Bearing the Burden

Bearing the Burden


The topic I was originally assigned for today’s rehab retreat was “undoing the cords of the yoke” from Isaiah 58:6. In context this has to do with the powerful in Jewish society putting away all injustices that oppress their brothers and which subsequently bring divine judgement. Often the language of yoke is put in parallel with that of “burden” (Isa 9:4; 10:27; 14:25; Matt 11:30), which leads naturally to a discussion of burden bearing.


“Burden” must be one of the more unwelcoming words in the English language; certainly more so than “sin”, which some equate with “fun”. The word “burden” calls to mind obligation and anxiety, perhaps of an unbearable kind. There are many people who find it difficult to receive without giving, because they can’t stand the thought of being a burden to others. If you listen to discussions with old people about voluntary euthanasia, a certain number wish to be able to end their lives voluntarily so as not to be a “burden” to their children. They believe this the “loving” thing to do.

In thinking about the impact of being burdened I was reminded of an occasion when in the midst of a church crisis that in many ways centred on me I woke up one morning with my neck and shoulders totally paralysed. Then just days ago a godly brother was recounting how a few months earlier the pressures of making a ministry work was so overwhelming that he had a panic attack that left him unconscious on the bathroom floor. Most people’s experience of carrying the burdens of life is perhaps not that traumatic, but they it just as real. Where is the loving Creator and Father in all this? Sometimes believing in him seems to make things worse!

It is not unusual to meet people who are in spiritual depression and disillusionment because the Christian life has turned out to be less than what they had hoped for. They feel that God has laden them with burdens too difficult to bear. Some of these folk will become spiritually disabled or stop following Jesus. Such encounters raise sharply in the human conscience the question, “Is God faithful?” Crises however are of the substance of discipleship and should not surprise or overwhelm us if we are thoroughly instructed in the way of Christ (cf. how I was contacted by a pastor doing the week who was emotionally overwhelmed at how “wicked” church people can be)[1]. Before engaging with what I think is a healthy biblical perception of burden bearing I would like to examine two popular approaches to this existential crisis.

Poetic Pictures

The first is the famous “Footprints in the Sand”

One night I dreamed a dream.
As I was walking along the beach with my Lord.
Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,
One belonging to me and one to my Lord.

After the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that at many times along the path of my life,
especially at the very lowest and saddest times,
there was only one set of footprints.

This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it.
“Lord, you said once I decided to follow you,
You’d walk with me all the way.
But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me.”

He whispered, “My precious child, I love you and will never leave you
Never, ever, during your trials and testings.
When you saw only one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you.”

- by Margaret Fishback Powers

What do you think about Foot Prints in terms of its accuracy concerning God and our burdens?

How about this poem, is it more true to scripture and experience?

“Butt Prints in the Sand”

One night I had a wondrous dream,
One set of footprints there was seen,
The footprints of my precious Lord,
But mine were not along the shore.

But then some stranger prints appeared,
And I asked the Lord, “What have we here?”
Those prints are large and round and neat,
“But Lord they are too big for feet.”

“My child,” He said in somber tones,
“For miles I carried you alone.
I challenged you to walk in faith,
But you refused and made me wait.”

“You disobeyed, you would not grow,
The walk of faith, you would not know.
So I got tired, I got fed up,
and there I dropped you on your butt.”

“Because in life, there comes a time,
when one must fight, and one must climb.
When one must rise and take a stand,
or leave their butt prints in the sand.”

The sheer popularity of Foot Prints suggests to me it is imbalanced. Additionally the thought of Christ simply lifting us off the ground is somewhat escapist. Whilst I think it is true that the Lord carries us I think this is always true and that we also must carry the load of our cross with him; as Jesus said, “ “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”” (Luke 9:23).

I actually think Butt Prints is much more accurate to how God treats us. Not that he actually drops us down when we refuse to mature, but that in his wisdom he allows us to experience the burden of a measure of abandonment (cf. 2 Cor 1:8). These things are not easy to understand, and in the end must lead us to Jesus, but the first step in understanding our struggles with the ways of God is to recognise that God is sovereign over all burden bearing.

Ordained By God

It is impossible to truly honour God if our thinking denies the extent of his sovereign rule. “I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.” (Isaiah 45:6-7 ESV). “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will,” (Ephesians 1:11 ESV) [2].

The first conscious experience of burden bearing was the way Adam and Eve felt about the prohibition to abstain from the tree of knowledge (Gen 2:17). Once Satan had convinced Eve that this was a command without a necessary reason his temptation proved irresistible. Sin is a failure to believe in the love of God when keeping his laws seems troublesome (1 John 3:4). John puts the truth perfectly, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”(1 John 5:3 ESV). This is the exact opposite of fallen humanity’s consensus about the divine rule.

It may have been Adam and Eve’s sin that stripped them of the glory of God (Rom 3:23), but it was the LORD who pronounced over them judgements of pain and death (Gen 3:16-19), cast humanity out of Paradise (Gen 3:22-24) and subjected creation subject to “futility” (Rom 8:20). This futility penetrates deeply into the human heart, ‘You have spoken arrogantly against me,’ says the Lord. ‘Yet you ask, “What have we said against you?” 14 ‘You have said, “It is futile to serve God. What do we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the Lord Almighty? 15 But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly evildoers prosper, and even when they put God to the test, they get away with it.”’ (Mal 3:13-15). In a world of injustice the whole God-thing can seem both pointless and laborious. When “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”” (Ps 14:1), this is not a theoretical statement about divine existence but a conviction that God does nothing i.e. that God is passive. Wherever men and women think this, apathy, anger or atheism is likely to follow. The image of a present but inert God is intolerable to the human conscience.

In terms of the purposes of God in ordaining human trials the Old Testament saints are often more radically honest than Christians[3]. Job exemplifies this directness with God, even if within the limits of understanding to be expected under the old covenant. ““What is man, that you make so much of him, and that you set your heart on him, visit him every morning and test him every moment? How long will you not look away from me, nor leave me alone till I swallow my spit? If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of mankind? Why have you made me your mark? Why have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity? For now I shall lie in the earth; you will seek me, but I shall not be.”” (Job 7:17-21 ESV). The agonised saint is completely correct in recognising the constant presence of God in his ordeal, that the hand of God is upon him in his trying circumstances. Not necessarily because God is malevolent and unjust, but because he is the Creator and sustainer of all things.

An unbearable burden only becomes bearable when some sort of purpose can be found in the pain. This is a covenantal point of view. “During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.” (Exodus 2:23-25 ESV); the story of the exodus follows.

Another example of the recognition of a higher purpose in burdens is when existential anguish is perceived as a sign of the strong disciplining hand of God upon sin, “Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath…. My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear.” (Ps 38:1, 4). The ultimate answer to the extremities of life is an awareness of a deepening divine purpose, “Praise our God, all peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard; he has preserved our lives and kept our feet from slipping. 10 For you, God, tested us; you refined us like silver.11 You brought us into prison and laid burdens on our backs.12 You let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and water, but you brought us to a place of abundance.” (Ps 66:8-12). The Old Testament saints, along with persecuted and Third World believers, understood these things much more clearly than most sheltered Western Christians.  As a genocide survivor, having survived six attempts on his life, said to me, “If we have suffered so much, God must have something special for Rwanda.”

Paul speaks clearly about such trials.  “For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9 ESV). I have quoted this passage in meetings with pastors where some of them simply ound the plain meaning of the text too embarrassing to deal with.

From the most exalted perspective in scripture we are taught that God as revealed in Christ will allow us to be led into situations of deep trauma. At the beginning the book of Revelation we read in Jesus’ letter to the church in Thyatira, ““Behold, I will throw her (Jezebel) onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works. But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. Only hold fast what you have until I come.”” (Revelation 2:22-25 ESV).  Apart from the trauma of Christ’s judgement falling on the church how is holding fast to Jesus such a burden?

The lofty perspective of Revelation stresses that the seeming triumph of evil and injustice in the world is under the sovereignty of God and temporary. It is the Lamb who opens the seal releasing the four horsemen with their disasters of warfare, economic catastrophe (like the GFC), famine and plague (Rev 6:1-8). Even more severely for the undiscipled human conscience, the demonic and antichrist forces are “given power/authority” to persecute the people of God (7:2; 9:3; 13:7; 17:12). “If anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be slain with the sword, with the sword must he be slain. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.” (13:10). This is not the “must” of inevitable circumstances, but of the indispensability of suffering for the kingdom of God (Luke 24:26). Christians are not encouraged to expect justice in this world (cf. 1 Pet 2:19; 4:16-19). “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:12-13 ESV) None of this is at all bearable without an insight into the suffering and injustice borne by Jesus on the cross.

Lifted by God

The Old Testament prophets repeatedly predict a day when a deliverer would come and lift the load from the people of God. “For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor…. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isa 9:4, 6). [4] In some yet unexplained way the burden would be transferred from the shoulders of Israel to the promised Messiah. In an often misunderstood text Christ speaks of himself as the burden bearer for humanity.

Here is one of Jesus’ most memorable statements, ““All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.””  (Matthew 11:27-30 ESV). The promise of Jesus to relieve us of our burdens strikes a chord with all of us because we are all bearing the load of the loss of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). Jesus did not say however that he would strip us of all burdens, but that we could exchange our loads for his; a condition of entering into his rest is to take up his burden. What this means can only be understood in the light of the cross.

Isaiah prophesied of the coming Servant of the LORD as a burden bearer, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” (Isaiah 53:4 ESV). This witness of misunderstanding was fulfilled at the cross when the crowds that surrounded Jesus mocked him as a foolish pretender, someone who claimed the status of the Son of God but was merely dying as a criminal; “And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”” (Matt27:39-40 ESV). Many of them could not believe he was sent from God for they knew by heart God’s promise to the faithful, “Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.” (Psalm 55:22 ESV). If Jesus was really Son of God, a righteous man, it would be impossible for the God of the covenant to abandon him. This popular verdict seemed completely vindicated by Jesus own words.

The broken cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” (Matt 27:46) represents the greatest conceivable burden that any mortal man could carry. That the conscience of a sinless human being could experience the complete absence of divine opposition to human wickedness is the one intolerable burden. That God would do nothing to assist his Servant to overcome the iniquity that opposes his glory is the experience that drives Jesus to the edge of insanity[5]. Jesus however is experiencing God as we take him to be, our sin and disregard for the honour of God (2 Cor 5:21). This is the true burden of Jesus and the only way sin can be destroyed in him (Rom 8:3). Jesus must bear the burden of lost humanity without God before we can experience the blessing of God as our Father[6]. This is the cup that the Father asked him to drink, and whilst the cup was bitter and sorrowful, the measure of Jesus maturity is his willingness to accept the weight of the burden and so to enter into the joy that was set before him (Mark 14:34-36; Heb 5:7-10; 12:1-2). All who receive a revelation of Jesus as their burden bearer will be moved to bear the burdens of others. This understanding has always been a part of the life of the covenant people of God.

Others Can Help[7]

The carrying of burdens is to be a characteristic of the life of the Christian Church; “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbour. For each will have to bear his own load.” (Galatians 6:1-5 ESV).

The injunction to bear one another’s burdens is a very strong one, for this is one of only two places in the New Testament where the expression “the law of Christ” is used (cf. 1 Cor 9:21). As children of the God whom Jesus loved and served, we are free to be like Christ, in essence this is “the law of Christ”. As such, bearing the burdens of others has become an essential part of our new nature. This should not be understood as a burden itself, but a grace given by God through us for others. If sharing in and alleviating the load others must bear is experienced as a burden we must bear in our own strength[8] this is a sure sign that we are living under a religious law/duty rather doing “all things through him who gives us strength” (Phil 4:13)[9]. Failure to understand that bearing the burdens of others is not a mere duty has even influenced some translations of the Bible.

A number of versions translate Romans 15:1 like this, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” (e.g. NIV, ESV). This sounds like we have to “put up with” weak Christians. However in almost all its other uses in the New Testament the key verb means simply “carry” rather than “endure” or “put up with”. The key here is love. As has been well said, “Love feels no burden…Love takes a burden and makes it no burden.” (Thomas a’ Kempis)[10].

The Redemptive Power of the Burden

There is an additional dimension to burden bearing that is extremely powerful in the way of the cross; it is exemplified in the life and ministry of Paul.

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church,” (Col 1:24 ESV) “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” (2 Corinthians 4:7-12 ESV). When Paul commands us to bear the burdens of others his words carry great authority because this practice was embodied in his own life as he followed Jesus.  This is how he can say, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”(1 Corinthians 11:1 ESV). The presence and power of the kingdom of God is released in the way of the burden bearing of the cross.

A dimension of our shared partnership in the gospel is the call to bear the burdens of others (Phil 1:5). In Philippians Paul literally addresses a “true yokefellow” who is a “fellow labourer” and whose name is “written in the book of life” (4:3). It is a noble vocation to share together in the ministry of carrying the burdens of others in the power of Christ.


To be a human being is to carry an inevitable burden, but it also involves a choice as to which burden we will carry. The yoke of our own making or the yoke of Christ?  Our self -constructed yoke deprives us of the presence of the strength of Christ and disallows joining with Jesus in lifting the load of others for the glory of God. The distinctive character of the burden bearing of Jesus is that it is an exercise of pure love aimed always to destroy the destructive power of sin in the lives of others. If the very identity of Jesus was shaped by burden bearing, it is impossible for us to be conformed to his image without sharing his central dimension of his Sonship (Rom 8:29). The fruit however of faithfully following in this way of Christ are tremendous.  We can confidently confess before God, “Never have you failed me!” not despite the burdens of life but because of them. Such is the wisdom of God in ordaining the loads we must bear.

We live in a time when many live the Christian life as if we are a burden to God[11] ; feeling overburdened, carrying loads that are not ours to bear, or holding resentment against the expectations we believe the Lord has upon our lives. The call of God today however is to create a community that understands the limitations and responsibilities of carrying the burden of humanity in and with Christ. Such a mature community/church will be the witness the world is waiting for.

[1] As Jesus said, “teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19).

[2] Cf. Amos 3:6; Rom 11:33-36.

[3] As in the cry, ““How long, O LORD?”” (Pss6; 13; 35; 79; 80; 89; 90; 94; Hab 1:2)

[4] Cf. “in that day his burden will depart from your shoulder, and his yoke from your neck;” (Isa 10:27 cf. 14:25)

[5] Psalm 69 prophetically speaks to this theme, especially vv. 4, 9, 21.

[6] Often called the “wonderful exchange”.

[7] For Old Testament forerunners see Exod 18:21-22; Num 11:14-17.

[8] As in the personal examples in the introduction to this paper.

[9] Cf. “understanding this, that the law is not laid down/laid on for the just/a righteous person but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers,” (1 Timothy 1:9 ESV).

[10] Cf. “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” (1 Thess 5:14”

[11] ““When one of this people, or a prophet or a priest asks you, ‘What is the burden of the Lord?’ you shall say to them, ‘You are the burden, and I will cast you off, declares the Lord. And as for the prophet, priest, or one of the people who says, ‘The burden of the LORD,’ I will punish that man and his household.”” (Jeremiah 23:33- 34 ESV)


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