If you, like me, have read these words from 1 John 3:17 “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?", then you, like me, may be asking yourself this question: “Does God really expect me to help everyone I encounter who has a need?"
Obviously, this is an impossible task. It seems to me that if we try to help everyone, we will be so overwhelmed that we will succumb to guilt, frustration and exhaustion. But the flip side (helping no one) leads to selfishness and a calloused heart. What are we to do?
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.
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 to helping with a load while choosing to say “yes" when the need is indeed a burden. The difference is huge, for we able to love only when we are free to choose to do so.
Learn from Jesus
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 attempt 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 verse (1 Jn 3:17) was 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.