Bear One Another’s Burdens, or Just Bear Your Own?
How do Galatians 6 verses two and five harmonize? According to the apostle Paul, Christians are to “[b]ear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). However, only three verses later, he writes: “For every man shall bear his own burden” (6:5). Skeptic Steve Wells, author of the popular Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, categorizes Galatians 6:2 and 6:5 as contradictory verses (see Wells, 2015). Bible critic Dennis McKinsey comments on these verses, saying, “Gal. 6:2 says that we should bear one another’s burdens to fulfill the law of Christ, while three verses later we are told that everyone should bear his own burden. So who is to bear our burdens?... One can’t help but ask why people would be obligated to aid the poor if every man is supposed to bear his own burden” (1995, pp. 86, 430). So are Christians to “bear one another’s burdens,” or is the child of God to “bear his own burden”?
First of all, though skeptics generally seem rather unconcerned for the original language in which the Scriptures were written, oftentimes consulting the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek gives the reader a better understanding of the text (see, for example, Lyons, 2009). In Galatians 6:2 and 6:5, though the same English word [“burden(s)”] is used in the King James translation, the fact is, different Greek words were used in the original manuscripts. In verse 2, “burdens” is translated from baros, meaning “weight,” or figuratively, an “experience of someth[ing] that is particularly oppressive” (Danker, 2000, p. 167). In verse 5, “burden” is from fortion, meaning “that which constitutes a load for transport,” or “that which is carried and constitutes a burden” (Danker, p. 1064, emp. added). Many modern versions have attempted to show readers the difference in the two words by translating baros as “burden(s)” in 6:2 and fortion as “load” in 6:5 (NKJV, NASB, ESV). Though further explanation to the alleged conundrum is still necessary, noting the difference in the Greek should cause skeptics to reconsider their KJV-based accusations.
Second, Galatians 6:2 and 6:5 do not represent an either/or command. If it is possible for the Christian both to (1) bear his own burden/load, while at the same time (2) help bear another’s burden, then both commands must be followed, without assuming that one command must be obeyed to the exclusion of the other. Consider how the Bible writers condemned laziness (Proverbs 6:6-11; 10:5; 21:25). Paul even went so far as to say, “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat. For we hear that there are some who walk among you in a disorderly manner, not working at all, but are busybodies. Now those who are such we command and exhort through our Lord Jesus Christ that they work in quietness and eat their own bread” (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12, emp. added). At the same time, the child of God is to give to the poor (Proverbs 28:27; Luke 3:11). Paul instructed the penitent thief to “labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28, ESV, emp. added). Are we to work to take care of our families and ourselves? Yes. Are we to help others who are genuinely in need (i.e., who have burdens that they are unable to bear alone)? Yes. Should lazy busybodies expect to receive physical help from Christians? Not necessarily. (They should “work in quietness and eat their own bread.” If anyone is capable of working, yet willfully chooses laziness instead, “neither shall he eat.”) In short, the Christian takes his personal responsibilities seriously (he “bears his own”). At the same time, for those whose burdens of life are more than they can carry, the Christian joyfully comes to their aid to provide them various kinds of physical and spiritual assistance.
There are some responsibilities that no one can carry for us. No one can become a Christian for someone else. No one can worship for another. And no one will be able to “appear before the judgment seat of Christ” for someone else. Rather, “each one” will receive “the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10, emp. added). Therefore, “Let each one examine his own work, and then he will have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another” (Galatians 6:4). Just as a soldier is expected to carry his own “load” in battle, the servant of Christ the King recognizes his individual responsibilities to the Lord. At the same time, as soldiers assist fallen comrades on the battlefield in hopes of saving their lives, dedicated servants of Christ look to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the Law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
Danker, Frederick William, William Arndt, and F.W. Gingrich, (2000), Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press).
Lyons, Eric (2009), “Does God Tempt People?” Apologetics Press, http://www.apologeticspress.org/AllegedDiscrepancies.aspx?article=2679.
McKinsey, Dennis (1995), The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy (Amherst, NY: Prometheus).
Wells, Steve (2015), The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, http://www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/gal/6.html; http://www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/contra/burden.html.