“Third, we speak of the service involved in supporting one another. ‘Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6:2). Thus the law of Christ is a law of forbearance. Forbearance means enduring and suffering.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 77.
Bonhoeffer points out that other people are not burdens for pagans, for pagans don’t have relationships with people who are burdens. While this is obviously a generalization, it is worth pondering. More to Bonhoeffer’s point in this section is his statement, “The other person is a burden to the Christian, in fact for the Christian most of all” (page 77).
Is this true? It is not something that blends with our cotton-candy Christianity where everything is geared to us having better and better lives. It is not something that meshes with our society which insists that we come first and that we deserve all that we can get and that in getting all that we can get that we avoid pain – including the pain of bearing with others.
“Only as a burden is the other really a brother or sister and not just an object to be controlled” (page 77 – italics mine). To know someone is to know, in some measure, the imperfections of the other person. It is even to know, in some measure, the other person’s sin. This is a difficult proposition for those of us living in a cubicle culture, in a society in which we not only have technological firewalls, but in which we have relational firewalls. The roteness of religion and the isolation it fosters protects us from bearing with one another and from others bearing with us. We “don’t want to be burdens” and we don’t really want to bear burdens – we want to control others, control relationships, install firewalls, and to protect against intruders…and sadly in living thusly we protect against the Prime Intruder – the Living God in Christ Jesus.
We can have religion without bearing with one another in love, but we cannot have koinonia, we cannot have communion, we cannot have what the Bible calls “church”.
Bonhoeffer writes that, “The burden of human beings was even for God so heavy that God had to go to the cross suffering under it. God truly suffered and endured human beings in the body of Jesus Christ” (page 78). This bearing, Bonhoeffer reminds us, was akin to the way a mother carries a child, the way a shepherd carries a lost sheep…God took on human nature. Bonhoeffer pens these words, “Then, human beings crushed God to the ground. But God stayed with them and they with God. In suffering and enduring human beings, God maintained community with them. It is the law of Christ that was fulfilled on the cross. Christians share in this law” (page 78).
Our calling in Christ is to bear one another’s burdens; we can do this because Christ has borne our burdens. Christ says to us, “Even as I have done this for you, even so you are to do this for your brother.” (Consider John 13:34-35; 15:12 – 13). Bonhoeffer quotes Isaiah 53 in picturing Jesus Christ bearing our burdens as he writes that, “…the community of the cross” is that in which we “must experience the burden of the other” (page 78).
Our time and our agenda and our self-righteousness are all enemies to bearing with one another in love. We must surrender our time to know others and to be known. We must surrender our agenda to surrender our time and to realign our priorities…are we really seeking first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33)? We must surrender our self-righteousness to bear with one another, for to bear with one another means that I must allow others to bear with me – but how can another person bear with me if I insist on a self-righteous protective façade? We hide behind our firewalls; we install security systems in our hearts and minds, and as soon as we sense an intruder we shut down into a state of nondisclosure. We have learned to be clever, learned to play games.
Of course we have all been hurt, and we will be hurt if we bear with one another. God was hurt on the Cross. He was wounded on the Cross. He was put to death on the Cross. Shall I consider myself above the suffering of God in Christ? No doubt some of us have been mocked. Was not Jesus Christ mocked on the Cross? No doubt we have known abandonment. Well, what of the Great Abandonment that Jesus Christ experienced that resulted in the cry that pieced the cosmos, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We have never known, and those who know Him will never know, the depth and darkness of that abandonment.
Bearing with one another means that we will be hurt; in our calling to take up our cross and follow Jesus Christ there is the explicit image of death, dying, pain, loss, and self-denial (Mark 8:34 – 38). There is also the explicit image of koinonia and glory (Romans 8:12ff).
Bonhoeffer writes that if we are not bearing with one another that we are not living in Christian community. He writes that if we refuse to bear with one another in love that we are denying the law of Christ (page 78).
On our best days we are frail and not up to the calling of bearing with one another in love; but Christ in us and through us is well able to teach us to live in the depths of His love. As we trust Him we can learn to trust one another. Nothing will happen to us that has not already happened to Him, our merciful and faithful High Priest (Hebrews 2:14 – 18). As we are drawn into the fellowship of the Trinity we can see the glory of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and in taking away the sin of the world we not only rejoice that He has taken away our own sin, but the sin of our brother and sister.
Let me see my brother not only as he appears to be, but as who he is in Christ. As I see my brother in Christ I can bear with him as he works out his salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that it is God who works in him (Philippians 2:12-13). I am not called to control my brother, but to bear his burden. Let us not deny our present difficulties, but let us work through our difficulties in the light of the perfect salvation we have in Jesus Christ – let us learn to see the end from the beginning.
Shall I look for someone to bear with today? Will I recognize the opportunity when it comes?
Am I living in long-term relationships in which bearing one another’s burdens is the fabric of life?
I hope there is someone who will bear with me today…I need it.