I was once hiking in Colorado with a friend and two of my kids. Way past dark we saw a single faint light meandering down the mountain toward our basecamp at 12,000 feet. It turned out to be a cell phone held by a young woman who had been hiking alone. She had run out of daylight, lost track of the trail, and took several bad falls. Her body was sore and dirty. Her hands were bloody. Her face was tear-stained. She was traumatized and disoriented. If she hadn’t found us and stayed with us for the night, what might have happened?
Hear Ecclesiastes: If two people “fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” (4:10). God commands us, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). In fact, “Helping fellow believers carry the weight of their worldly troubles is one of the chief practical duties that ought to consume every Christian.”[i] In the war for wellness, friends are a front-line defense.
So how can we be the friends who help keep others from wandering off the trail? How can we comfort the bruised and battered? How can we help bear the pack of the weak?
See the Struggles of Others
“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4). Paul’s word for “look” is powerful: It means to contemplate, fix one’s eyes upon, direct one’s attention to. The Bible uses this metaphor to describe God’s help of his children: “The Lord saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter” (2 Kings 14:26). God calls us to mirror him by noticing what others are going through. To be a helper you have to be a seer.
Sometimes the struggles of other believers are obvious. But because people hide their hurts and mask their pain, we might have to look hard for signs of our friend’s struggles. Some of our friends might self-harm in an unhealthy attempt to honor invisible pain. Others may reveal their hurt through uncharacteristic apathy, lethargy, or cynicism. Sometimes hurt shows itself through misbehavior—God’s command of burden-bearing explicitly addresses “transgression” (Gal. 6:1). Christians should look out for any sign of guilt, worry, sorrow, anxiety, depression, physical handicap, unconfessed sin, and other burdens that we might help carry.
And behind eyes that see must be hearts that care. The combination of seeing and caring is called empathy. Our Good Shepherd empathized. He shared the pain of others because he was able to look at the hurting as if through their own eyeballs without jeopardizing his judgment (Matt. 9:36). J.C. Ryle said that those who do not care to experience the state of the souls of others “can surely not have ‘the mind of Christ’ (1 Cor. ii.16).”[ii] “Someone whose real interest does not extend beyond the boundaries of his own existence will not be able to be empathetic.”[iii] We mustn’t be so preoccupied that every hurt but our own is hidden by self-interest. But for believers, “Christ has dethroned self” and enabled us to care about others.[iv]
Share the Burdens of Others
Jesus both looked to the interests of others and acted on what he saw. He “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Phil. 2:7). We must have this same mind among ourselves (Phil. 2:5). We can’t totally cure our friends’ problems, but we can serve them by sharing the weight. We can do as Paul commands: “Encourage the fainthearted, help the weak” (1 Thess. 5:14). How?
Share by Listening
Many of us prefer talking over listening. But being quick to speak almost always fails because of our inherent ignorance. Jesus knew what was in a person (John 2:25). We don’t, but we think we do. So we break James’ law—“Be quick to hear, slow to speak” (1:19)—and fail to help. Listening has a way of correcting our first impressions about hurting people. That aggressive woman might be scared. That aloof man could be silently grieving. But we won’t know until we listen. Listening helps us share. And listening itself often eases the burden. Sometimes people’s greatest weight is the frustration of not being heard. Listening can help lift some of their load.
Share by Speaking
Our speaking role as burden-sharers isn’t usually going to be diagnosing the troubles of others, but encouraging them in their troubles. We can be like Jonathan who strengthened David’s hand in God (1 Sam. 23:16). In the words of Matthew Henry, “As a pious friend, [Jonathan] directed him to God, the foundation of his confidence and the fountain of his comfort.” How might we help carry specific burdens of our friends by pointing them to God? Remind guilt-stricken friends of God’s grace. Remind anxious friends of God’s provision. Remind self-harming friends of God’s atonement; it’s by Jesus’s wounds that we’re healed, not our own.
Share by Referring
Sometimes we’re simply in over our heads. Certain situations are emergencies that require us to help by telling others. If we’re convinced that a friend is in serious danger of taking their life, or harming another person, we should get help, even without their permission. Other dangers are less urgent but still overwhelming. It’s appropriate to say, “I want to continue to help bear your burden. But I need help.” You might encourage your friend to talk to a pastor, elder, or professional counselor, or name a few other friends who could join them in their struggle.
First, we must lean on Jesus for our own needs. Paul says that burden-bearers must be “spiritual” (Gal. 6:1)—Spirit-reliant, Spirit-strengthened, Spirit-guided. Without a strong hope in Jesus, helping can be debilitating, and truly seeing can be crushing. Your ability to bear the burdens of others depends on how well you’re leaning your weight on Jesus, who bore “the weight of our sins and of the wrath of God.”[v]
But we also need to trust Jesus to carry our friends. We all lack the capacity of soul to shoulder all the hurts of others. We aren’t Jesus. To forget that can ruin us. Several times in my ministry I’ve had the wind knocked out of me upon learning of shocking sins or losses of dear friends. Extreme empathy can paralyze us. We have to remain committed to helping our friends while committing them into God’s care. We need to “transfer the weight of spiritual burdens onto shoulders bigger, stronger, broader, and more durable.”[vi] We can’t bear our friends’ responsibilities, or the consequences of their choices (Gal. 6:7). It’s a spiritual discipline to love our friends as best we can and leave God to work out their destiny. Ultimately, “each one will have to bear his own load” (Gal. 6:5). On the Day of Judgment everyone reports to God alone.
Bearing the burdens of others is the practice of seeing, sharing, and trusting. And, done right, it leads to Jesus. Jesus “came to share this suffering, he came to bear this pain, he came to taste every test and every temptation that we have known.[vii] Jesus’s incarnation proves that “God wants to know our condition fully and does not want to take away any pain which he himself has not fully tasted.”[viii] Because he has borne our burdens, we can bear one another’s burdens. The one who set the perfect standard of loving one’s neighbor now calls you and me to go and do likewise.
[i] John MacArthur, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/bearing-one-anothers-burdens
[ii] J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: St. Matthew (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1859), 93.
[iii] Jacob Firet, Dynamics in Pastoring (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 274.
[iv] Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture: Second Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians (New York: Easton and Mains, n.d.), 179.
[v] Celebration of the Lord’s Supper—Form 1, https://formsandprayers.com/liturgical-form
[vi] J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership: Principles of Excellence for Every Believer, 2nd rev. ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 50.
[vii] John Piper, https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-pain-of-the-world-and-the-purposes-of-god
[viii] Donald P. McNeill, Douglas A. Morrison, Henri J.M. Nouwen, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1982), 15.