Paul here begins with what seems to be a contradiction. He teaches on the one hand that we should bear one another’s burdens, and then quickly after states that each one of us should carry our own load. And yet, this is by no means a contradiction, since we are in fact called to serve one another. Both of his statements here are true, we are to bear our own load while simultaneously helping to bear one another’s burdens. What he is teaching here, however, is that we ourselves should never be an unnecessary burden on others, but rather we should seek to bear our own burdens while initiating caregiving to others. This could be considered both materially and spiritually. Materially, it would be easy to understand this fact as one who has food should give to the one who has none; or the one who has “two tunics give one to the one who has none,” or perhaps one who has more money than necessary to give some to one who is struggling to pay their bills. But, it’s the spiritual aspect that truly stands out in the passage.
Notice also that he states immediately to us to “let everyone test his own work: then he can take pride in himself, not in comparison to someone else.” All too often, we tend to be guilty of doing exactly what he is herein warning against. We read through the Scripture with our eyes fixed on our neighbor’s failings rather than our own. How often do we read a line of Scripture and immediately we consider someone who “needs to read this passage?” We evaluate our righteousness by comparing it to the shortcomings of another. We watch the collection plate closely to see who has given less than we have. We contemplate the sins of others in an effort to justify our own sinfulness. We begin to think, “well I may have done that, but at least I didn’t (fill in the blank) like so and so did.” Our goal shifts from holiness to holier, from righteousness to more righteous than. We look to the failing of others because it’s less painful to see than our own failures, and then we begin to feel better about our mistakes. Well did Mark the Ascetic speak when he taught us that “the truly humble and spiritual man, when he reads the words of Holy Scripture, will apply them to himself and not to others.” The Holy Scripture is given to us to aid us in our own seeking of righteousness, not to give us a bar by which to judge others. When we seek to bear our own burdens, observe our own sinfulness, we have little time to see the sins of others. We lift one another up instead of tearing one another down, and in so doing, we bear our own load while helping another to bear their burdens.
There is a story of a monk, told by St Paisios, “Once on Mount Athos there was a monk who lived in Karyes. He drank and got drunk every day and was the cause of scandal to the pilgrims. Eventually he died and this relieved some of the faithful who went on to tell Elder Paisios that they were delighted that this huge problem was finally solved.
Father Paisios answered them that he knew about the death of the monk, after seeing the entire battalion of angels who came to collect his soul. The pilgrims were amazed and some protested and tried to explain to the Elder of whom they were talking about, thinking that the Elder did not understand.
Elder Paisios explained to them: “This particular monk was born in Asia Minor, shortly before the destruction by the Turks when they gathered all the boys. So as not to take him from their parents, they would take him with them to the reaping, and so he wouldn’t cry, they just put raki into his milk in order for him to sleep. Therefore he grew up as an alcoholic. There he found an elder and said to him that he was an alcoholic. The elder told him to do prostrations and prayers every night and beg the Panagia to help him to reduce by one the glasses he drank.
After a year he managed with struggle and repentance to make the 20 glasses he drank into 19 glasses. The struggle continued over the years and he reached 2-3 glasses, with which he would still get drunk.”
The world for years saw an alcoholic monk who scandalized the pilgrims, but God saw a fighter who fought a long struggle to reduce his passion.
Without knowing what each one is trying to do what he wants to do, what right do we have to judge his effort?”
This is of vital importance here, because the pilgrams and the monks saw only an alcoholic who was a blight to their “perfect image,” because they were so focused on what they perceived were his failings that they never took the time to look into their own hearts. Rather than bearing their own load and helping their brother bear his burdens, they focused on his shortcomings and saw themselves as “holier” than him.
And so Paul concludes this passage with a solemn warning. “God will not be mocked.” For what we sow, we shall also reap. The one who sows “to the flesh,” (our fallen nature, seeking sinful pleasures and passions, greed, anger, lust, avarice, selfishness, judgment of others, etc) will reap according to the flesh, corruption and wickedness. But he who sows in the Spirit (humility, self-denial, compassion, righteousness, holiness, edification, etc) will in the Spirit reap everlasting life.
My brethern, no shroud has pockets in it. Nothing worldly will remain with us after we leave this world. Only our good deeds will ascend to the dread judgment seat with us, where “He will judge each according to their deeds” (Matthew 16:27, Romans 2:6). Let us never grow weary of doing good. Let us seek to turn away from the sinful passions of the flesh; let us seek to bear our own burdens, looking to the Holy Spirit, the Holy Scriptures, and the teachings of the Church to reveal to us our own unrighteousness and weaknesses. Let us each one of us focus on our own faults, seeking holiness while at the same time building up our brethern to help them carry their own burdens. Let us seek after the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, knowing that through His grace, we can attain it; and continue in all humility and love to serve one another.
Christ is in our midst.