Alone – Part One
September 5, 2012
“The Benediction Project”
I am a strong believer in people being with people and people helping people. To live in this world we need one another almost as much as we need food and water. We especially need groups, whether they be local church congregations, study groups, book clubs, or support groups for those grieving, for addicts or for new parents. Groups of seven or under where the common desire is to know and follow God totally, are particularly beneficial to the participants. Even two or three people can constitute a strong life-giving support group.
I do not like to think of where I would be today if it were not for the many small groups, especially prayer groups, of which I have been a part during the nearly half-century of my Christian life. The picture would not be pretty. I am fairly sure that, without these groups in my life, if I still called myself a Christian, I would be a self-centered, prideful, opinionated, self-deceived, lonely and critical person, looking down on most people (and churches) and having little or no compassion toward the poor, the sick, the blind, the deaf, the lame, the mentally ill, the immigrant, the hungry, the jobless, the abused, and those who do not know Jesus Christ. I might have a strong interest in the Bible and certain theological issues and beliefs, but I would likely avoid (or be so blind as not to notice) the great amount of scripture that points Christ’s followers toward a holistic love of God and neighbor.
It is an ugly and sad picture I just painted, and I give high praise to God that it is only hypothetical. The truth the picture brings out is that any of us who attempts to go through life on our own will wander through the dark streets and fields of a very bleak and lonely world, without light, without joy, without fulfillment, and being of no lasting benefit to anyone. People need the Lord, and people need people.
Having said all this, however, I firmly believe that each of us must learn to walk through life alone. Christian or non-Christian, strong believer or merely religious, everyone must journey alone on this path called life.
This sounds, I realize, like the complete opposite of what I just wrote about people needing people. But as I have lived my life I have learned that these are not polar opposites but complementary facets of one’s existence. Each is a vital truth that must be faced, understood accepted and embraced.
The apostle Paul brings these two aspects of life together nicely in his letter to the Galatians, chapter six. In the King James Version we first read, “bear ye one another’s burdens” (v. 2), but three verses later, “every man shall bear his own burden” (v. 5). At first reading it appears that Paul is contradicting himself, but this learned rabbi, a specialist in both the Hebrew and Greek languages, would surely not contradict himself in such a brief, tightly argued section of his letter.
It is helpful to know that Paul is not using the same Greek word for “burden” in these two verses, although their meanings are similar and overlapping. The word in verse two (baros), is used of “the burden and heat of the day” (Matthew 20:12) and other figurative kinds of the pressures of life. It refers to a heavy and oppressive weight, and here in Galatians it is referring to the weight of temptation and spiritual failure. Paul exhorts the spiritual believer in the community to restore gently those struggling with these issues.
The word in verse 5 (phortion) has a similar but not identical sense. While it is used to speak of “burdens grievous to be borne” (Luke 11:46) and the crushing weight imposed by the legalistic teachers and Pharisees (Matthew 23:4), it also has the sense of a lighter load, like a shoulder-pack, as a porter, peddler or marching soldier might carry. It is this word Jesus used when he said, “my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). Even though we all must carry our own backpack, Jesus says it is light. When Jesus says “my burden is light” he is teaching that even though we must carry it, if he packs our load and places it on our backs it will be light.
In the context of Galatians 6, then, Paul instructs us to bear one another’s burdens when their spiritual weaknesses are evident, but to be very careful not to consider ourselves superior to the fallen. We are to concentrate on our own lives and work, and in this sense we must carry our load alone.
I remember when, well into mid-life, the truth of my aloneness struck me. As far as I can recall it did not come from something I heard, some article I read or something from any human source, although I had thought about Galatians 6:5 many times over the years. At first this reality stunned me, saddened me and even frightened me. Even though I had a wonderful wife, two delightful daughters and their families, and great friends, there was not a single person on earth who could fully understand me nor resolve my deepest issues and concerns. These constituted my burden, even though the burden was given to me by Jesus. There was no one who could really meet my needs. Yet it is no exaggeration to say that this truth is one of the most valuable insights I have ever received from the Lord about living life successfully.
Before I go on I need to say that I am speaking of human relationships, not our intimate journey with God who is our constant companion, guide, comforter and sovereign Lord. In this latter sense God’s people are never alone. Concerning his obedient followers Jesus spoke some amazing words:
If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor [or Comforter] to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. … Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you (John 14:15-20, NIV; see also I John 4:12-16).
God willing, I will complete this essay in my next posting.