When St. Paul at the end of Galatians tells us to bear one another’s burdens and “so fulfill the law of Christ,” What exactly is he telling us to do? Just three verses later, St. Paul tells the Galatians, “Each one shall bear his own load.” Is this a contradiction?
Most of us, I think, never thought about this. Even if we knew both verses, we would quote them for different purposes. “Bear one another’s burdens” is quoted when we want to motivate others to help out—help us particularly or help someone we care for. “Each one shall bear his own load” is quoted when we want to relieve ourselves of a sense of responsibility to help others out. It is really quite a convenient set of verses.
Of course, St. Paul did not intend for these verses to be used this way. But what did he intend? St. John Chrysostom in his commentary on Galatians gives us a clue. Like any good exegete, St. John first looks at the immediate context for guidance. The verse immediately preceding “bear one another’s burdens” says, “If a man is overtaken in a trespass….” The burden of the other that we are to bear, according to St. John Chrysostom, is the sin or “trespass” that “overtakes” the other. St. John makes quite a big deal about this word, “overtakes.” He says that this word is used because St. Paul wants to emphasize the gentle attitude believers should have toward their brothers and sisters who sin. In fact, St. John compares it to a disease overtaking a person, as if in an unguarded moment a temptation comes upon someone and they succumb, like a man who is susceptible to hay fever who, forgetting to take his medicine, goes for a walk in a field of tall grass only to be “overtaken” with sneezes and swelling and sinus congestion.
The burdens of our brothers and sisters that we are to bear are their trespasses and sins. Bearing our brothers’ and sisters’ trespasses is how we fulfill the law of Christ. (By the way, this should be ringing a bell in all Christians who pray the Lord’s Prayer.)
Erring brothers and sisters are to be corrected, but St. Paul lays out some very specific guidelines about who and how trespassing brothers and sisters are to be restored. First, they are to be corrected by those who are “spiritual.” That is, having given a list of the fruit of the Spirit just a few verses before, St. Paul says that correction can only be administered by those who are bearing the Spirit’s fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. This is good news for most of us. Most of us never—NEVER—are the ones who are supposed to correct an erring brother or sister. In fact, “correct” isn’t the word St. Paul uses at all. The word he uses is “restore.” This is a common name for the sacrament of confession: the sacrament of reconciliation, or restoration. Therefore, in most contexts priests or spiritual fathers or mothers are the ones who restore brothers or sisters overtaken in trespasses. You can relax. Until you are a priest or a spiritual elder, it is generally not your job to correct others, but it is you job to bear the weakness of others. And by bearing their trespasses, you are fulfilling the law of Christ.