Which is it? Are we supposed to carry one another’s burdens, as Galatians 6:2 says: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ”? Or should we carry our own load, as Galatians 6:5 (only three verses later) says: “For each will have to bear his own load”?

First, let me remind readers that there is no way that the Apostle Paul (who wrote these words) is accidentally contradicting himself. If Paul is anything as an author, he is intentional. So if this isn’t a contradiction, what’s going on?

In Galatians 6, Paul offers sage counsel on situations all Christians face. Moreover, his counsel turns out to be exceptionally practical and helpful. What is it that Paul exhorts his readers to do?

Answer: Paul challenges Christians to help others carry burdens when those burdens become too heavy to bear while simultaneously reminding his readers that every Christian bears responsibility for carrying his or her own load.

In other words, Paul offers balanced advice that encourages Christians to sacrificially serve other Christians who are overburdened, while in the same paragraph reminding his readers that each person has a certain amount of responsibility to carry his or her own load.

Stated differently: God wants us to sacrificially help those who need help. But we also need to encourage and teach people how to carry their own loads.

Every day I encounter hundreds of college students who carry around textbooks (and phones, and computers, and snacks, and changes of clothes, and wallets, and even frisbees) in backpacks. Except in the rare case when a guy offers to carry his girlfriend’s backpack, all students on our campus willingly carry their own backpacks. But sometimes a student needs help bearing something too heavy for one person to carry alone. A few days ago, I observed some film students working together to move heavy equipment while preparing to shoot a short film. The director was unable to carry the heavy equipment alone. He needed others to bear the burden with him.

The difference between Galatians 6:2 and 6:5 is akin to the difference between carrying heavy equipment and toting a backpack.

Paul’s comments about burden/load-bearing suggest that this is the right way to interpret these verses. Let me use Q&A format to highlight the literary flow of Galatians 6:1-5.

What situation does Paul initially address?

  • “if anyone is caught in a sin”

Who should respond in such a situation?

  • “you who are spiritual”

What should you do?

  • “restore such a person”

With what attitude?

  • “in a spirit of gentleness”

Doing what at the same time?

  • “keeping watch over yourself”

To avoid what?

  • “being similarly tempted”

What else should you do?

  • “bear one another’s burdens”

Resulting in what?

  • “fulfilling the law of Christ”

Reminding yourself of what?

  • (that) “if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself”

What should you do instead of thinking that way?

  • “let each one test his own work”

With what results?

  • “then he can be proud of what he’s done”

Rather than what?

  • “rather than taking credit for someone else’s work”

Furthermore, what else should be done?

  • “For each one will have to bear his own load.”

Now, there is some disagreement about whether in this final statement (verse 5), Paul is merely predicting that each person in the future will have to give an account for what he or she has done (what grammarians might call a predictive future), or whether Paul is telling people that they ought to bear their own loads (an imperatival future).

But in my mind, either option is a reminder to Paul’s readers (us included) that each of us has the responsibility to carry around our own backpacks rather than expecting others to lug it around for us. Supporting this idea is that Paul not only offers instructions in this paragraph, he also addresses attitudes necessary for helping others: acting with a spirit of gentleness, keeping watch over yourself, not fooling yourself into thinking you’re more than you are, testing your own work, not boasting in others’ accomplishments. That is, each person will eventually give an account for what he or she has done, implying that each person needs to take responsibility for toting one’s own backpack.

It may be that Paul signals a difference between these two scenarios with his use of two different words: the one we translate “burdens” in verse 2 (βάρη, which in many contexts is viewed negatively) and the word we translate as “load” in verse 5 (φορτίον, a diminutive of φόρτος, which may point to something lighter). Granted, he may have simply used a different word for stylistic reasons, that is to avoid using the same word twice. But it seems more likely, at least in my mind — especially considering the differences in his instructions between verses 2 and 5 — that he altered the word because he had different types of loads in mind.

What can we take away from this discussion? Here are four possible applications, directed to various people’s tendencies:

1. Are you slow to help others who are overburdened?

Respond more quickly to others who truly need your help.

2. Do you tend to unload your problems on others — routinely expecting others to carry your load for you?

Acknowledge that you bear responsibility to carry your God-given backpack. Pick it up and start carrying it.

3. Do you struggle to accept help from others? That is, do you try to carry everything on your own?

Allow others to help you carry your burdens when truly over-burdened. God never intended his children to carry everything on their own.

4. Are you one of those people who carries on your back eight backpacks at a time — backpacks that belong to others — when others around you aren’t carrying even one? In other words, do you find yourself doing everything for others, even responsibilities that God has given them to do?

Teach others to carry their own loads. Teach through example and encouragement.

Let me grant that most of us will struggle with at least one of these four applications. Depending upon behavioral patterns we have laid down (sometimes over years), we may need counsel and guidance, growth in understanding how the gospel works out in life, and lots and lots of practice, to properly attune ourselves to how we should carry (or not carry, or help others carry) backpacks and burdens.

Bear one another’s burdens — when those burdens become too heavy to carry. But also take responsibility to carry your God-given load.

This post and other resources are available at Kindle Afresh: The Blog and Website of Kenneth Berding.