Carrying One Another’s Burdens

Imagine a man walking a dusty road carrying a very heavy load. He can barely manage it. Without help, he knows he might not make it. He prays for God to help him. Someone comes along and offers to help. The man refuses the help, and says, “The Lord will help me with my load.” After he’s walked a little longer, another person offers similar help. “That’s ok,” the man says, “The Lord will help me with my load.” Eventually the man collapses on the side of the road under the weight of his burden. Discouraged, he cries out to God, “Lord, why did you not help me with my heavy load?” The Lord replies, “I offered you help with your load twice, but you refused.”

In Galatians 6:2 the apostle Paul says: Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

The first and obvious thing to point out is that we all have burdens. Some of us have them right now. Some are emotional. Some are physical. Some are financial. Some are relational. Scripture assumes at some point we will all find ourselves carrying burdens—that we’ll find ourselves in situations and dealing with struggles that weigh us down.

Put simply: living the Christian life does not mean having a trouble-free life.

Not only that: But all of them are spiritual. Let’s be honest, depression can affect us spiritually. A chronic illness can affect us spiritually. The breaking up of a close relationship can affect us spiritually. Losing a job can affect us spiritually. Finding it hard to make ends meet can affect us spiritually.

Our burdens affect how we relate to God. They can make it harder to pray and trust God. Sometimes the burdens of life make us want to stay home from church. Or make it impossible to go. And because God is interested in our entire lives, he wants us to learn to deal with our burdens in the right way.

At the very least, we need to be honest about the fact that we all have burdens.

The second thing is this: Carrying one another’s burdens means knowing one another’s burdens. It means knowing one another. Does anyone else know when you feel overwhelmed by guilt? Are you ever aware if someone you know is feeling weighed down by sorrow?

Bearing one another’s burdens—including letting someone into our lives to help us bear ours—is really hard because it means becoming that much more honest with ourselves and vulnerable before others. Are we strong enough to admit weakness? Are we ready to admit that to someone else?

The church is many things. Among them, it is also a family. We’re called brothers and sisters. We are called to care for one another. And that doesn’t always happen in ways that fit into our comfort zones.

The question is: are we prepared to step into someone else’s life when it’s going to be messy and uncomfortable? Sometimes I wonder if we’re more interested in having neat and tidy lives than in actually being in real and honest relationships with other people in the church.

I know it’s a risk, and it’s not one we should take with everyone around us. But each of us needs to have at least one or two other believers in our life that we can open up around. I honestly believe in those moments of vulnerability that God meets us. We all need someone we can be open with about our deepest cares and struggles.

The third thing is this: Bearing one another’s burdens is how we love like Jesus. Just like Jesus entered our situation, our lives, in order to bear the burden of our sin and our brokenness to bring forgiveness and healing, so we are called to enter into one another’s lives to offer love and the presence of Jesus.

Jesus touched people. Literally and otherwise. He drew near to the hurting. He spoke words of comfort and healing. He didn’t avoid the awkward moment but stepped into it.Consider Psalm 34:18: The Lord is near the brokenhearted; he saves those crushed in spirit. Psalm 147:3 says He heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds.

Notice how both verses include the brokenhearted. We often talk about physical healing. We talk about people having sins forgiven. But what about those who are suffering from heartbreak because their kids won’t speak to them? Or are still living out of past trauma? Or are hanging on to grief? The Lord promises to be near to them also.

One way—one important, fundamental way—he does that is through his people. Not because there are those among us who haven’t had struggles, but sometimes precisely because we’ve had similar struggles.

In 2 Corinthians 1:3—4 it says: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God.

We can’t solve the problems of others. We can’t eliminate their burdens. And we can’t take on all of their burdens ourselves. Paul also says that each person will have to carry their own load. Our burdens are still ours. But we can share the load.

Ultimately carrying one another’s burdens means carrying one another to Jesus. It means letting someone cry on your shoulder. It means being willing to listen without jumping in with easy answers. It means praying for and with one another. It means sharing how God brought you through your own tough time.

At the end of The Return of the King Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee are on the slopes of Mount Doom. Their journey has been long and perilous. Frodo’s mission to bring the ring to Mount Doom and destroy it is near the end. But he’s spent. He can barely bring himself to go on. And Sam, his ever-faithful friend, says to him, “Come, Mr. Frodo!” he cried. “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you.” What a wonderful picture of Paul’s words in Galatians!

Are you willing to open up to others about your burdens? Are you willing to have others open up to you? Do you trust Jesus to meet you in the midst of your burdens? And do you believe that he can meet you through your brothers and sisters in Christ?

Thoughts on Prayer: Learning to Pray from Scripture (Part 1)

There is a wide variety of literature in the books of the Old and New Testament: poems, historical narrative, letters, and Jewish apocalyptic writings, to name but a few. And, amazingly, God in his grace and wisdom divinely inspired the various authors of the Bible to reveal himself and his purposes through all of them. Indeed, Scripture is our all sufficient well-spring of truth to draw from to be obedient people of faith.

And woven throughout many of the books of the Bible are passages of a particular kind that, while not a genre of literature all their own, have the power to inform and transform our relationship with God. I speak here of the many passages that feature people praying or that talk about prayer. Prayers feature in many narratives, prophetic books, epistles, and books of wisdom. Abraham prays, Samuel prays, Hannah prays, Jacob prays, Hagar prays, Job prays, Isaiah prays, Jeremiah prays, Moses prays, Miriam prays, Deborah prays, King David prays, the apostle Paul prays, Elizabeth prays, Mary prays, and, of course, Jesus prays.

And we can learn from their prayers.

We even have a whole book of the Bible that consists of prayers: The Book of Psalms. These 150 chapters of praise, confession, lament, and petition are themselves enough to keep us busy learning about prayer.

Jesus, of course, teaches his disciples to pray by giving them the words of The Lord’s Prayer. He also instructs his disciples about prayer in other ways.

So over the next few posts, I want to suggest three ways we can learn about prayer from Scripture.

The first is this: we learn about the God to whom we pray. This is no small thing. Often when our prayers are hindered by confusion or doubt or worry, it’s in part because we fail to grasp the character of the God of Scripture. If we are worried that God is angry or disappointed with us, this will affect the manner of our prayers. If we think that God doesn’t care about the everyday details of our lives, we will likely avoid praying altogether or pray without any assurance that God hears us.

To take one basic example, look at the prayer of praise and thanksgiving of Psalm 136:1:

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
His faithful love endures forever.

Psalm 136:1

Here we see that God is good. His goodness is a reason for gratitude, because his goodness means, in part, that he seeks our good. He is therefore trustworthy. His will towards us is not ambivalent, much less malevolent; rather, he looks upon us with love.

And not only that, but he embodies faithful love. That is, his love is not dependent on us or our circumstances. It’s a reliable, consistent love, not the sort that’s fickle or subject to the whims of the moment.

Think about praying while knowing these things about God. Here is a God who you can trust with the deepest cries and longings of your heart. He cares for you. Such truths ought to instill our prayers with confidence. Knowing that God is good and loving ought to open us up to prayer. Think about what the apostle Peter says:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your cares on him, because he cares about you.

1 Peter 5:6-7

However, if the picture of God in our heart and mind ever begins to drift away from these foundational aspects of his character–his love and goodness–what would happen to our prayers? Maybe we would find ourselves asking: “Will God listen to my prayers?” “Does he really care about me?” Who God is matters to how we pray.

But there’s more. Scripture also reveals that Christian prayer is trinitarian in nature. That is, we pray not to some vague, non-descript God, but to the God who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Spirit. We see this, for instance, in the prayers of the apostle Paul:

For this reason I kneel before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit,  and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3:14-19

All three Persons of the trinitarian Godhead participate in our prayers. And we can’t fully understand what it means to pray without knowing God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We pray to the Father in the name of the Son through the power of the Holy Spirit. Our God is irreducibly personal. He is intrinsically relational. He is not the impersonal Force of Star Wars.

The basic Old Testament affirmations of God’s goodness and faithful love (that we see above in Psalm 136:1) also come to full flower in passages such as the one from Ephesians. Here Paul expresses in a beautiful, profound way that we can know and experience the fullness of God’s love only through the Son; and that it is the Holy Spirit who makes that love real to us.

So when you and I pray, we pray to a personal, relational God who is actively seeking our good, who seeks to pour out and make known his love for us, and who wants his love and goodness to be the driving force of our prayers for ourselves and for others.

In other words, we don’t have to convince, persuade, or manipulate God to listen to us. He is firmly predisposed to listen. He is the listening God. He is infinitely inclined to listen; and the more this reality takes root in our hearts, the more inclined to pray we will be.

This leads us to a third way we learn about God from the prayers in the Bible. Scripture shows us the good news that God seeks to have intimate fellowship, a genuine relationship, with us.

Consider the language of Genesis 3:

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.

Genesis 3:8

Though this happened after the man and his wife had listened to the serpent, the portrait of God here is of one who seeks out human beings. He came to the man and woman even after they had disobeyed him. Not even their sin would ultimately keep God from graciously reaching out.

This is also true for us. Sometimes we think that because of stuff we’ve done, things for which we feel ashamed or embarrassed, that we’ve cut ourselves off from God. Now, in a sense that is the case. Sin breaks our fellowship with God. It becomes an obstacle to the intimacy he seeks to have with us. Yet just as God reached out to the man and woman in Genesis, he also reaches out to us. In the Scriptures we also see that through the good news of Jesus God makes possible the restoration of this fellowship.

When the time came to completion, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba, Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then God has made you an heir.

Galatians 4:4-7

Based on what Paul tells us here, God the Father sent God the Son into the world precisely in order for us to receive God the Spirit so we could have this most intimate and personal of relationships with the very One who created us and sustains us.

So, in other words, God redeems us through Christ and he does this so that we might be adopted as sons (and daughters) and enter into a profoundly personal relationship with him. The Holy Spirit prompts us to cry out to him as a child would to a loving, reliable parent.

Notice Paul says that those who receive the Spirit will cry out Abba! Father! The term Abba is an Aramaic term for Father that has a much more informal, personal tone, like “Daddy” or “Papa.” It is the word for Father that Jesus uses when he is in the Garden of Gethsemane before going to the pain and humiliation of the cross: And he said, “Abba, Father! All things are possible for you. Take this cup away from me. Nevertheless, not what I will, but what you will.”

Put another way, being adopted as sons and daughters of God the Father means sharing in the intimacy that exists between the Father and the Son through the Spirit.

Imagine trying to pray without the knowledge that God is good and loving, that he is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that he even entered his own creation to restore the relationship he has always intended us to have with him.

Here’s the thing: we needn’t imagine such a scenario. Because our prayer can rest on the bedrock of what Scripture teaches us about him. This is the good news.

And this is why our understanding of God needs to be the foundation for our prayer.

Next time I’m going to look at how in Scripture we learn what we are to pray about.

Making Every Effort When There’s Nothing You Can Do: More Thoughts on Spiritual Formation

The process of Christ being formed in us, the process of maturation every believer is called to undergo, is called spiritual formation. In other words, the process of transformation, of growing in Christ, is the work of the Holy Spirit. Through the prophet Ezekiel, the Lord told his people, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live” (Ezekiel 37:14). And God fulfilled this promise in the upper room at Pentecost (Acts 2:1—4). And while there is an indicative sense in which this is true, that the believer lives by the power of the indwelling Spirit, such truth can also be expressed as an exhortation. As Paul says, “Live by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16). What this exhortation tells us is that there are two related aspects of the work of the Spirit in the process of spiritual transformation. On the one hand, we cannot grow as followers of Jesus without the power of the Spirit; on the other hand, we are also called to cooperate with the work of the Spirit in our lives in order to see transformation take place.

For something to happen, there needs to be power; for someone to be formed into the image of Jesus, they need “the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:13). In fact, in the New Testament there are several instances where the words “power” and “Spirit” are used interchangeably or in conjunction with one another. The point is simply that the person of the Spirit is the one who enables a follower of Jesus to grow as a follower of Jesus. Peter points us to this reality when he says, “His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). Everything needed. Commenting on these words from 2 Peter, author Mark Buchanan, in his book Hidden in Plain Sight, writes: “Everything you need for life and godliness you have already. In full. You actually don’t need any more. Not one thing—not a cotter pin or flat washer, not a doohickey or a thingamajig; nothing’s been withheld. Everything required for zoë—abundant and flourishing life—and eusebeia—a deep and real commitment to what matters most—is intact.”

During his final hours with his disciples, Jesus used more organic imagery to say essentially the same thing: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Particularly if we conceive the fruit Jesus mentions as the fruit of the Spirit, Jesus puts a more relational spin on the same idea, but the point is the very similar. To become more like Jesus, we need to be in relationship with Jesus. The power of that relationship is the Spirit. Apart from me you can do nothing. Our nothing is more than sufficiently met by Jesus’ everything.

Despite this, our role in spiritual transformation is not passive. Even Jesus says, “Abide in me,” which, if it means remaining in intimate communion with him, is hardly an effortless endeavour. Like any other relationship, ours with Jesus requires nurture, cultivation, support, and, yes, even effort. Speaking of effort, therefore, in the same passage where Peter speaks of God as giving us “everything needed” for becoming mature in Christ, he then goes to tell his readers to “make every effort” (2 Peter 1:5—8). The effort he encourages his brothers and sisters to expend is effort in adding to their faith a number of virtues that are quite similar to Paul’s list of spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22—23).

So clearly, there is a biblical expectation that those seeking to become mature in Jesus will, to paraphrase the subtitle of Barton’s book, Sacred Rhythms, “arrange their lives for spiritual transformation.” And this biblical expectation is not low, either; Peter does say, “Make every effort.” God calls believers to do everything they can do to become more like Jesus. The Christian life is active and intentional. Just as God does not force his saving love upon anyone, neither does he force our progress towards spiritual maturity. He has his role, we have ours. When we “make every effort,” we are, in effect, living by the Spirit.

It is interesting to reflect on the process of spiritual formation in the context of some of our more prominent, i.e., newsworthy, political stories. For instance, the unfolding train wreck that is Toronto Mayor Rob Ford throws into sharp relief the importance of considering character (especially but not exclusively in political, public life). The dissonance of a leader behaving in the way that Ford has yet who also insists on the quality of his leadership—itself debated by many—serves as a reminder that what we do and who we are intimately related. It’s in this respect we see a connection between the fruit and gifts of the Spirit. In a word, character counts; and character is a crucial aspect of having Christ being formed in us.

Biblically, Christian character takes shape through specific virtues. Paul provides a list of virtues he calls spiritual fruit. Found in Galatians 5:22—23, they are as follows: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Peter does something similar with his list in 2 Peter 1:5—8: “You must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love.” These lists of virtues give shape to the kind of people we are called to be as followers of Christ.

Together the fruit of the Spirit give us a picture of the character of Jesus. And so for a believer to grow the fruit in his or her life is, de facto, to grow in Christlikeness, to become more like Jesus. But the obvious problem is that we cannot produce the fruit of the Spirit, as one author says, “through sheer willpower and personal discipline.” Therefore, we have a quandary. We are told by Scripture to “make every effort” to do something we cannot do by our own efforts. Apart from me you can do nothing. Apart from abiding in Jesus, attempts to be like Jesus will prove useless.

Our own inability to produce spiritual fruit is itself our starting point and the key to understanding the kind of effort we are called to exert in the process of having Christ formed in us. Thinking we can do it, that we can accomplish our own spiritual transformation, guarantees either frustration over failure or pride in our good works. In other words, the first step in making every effort toward maturity in Jesus is realizing our own utter helplessness in his presence, a helplessness defined by our limitations and our sinfulness. We must make every effort to understand what it is we cannot do.

The link between our own powerlessness and God’s infinite capacity to transform us according to the imago Dei is the person of the Spirit. “Indispensable to the life of virtue,” Buchanan says, “is the presence of the Spirit. If the Spirit does not stir, fill, and direct both our life of faith and our quest for virtue, all our virtues will grow stunted and bitter, like fruit from hardscrabble ground. Such virtue is usually no more than a repertoire of self-serving gestures.” Beginning the journey toward spiritual formation means acknowledging before God that we stand in complete need of his aid, that nothing we are called to be is something we can accomplish. Practicing spiritual disciplines means placing ourselves in the position where God is free to be about his work of forming us after the image of Jesus.

If, for example, someone struggles with impatience as I do, becoming more patient is not going to happen through my own attempts to act more patiently in relation to those around me. But placing myself more thoroughly at God’s disposal can indirectly produce the quality of patience in my life. “When we come to terms with the inability to change ourselves,” Buchanan reminds us, “then we allow the Lord to be our source.” Apart from me you can do nothing. Think of the prophet’s words: “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Zechariah 4:6). Such words lie at the heart of spiritual formation.