Deciding Whom to Help: The Burden/Load Principle

by Joe Plemon on May 21, 2010

“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth”. 1 Jn 3:17-18

These verses tell us that if God’s love abides in us, we will put it into action. When we see a brother in need, we will not close our hearts against him but demonstrate our love by our deeds. We will “walk the walk”, not simply “talk the talk”.

But this challenge begs balance.

Does God expect us to literally help every needy person we encounter? This would seem to contradict his commands of good stewardship (Matthew 25:14-30). But neither does He want us to be so overwhelmed with the challenge that we help no one. Trying to help everyone leads to guilt and frustration; helping no one leads to selfishness and a calloused heart.

A helpful guideline for keeping this balance is what I call the “burden/load” principle.

Understand the difference between a “burden” and a “load”.

Paul tells the Galatians to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ”. (Gal. 6:2) Three verses later he says “For each will have to bear his own load.” (Gal. 6:5)

Is he speaking riddles here? Which is it? Do we step in and help or do we let the person do it himself? The key is understanding the words “burden” and “load”. The burden is comparable to a boulder – something that is impossible for the person to carry on his own. In this text, it is used to describe someone who is overwhelmed with sin, but it could also be used to describe a financial, emotional or physical struggle as well.

The “load” in verse five is like a small backpack; something that can be easily carried.

The lesson in these two verses is that we should not do for a person what he can do for himself; it is a healthy thing to “bear his own load”. However, when someone is so weighted down that they simply can’t handle the burden, we who are able should step up and help.

Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend, in their “Boundaries” book series, stress that when we haven’t established healthy relational boundaries, we often act as a result of guilt, obligation or manipulation…not love. Clearly understanding this burden/load dynamic will allow us to say “no” gracefully while choosing to say “yes” when the need is indeed a burden. The difference is huge, for we are able to love only when we are free to choose to do so.

Think of this principle in Jesus’ life: he chose to raise Lazarus from the dead (burden), but he commanded others to roll the stone away and unbind his strips (loads). He fed the 5000 (burden) but had his disciples distribute the food and pick up the abundance (loads). Jesus did not do everything for everyone; he did and does do what we can’t do.

The problem with principles.

The burden/load principle is a great one, but, like many principles, it will miss the mark if applied legalistically. Paul said, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” 1 Co 13:3.  Giving is a quality of someone who loves, but never a substitute for love.

The following tips will help us apply the burden/load principle in love:

Deciding not to help is not license for becoming judgmental.

Have you ever become judgmental of a person who doesn’t carry the load she is capable of carrying? Don’t. While we probably shouldn’t enable that person by doing for her what she can do for herself, we nevertheless need to be a friend and have an open heart toward her. One can’t do this and also be judgmental.

We shouldn’t try to carry every burden.

I may not be qualified, for example, to counsel a man who is abusing his wife. But, assuming that he wants help, I can put him in contact with a pastor or counselor who can. At any rate, I should not close my heart toward him.

We are called first and foremost to love. Our opening verses (1 Jn 3:17-18) are written to remind us that love isn’t love unless action takes place. By establishing guidelines, we free ourselves up to take those actions because we choose to.  This is love.

One more thought: when you are burdened by the needs you see around you, God will step in and help you carry that burden.  No burden is too great for Him.

Readers:  When you  feel overwhelmed with the needs all around you, how do you choose whom to help?

Creative Commons License photo credit: malias


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jason @ Redeeming Riches May 21, 2010 at 6:53 am

Great post Joe – thanks for linking to my article too. Great insight into the “boulder/backpack” meanings in that Galatians passage.

Any time we do for someone what they can do themselves we take away part of their dignity as a human being. Unfortunately, we (broadly speaking – government, christians and organizations) tend to want to just meet needs and in so doing we create a sense of entitlement and dependency.

Our aim should be development and empowerment of the individual to carry their own burdens. That probably means investing a little more time with them to teach them how to do that, not just doing it for them and moving on.

Thanks for the great insights!


joeplemon May 21, 2010 at 11:08 am

Great point in saying that the real investment in others often needs to be a “time” investment. Obviously, this is what Jesus did with 12 followers in general and more specifically with three (Peter, James and John). Unfortunately, “we” (government, church, etc) too often opt for the short cut of meeting the immediate need instead of developing the individual.

You said it better than that…sounds like a good post you should write!


FinEngr May 21, 2010 at 1:46 pm

Joe –

Great article. I myself wasn’t aware of the dinstinction betwee the two, and my family has a habit of trying to carry each other’s loads & burdens!

Is legalistically a word? Legally, I think its legally – but I may be missing the mark 😉 **great sentence you had.


joeplemon May 21, 2010 at 3:13 pm


Sounds like your family strives toward helping each other out. That can be a good thing … or not. Would understanding the difference between a load and a burden help distinguish when the help is genuinely needed?

Ha ha. I enjoyed your question about the use of legalistically. Actually I didn’t know if it was a word, so I looked it up on an online dictionary. Here is what I found:

Legalism: strict, often too strict and literal, adherence to law or to a code
Legalist: noun
Legalistic: adjective
Legalistically: adverb

In my use of the word, I was warning about applying a good principle in a strict literal way. Like going by the letter of the law and missing the spirit of the law. Religious people are prone to do that.

Now…that is way more information than you bargained for.


Leave a Comment

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: