Someone is always sinning; someone is always doing something you did not like; someone is always failing. How do we respond to that?
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load (Galatians 6:1-5).
We use this section of Galatians so often, it has become the “both/and” proverb. It answers the questions that come up whenever there is a dialogue about something that is wrong in the body: Do we have to put up with every bad thing someone is doing until they get better, or do we need to put a stop to their nonsense before everyone gets hurt? Do we accept people where they are at, or do we demand that they live up to the gospel? The answer is “both/and.”
Can one be too empathetic?
Some people are so empathetic that they defend the sinner even before they have repented! They understand the person’s problems so well and care about them so much that they are offended if anyone points out what they did wrong. Even more, sensitive people know that everyone is afraid of being criticized, so they don’t want more trouble being thrown on already-overburdened people who are just trying to have a life, for once. The “sinner” might just quit doing anything if they are asked to improve right after they just got brave enough to appear in public. So even if someone tries to “restore that person gently” the empathetic are afraid they could be mortally wounded in the process.
For instance, some people have been talking about the Audio Arts Team’s latest gift to the church. It is a brave thing to put out a piece of art that can’t be edited any more. But they did it and a lot of people love it. But like everything and everyone else, there are some “sins” lurking in that CD. If someone has a reaction to it that seems critical, someone else may automatically feel wounded and jump to the defense of the victimized artists. Rather than doing that, you’d think we would just instinctively “carry each other’s burdens,” since we’re all flawed — and if we caused trouble by being creative, bold and artful, then we’d really need help! Instead, some people try to solve the problem by insisting that there are no problems! — and they imply that people who love people don’t make people feel bad by saying they have a problem.
Can one be too careful?
On the other hand, some people think that empathy has gone too far and everyone needs to carry their own load and bear responsibility for what they say and do. They assume people are more likely to take advantage of loose situations rather than repent or even listen to reason. So they are not expecting good will to rise up if people are left alone. As a result, they are often rather offended by the latest dumb thing someone did that went unquestioned or even got defended. They become very reactive because they can’t get their shell hard enough to repel the sin that keeps getting poured on them. If they say something about it, they are instantly seen as a mean person. So they walk around feeling unaccepted. No one seems to be held liable for carrying their own load, so the responsible people feel even more burdened!
For instance, the pastors and other speakers and the PM Design Teams are often the recipients of this group’s scrutiny, since they have a tendency to do something wrong every week. Compared to what should happen, something is always not happening. If one is intelligent, the problem with what gets done wrong (or not at all) just gets worse. It seems like every flaw could have been prevented and nothing ever gets better! One would think we would all “carry our own load,” especially if we accepted a role that is very influential in the church. Instead, leaders, especially, make people have a fight with us about what we are doing or neglecting. Who wants to do that?
Polarized dialogue is an oxymoron
In the postmodern atmosphere these poles are often dividing up a dialogue. There is usually a group at one extreme that wants us all to bear one another’s burdens. If there is insensitivity, that is the main sin — Love means you never have to say you are sorry. Then there is another whole group at the other extreme that wants each person to bear their own load. If there is irresponsibility, that is the main sin — Love means everyone has to say they are sorry. In the adversarial way our culture has designed everything to work, those two positions could be vying to make policy until Jesus returns. It could be the survival of the loudest; MSNBC vs. Fox forever.
We keep thinking that Paul assumes an obvious both/and in the matter of loving sinners like Jesus loves each of us. In the course of a few lines he wrote: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ…for each one should carry their own load.” We all bear one another’s burdens and each of us carries our own load at the same time.
- In the name of sensitivity, one would not erase someone’s sin — because they are carrying that burden and need to be restored!
- At the same time, in the name of responsibility one would not be insensitive and make it harder to repent — because we are in this together.
If someone is restored, we are all healthier. For restoration to proceed, both elements: carrying another’s burden and carrying one’s own load, need to be in every dialogue of love. Both elements need to be expressed by a heart filled with the law of love. The body of Christ is not supposed to work like a therapy room or a courtroom; we are the place where Jesus lives. There must be acceptance and judgment at the same time, but mostly there must be the Holy Spirit restoring humanity.