There’s a fascinating conversation between the hobbits Sam and Frodo in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King.
‘I can’t manage it, Sam,’ [Frodo] said. ‘It is such a weight to carry, such a weight.’
Sam knew before he spoke, that it was vain, and that such words might do more harm than good, but in his pity he could not keep silent. ‘Then let me carry it a bit for you, Master,’ he said. ‘You know I would, and gladly, as long as I have any strength.’
A wild light came into Frodo’s eyes. ‘Stand away! Don’t touch me!’ he cried. ‘It is mine, I say. Be off!’ His hand strayed to his sword-hilt. But then quickly his voice changed. ‘No, no, Sam,’ he said sadly. ‘But you must understand. It is my burden, and no one else can bear it…’J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
If you’re not familiar with the story, once upon a time Frodo was a hobbit who lived a pretty normal life. But when he heard that there was this ring that needed to be destroyed (or else the world as he knew it would be destroyed), he heroically volunteered to carry the ring to Mount Doom to destroy it. In a sense, he put the weight of the world on his shoulders.
During the journey, however, the ring became a heavy burden, and at times he wasn’t sure if he could see it through. I imagine that Frodo perhaps wondered to himself on occasion, “Why did I ever sign up for this?”
Whose Burdens Are We to Carry?
Sometimes we volunteer to carry the burdens of others, but they become heavier than we initially realized. And though those burdens don’t compare to the burden of carrying the One Ring to Rule Them All, they can still be overwhelming.
I think this brings us to a fundamental question: Whose burdens are we to carry?
Obviously we should carry our own burdens, but what should we do when we hear of other burdens that need to be carried? Should we carry these burdens also?
Are we to bear the burdens of our aging parents who can no longer take care of themselves? Are we to bear the burden of a friend who calls us in the middle of the work day to talk about his struggling marriage? Are we to bear the burden of an acquaintance who is collecting donations because he had an unexpected medical bill? Are we to bear the burdens of homeless veterans who sacrificed years serving our country? Are we to bear the burdens of the poor who can no longer afford rent in our gentrified neighborhood? Are we to bear the burdens of political refugees trying to apply for asylum in our country? Are we to bear the burdens of people we’ve never met who are suffering from natural disasters in third world countries?
And while we may initially want to help people out, the reality is that when we carry new burdens, old burdens are neglected. Because we only have so much time, so much money, and so much perseverance, we cannot bear everyone’s burdens holistically and indefinitely. Or to put it another way, bearing one burden inherently implies dropping another burden.
So what do we do? In an attempt to manage their loads, some people resort to one of two extremes. On the one hand, there are those who say no to everybody. They only bear their own burden. They believe that they are only responsible for themselves. The struggles of others are no longer their concern. But as a result, they are prone to being isolated, detached, and self-absorbed.
On the other hand, there are those who say yes to everybody. They wind up bearing everybody’s burdens. And often they spend so much time and effort taking care of everybody else that they can’t bear people’s burdens effectively, and they also have no capacity to take care of themselves. They are completely burned out. And as a result, they are prone to being trapped, depressed, or bitter.
The right answer must be somewhere in between selfishness and burnout. But where is that line?
The Self, the Church, and Everyone Else
In Galatians 6, Paul is giving his final exhortations to the churches in Galatia, and he gives three commands that are relevant to our discussion.
- “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
- “For each will have to bear his own load” (Galatians 6:5).
- “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10).
According to Galatians 6:5, we are to bear our own burdens. According to Galatians 6:2, we are to bear the burdens of those in the church (Paul says “brothers” in Galatians 6:1, which makes it clear that he is talking about Christians). And according to Galatians 6:10, we are to do good to everyone when we have the opportunity to do so, which seems to me to imply that we must on occasion bear everyone’s burdens.
Note: If you disagree with my understanding of Galatians 6:10, I encourage you to read the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. Did not the Good Samaritan do good to the stranger on the side of the road by bearing his burden?
It’s fascinating that Paul would offer these three commands in such quick succession. It almost seems contradictory. But I think that’s the point. Bearing people’s burdens is not clear-cut. It is very nuanced.
Let’s take an example. What do I do when a stranger on the street asks me if I have spare change to give (which is a very common scenario where I live)? It depends.
Sometimes, if I have time, I will introduce myself, ask them what they need, and if it is reasonable and within my capabilities, I try to fulfill that need. Often times it’s taking them to the convenience store around the corner and buying them a meal. There have even been a few times when I have driven someone across town because they need a ride. And my hope is that as I help to bear that person’s burdens, I can learn about his background, I can offer to pray for him, and I can invite him to my church.
But the majority of the time, when someone on the street asks for help, I don’t even stop walking. I just say, “Sorry, I can’t help,” and I keep walking. Do I feel a bit guilty? Yes. But I understand that I have limitations. I am limited in time, and I am limited in money. I know that if I spend time or money on this person, that is potentially less time and less money for a friend, less time and less money for my family, and less time and less money for myself.
Drawing Boundaries in Pencil
I believe that we need to draw some boundaries between the self, the church, and everyone else. Otherwise, we will unintentionally allow one to bleed into the other. What I mean is that we should have regular habits and rhythms to make sure we are bearing burdens in appropriate proportions. But we should draw those boundaries in pencil.
For example, as a pastor, one of my boundaries is that I only have three ministry-related evening events a week. This makes sure that I spend time with my family, and that our lives aren’t too hectic. But every now and then, there are weeks when there are a lot of events, and I decide to have four evening events. It’s not the end of the world though, because the boundaries were drawn in pencil.
Another one of our family’s boundaries is that we give a certain percentage of our income to charity. In fact, our goal is to slightly increase our percentage every time my wife or I get a raise. This ensures that we are caring for the poor and the underprivileged. But every now and then, it’s hard to do. Right now we are paying childcare tuition for our toddler, and in a few months we will have a second child, which means we will soon be paying two childcare tuitions for our kids. It’s possible that we may decrease our giving percentage for a year or two. But it’s not the end of the world, because the boundaries were drawn in pencil.
I’m not prescribing anything. My point is that burden-bearing is nuanced.
Will boundaries fix everything? Obviously not. I still sometimes feel overwhelmed. I still sometimes feel like Frodo.
But I think that feeling (in moderation) is good. Because it is that brutal awareness of our limitations that brings us to Christ.
The Ultimate Burden-Bearer
Jesus lived out Galatians 6:1-10 perfectly. His life was marked by bearing people’s burdens, but even he set boundaries while doing so. He at times bore the burdens of strangers, like when he healed the bleeding woman (cf. Matthew 9:18-26). He at times bore the burdens of the family of faith, like when he dismissed the crowd to teach his disciples a lesson on faith during the Galilee storm (cf. Matthew 14:22-33). He at times bore his own burden, like when he asked his disciples to pray and to keep watch with him in the Garden of Gethsemane (cf. Matthew 26:36-39).
It is bewildering to me that Jesus, who truly had no limitations, chose to have limitations. He could’ve bore everyone’s burdens holistically and indefinitely. But he chose instead to succumb to limitations.
And why? So that he could bear the ultimate burden. Jesus understood that his main mission was not to address the effects of sin, but to address sin itself. After all, the great burden of humanity was the burden of sin, and that was the ultimate burden that Jesus came to bear.
Jesus didn’t just show us how to bear burdens. He came specifically to bear our burden of sin. He “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24).
I think that the secret to bearing other people’s burdens is knowing that Jesus bore our burdens. How can we possibly bear other people’s burdens when our own burdens are so heavy? We do so by handing over our burdens to Jesus.
If you feel guilty or anxious or overwhelmed about all of the burdens you need to carry, I invite you to lay your burdens down. You don’t need to be Frodo. The world doesn’t depend on you. It depends on God. God has you in his hands. He has your family in his hands. He has the whole world in his hands.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.Matthew 11:28-29