burdens.'
Christ is the Burden-bearer of our sin. 'The Lord hath laid'—or made to meet—'upon Him the iniquity of us all.' The Baptist pointed his lean, ascetic finger at the young Jesus, and said, 'Behold the Lamb of God which beareth'—and beareth away—'the sin of the world.' How heavy the load, how real its pressure,177 let Gethsemane witness, when He clung to human companionship with the unutterably solemn and plaintive words, 'My soul is exceeding sorrowful even unto death. Tarry ye here and watch with Me.' He bore the burden of the world's sin.
Jesus Christ is the bearer of the burden of the consequences of sin, not only inasmuch as, in His sinless humanity, He knew by sympathy the weight of the world's sin, but because in that same humanity, by identification of Himself with us, deeper and more wonderful than our plummets have any line long enough to sound the abysses of, He took the cup of bitterness which our sins have mixed, and drank it all when He said, 'My God! My God! Why hast Thou forsaken Me?' Consequences still remain: thank God that they do! 'Thou wast a God that forgavest them, and Thou didst inflict retribution on their inventions.' So the outward, the present, the temporal consequences of transgression are left standing in all their power, in order that transgressors may thereby be scourged from their evil, and led to forsake the thing that has wrought them such havoc. But the ultimate consequence, the deepest of all, separation from God, has been borne by Christ, and need never be borne by us.
I suppose I need not dwell on the other aspects of this burden-bearing of our Lord, how that He, in a very deep and real sense, takes upon Himself the sorrows which we bear in union with, and faith on, Him. For then the griefs that still come to us, when so borne, are transmitted into 'light affliction which is but for a moment.' 'In all their afflictions He was afflicted.' Oh, brethren! you with sad hearts, you with lonely lives, you with carking cares, you with pressing, heavy duties, cast your burden on the Christ, and He 'will178 sustain you,' and sorrows borne in union with Him will change their character, and the very cross shall be wreathed in flowers.
Jesus bears the burden of that solemn solitude which our personal being lays upon us all. The rest of us stand round, and, as I said, hoist signals of sympathy, and sometimes can stretch a brotherly hand out and grasp the sufferer's hand. But their help comes from without; Christ comes in, and dwells in our hearts, and makes us no longer alone in the depths of our being, which He fills with the effulgence and peace of His companionship. And so for sin, for guilt, for responsibility, for sorrow, for holiness, Christ bears our burdens.
Yes! And when He takes ours on His shoulders, He puts His on ours. 'My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.' As the old mystics used to say, Christ's burden carries him that carries it. It may add a little weight, but it gives power to soar, and it gives power to progress. It is like the wings of a bird, it is like the sails of a ship.
III. Lastly, Christ's carrying our burdens binds us to carry our brother's!
'So fulfil the law of Christ.' There is a very biting sarcasm, and, as I said about another matter, a grave irony in Paul's use of that word 'law' here. For the whole of this Epistle has been directed against the Judaising teachers who were desirous of cramming Jewish law down Galatian throats, and is addressed to their victims in the Galatian churches who had fallen into the trap. Paul turns round on them here, and says, 'You want law, do you? Well, if you will have it, here it is—the law of Christ.' Christ's life is our law. Practical Christianity is doing what Christ did. The179 Cross is not only the ground of our hope, but the pattern of our conduct.
And, says Paul in effect, the example of Jesus Christ, in all its sweep, and in all the depth of it, is the only motive by which this injunction that I am giving you will ever be fulfilled. 'Bear ye one another's burdens.' You will never do that unless you have Christ as the ground of your hope, and His great sacrifice as the example for your conduct. For the hindrance that prevents sympathy is self-absorption; and that natural selfishness which is in us all will never be exorcised and banished from us thoroughly, so as that we shall be awake to all the obligations to bear our brother's burdens, unless Christ has dethroned self, and is the Lord of our inmost spirits.
I rejoice as much as any man in the largely increased sense of mutual responsibility and obligation of mutual aid, which is sweetening society by degrees amongst us to-day, but I believe that no Socialistic or other schemes for the regeneration of society which are not based on the Incarnation and Sacrifice of Jesus Christ will live and grow. There is but one power that will cast out natural selfishness, and that is love to Christ, apprehending His Cross as the great example to which our lives are to be conformed. I believe that the growing sense of brotherhood amongst us, even where it is not consciously connected with any faith in Christianity, is, to a very large extent, the result of the diffusion through society of the spirit of Christianity, even where its body is rejected. Thank God, the river of the water of life can percolate through many a mile of soil, and reach the roots of trees far away, in the pastures of the wilderness, that know not whence the refreshing moisture has come. But on the wide scale180 be sure of this: it is the law of Christ that will fight and conquer the natural selfishness which makes bearing our brother's burdens an impossibility for men. Only, Christian people! let us take care that we are not robbed of our prerogative of being foremost in all such things, by men whose zeal has a less heavenly source than ours ought to have. Depend upon it, heresy has less power to arrest the progress of the Church than the selfish lives of Christian professors.
So, dear friends, let us see to it that we first of all cast our own burdens on the Christ who is able to bear them all, whatever they are. And then let us, with lightened hearts and shoulders, make our own the heavy burdens of sin, of sorrow, of care, of guilt, of consequences, of responsibility, which are crushing down many that are weary and heavy laden. For be sure of this, if we do not bear our brother's burdens, the load that we thought we had cast on Christ will roll back upon ourselves. He is able to bear both us and our burdens, if we will let Him, and if we will fulfil that law of Christ which was illustrated in all His life, 'Who, though He was rich, yet for our sakes became poor,' and was written large in letters of blood upon that Cross where there was 'laid on Him the iniquity of us all.'
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