What is the heaviest burden you carry? There will doubtless be all sorts of answers to that question. You might identify your greatest burden as illness, for instance — perhaps your own or that of a family member. You might point to a financial burden that’s weighing on your mind — the rising cost of living, perhaps. Or what burdens you the most could be a breakdown in a close relationship. It might be a bereavement that has hit you so hard you struggle to rebuild your life.
My guess, though, is that the heaviest burden that many of us carry is a wound within our sense of self.
These wounds, these burdens, are negative messages that we have internalised and that are playing on loop at an unconscious level. Perhaps it’s the message that we aren’t clever enough or talented enough. Maybe, whatever our achievements, there’s a script running deep down that says we’re failures. Maybe the script says we aren’t beautiful enough. Perhaps, underneath everything, the message on loop is that nobody loves us or even that we aren’t loveable.
There is a fair bit about self-image and self-understanding in today’s reading from Galatians. Most obviously, Paul says:
“if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves.” (6:3)
This, of course, is very true. Such self-deception seems to be rife in our culture. We don’t have to look far to find folk “famous for being famous”, as the saying goes, who project their style as if it’s really something but who have little of substance to offer. Those of us who spend any time on social media will sooner or later run into people who appear to think they know everything about any topic and who will readily and aggressively put right or put down even experts in whatever is under discussion. It’s tempting, too, to cast our eyes over the political stage and come to the judgment that certain individuals have a highly inflated sense of their own importance.
But Paul, of course, is concerned about how this plays out in the church. Because those who claim God’s authority for their words and actions without proper humility, those whose boast is their reputation, not the humiliation of the Cross, aren’t living by the Spirit. Such people can end up doing a lot of damage.
But if it’s common for “those who are nothing” to deceive themselves into thinking they are something, it’s also common for people who are something to deceive themselves by thinking they are nothing. For we are all something: we are all Beloved; we are all infinitely precious in God’s eyes. Nonetheless, many of us become burdened with a sense of failure, or wrongness or unloveableness.
This kind of burden, the inverse of the self-deception Paul describes, can come from years of negative messages, perhaps from parents, teachers or other authority figures earlier in our lives. It can be a result of childhood trauma. It can also be fed by all-too-human tendency to compare ourselves negatively against what others have or what they seem to be. Our consumer culture itself feeds off this, stirring up our sense of envy and competition, stirring up the sense that we are falling short of the ideal.
The church to which Paul was writing was being assailed by negative messages. It was being placed under burdens. In essence, some people were telling the Gentile Christians of Galatia that they were falling short of the ideal. They said the Galatians weren’t Jewish enough, that they ought to be circumcised and follow the Torah.
Paul is clear that those people are just plain wrong. He spends the largest chunk of his letter arguing that to require circumcision and adherence to the Jewish law is to place a burden on the backs of the Galatian Christians that no one can carry and is to deny the power of the Cross to save us from sin. Paul is adamant that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision” matters; what matters is being a “new creation” in Christ (6:15).
In the passage that we heard last week, Paul outlined what this new creation looks like. It is characterised by the fruit of the Spirit (5:22–23) — the Spirit who creates a community that is not conceited, is not competitive and does not envy (5:26). This is a community that bears one another’s burdens. By doing this, Paul says, it fulfils “the law of Christ” (6:2). The “law of Christ” is the law of love. It is, as Paul mentions in the previous chapter (5:14), to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. But more, it is the new commandment that Jesus gave us: to love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34). That is, to lay down our lives for one another.
Paul’s instruction is pretty vague on the practical points. We are left to work out for ourselves what it means to bear one another’s burdens. But that is hardly surprising, because each situation demands a different touch.
What is clear, however, is that this is something the church does as a community. Yes, it very often takes place in one-to-one interactions, but bearing one another’s burdens isn’t solely the job of one or two who are pastorally gifted, whether ordained or lay. It’s something we all participate in by being open, genuine and welcoming in all our dealings with, our words to, one another. It’s something we do through prayer for one another and by practical action to support each other when we are going through the mill. It’s something we do together in our liturgy by creating and holding a space in which people can be in the healing, restorative presence of God.
What of those burdens I spoke of earlier — the burdens of our wounded, broken self-image? Some of them are situations beyond our control. Some of them are wounds that it takes time, care and attention to heal. But the first step for both is often naming them and laying them before God.
We are all burdened in some way, not least because we are all, in George Herbert’s phrase, “guilty of dust and sin”. But the Christ who meets us in the Eucharist is the one who came to take away our burdens. So come, as “the Living Bread is broken for the life of the world”, let the Broken One embrace you, comfort you and untie your burdens.