Gal. 6:1–2, “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 fulfill the law of Christ.”
One of the most unusual figures in church history was a man named Simeon the Stylite. He was the first of the so-called Desert Fathers. Around the year 423, he constructed a short pillar on the edge of the Syrian Desert, climbed to the top, and lived on it for the next six years. Simeon received many visitors to his desert perch. No doubt many of them came to see if he was out of his mind. But the hermit explained that he was simply a Christian who wanted to commune with God in solitude, free from worldly distractions. Living on top of a pole in the desert was his way of separating himself from sin and consecrating himself to God.
As strange as it may seem, the life of Simeon the Stylite raises an important question: What does it mean to be spiritual? As far as Simeon was concerned, one could be more spiritual in the desert than in the city, and more spiritual off the ground than on it (the higher, the better). But was he right about what it means to be spiritual? As he reflected on Simeon’s spirituality, one recent writer asked: “Is there child-care in the desert?” The writer was married, with children, and his point was that not everyone is able to go and live alone in the desert. Isn’t there some other way to be spiritual?
Everyone seems to be interested in spirituality these days, but no one seems to agree on what it means. In the contemporary marketplace of ideas, spirituality sells. The bookstores are loaded with titles about angels, near-death experiences, and ancient pagan religions. The Internet is full of Web sites set up by New Age gurus and operated by strange cults. Covens and spirit shops proliferate.
One of the strange things about this new fascination with the spiritual life is that many people want to become spiritual without getting religious. For them, spirituality is something private and spontaneous, whereas religion is public and rigid. The reason spirituality sells is that people can make it whatever they want it to be. According to sociologist Robert Wuthnow, “Growing numbers of Americans piece together their faith like a patchwork quilt. Spirituality has become a vastly complex quest in which each person seeks in his or her own way.”
Unfortunately, the same may be said of the church, where there is widespread confusion about the meaning of true spirituality. Some Christians find their spirituality in acts of private devotion. Having one’s quiet time, fasting, and going to a retreat center are the basic acts of spiritual life. The way to become more spiritual is to find a spiritual director and begin to practice the spiritual disciplines.
For others, the spiritual life begins at church, in the context of public worship. True spirituality comes from reciting an ancient liturgy, lighting candles, and waving incense. Or it comes from playing the right music on the right instrument, or from not using instruments at all.
Still other Christians crave an exciting spiritual experience. They want to be miraculously healed or delivered through a “power encounter” with the Holy Spirit. They divide the church between those who have had a particular experience and those who haven’t, or between those who exercise a special gift and those who don’t.
Galatians offers an entirely different way of thinking about the spiritual life. Over against the pluralism of this age, Christian spirituality is based on a relationship with a personal God who has spoken an eternal Word. The spiritual life is not, therefore, something that one defines for oneself. Rather, it is a life defined by the existence and character of the one true God.
Contrary to what some Christians seem to think, this spiritual life is not something that we produce within us through some ritual or method. To put it very simply, spiritual life flows from the Third Person of the Trinity. The life of the Holy Spirit can be nurtured by using the means of grace—reading Scripture, attending public worship, and so on—but the life itself comes from God. Only His Spirit can produce the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
The Holy Spirit does not produce this fruit for our private enjoyment. True spirituality is not an individualistic quest for self-fulfillment—the kind of thing one has to climb to the top of a pillar to discover. The life of the Spirit flourishes for the sake of others. It is not experienced in private, primarily, but exercised in public. Therefore, it does not grow in isolation, but within the community of faith. Spiritual life is meant to be shared. It is less like a fruit tree hidden away somewhere in a secret garden, and more like one that grows in a public park.
Restore One Another from Sin
At the beginning of Galatians 6, the apostle Paul plucks some of this spiritual fruit and begins to share it. In these verses he teaches that the way to be truly spiritual is to “one another” each other. Spiritual people restore one another from sin (Gal. 6:1), bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), consider others more important (Gal. 6:3–5), and share with one another (Gal. 6:6).
Being spiritual means, first of all, restoring one another from sin: “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” (Gal. 6:1). Each word in this verse is significant. The word “brothers” is a reminder that the church is God’s family. We are sons and daughters of the Most High God, adopted through faith in his Son.
The fact that we are brothers and sisters in Christ does not keep us out of sin, however. As we have seen, the flesh wars against the Spirit. Thus there are times when the sinful nature knocks us off our stride, when a false step keeps us from walking with the Spirit. There are times when, through weakness, a Christian gets “caught in transgression.” This phrase may refer to a person who gets caught in the act, like the woman who was “caught in the act of adultery” (John 8:4). Or perhaps the sinner catches himself in the act. Temptation has a way of sneaking up on us unawares, catching us off guard. The sad reality is that sometimes Christians are surprised by sin; indeed, there are as many sinners in the church as anywhere else.
The phrase “caught in any transgression” does not refer to deliberate, habitual sin. It refers rather to an unexpected sin, something a Christian does almost against his or her better judgment. It may even involve one of the very sins that Paul has already condemned as “works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:19–21). A Christian who falls into this kind of sin needs proper spiritual care. Thus Paul explains what to do, who should do it, and how.
What should be done? It is very simple: “restore him” (Gal. 6:1). The verb that Paul uses here (katartizete) is a term for healing that means “to return to its former condition.” It was used in medicine, for example, to describe the setting of a broken bone or dislocated joint. In much the same way, a sinner needs to be put back in order.
Unfortunately, Christians do not always offer sinners very good treatment. Sometimes we ignore sin. Lacking the courage to confront it, we simply pretend it isn’t there. We act like timid medical students who see a patient with a bone fragment sticking out of his arm, but are afraid to touch it. The bone is never set and the wound never heals. Sometimes Christians notice the broken bone of sin, but never get past making a diagnosis. They simply stand around talking about what bad shape the sinner is in. “Wow,” people say, “would you look at that broken bone! I mean, just look at the way it’s sticking out! Boy, am I glad I don’t have a fracture like that!” Meanwhile, the brother or sister continues in the pains of sin. This kind of treatment is better known as gossip. Sadly, there are even times when Christians condemn sinners, blaming them (or even punishing them) for needing to go to the spiritual emergency room in the first place. They treat them like outcasts, harshly scolding them for being spiritually out of joint and apparently forgetting that they themselves are sinners in need of grace.
When Christians are caught in sin, they do not need isolation or amputation; they need restoration. The proper thing to do is to help them confess their sins and find forgiveness in Christ, and then to welcome them back into the fellowship of the church.
Who should do this? “You who are spiritual” (Gal. 6:1). The rehabilitation of sinners is a job for spiritual people, which in one sense would include all Christians. The moment that anyone receives Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, the Holy Spirit enters that person’s heart (Gal. 3:2). From that point on, he or she is a spiritual person.
There is another sense, however, in which some Christians are more spiritual than others. They are more mature in the Christian life. They do such a good job of what Paul was talking about in chapter 5—walking in the Spirit, being led by the Spirit, keeping in step with the Spirit—that the fruit of the Spirit’s work within them is obvious. Setting sinners back to rights is a job for Christians who have the fruit of the Spirit in abundant supply.
The reason only spiritual people should restore sinners is that only spiritual people can. How should sinners be restored? “In a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1). But remember that gentleness (or meekness) is part of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23). Therefore, if sinners are to be restored gently, it will take a spiritual person to do it, because only a spiritual person has true spiritual gentleness.
This proves that being harsh or judgmental is a sign of spiritual immaturity. Some Christians think that angry words are necessary to defend God’s righteous cause. But the only way to restore a believer who has fallen into sin is with gentle sensitivity. “One test of true spirituality,” writes F. F. Bruce, “is a readiness to set those who stumble by the wayside on the right road again in a sympathetic … spirit.” If we cannot do this gently, we had better not do it at all. We should let someone else do it, someone spiritual enough to perform such a delicate task.
Elsewhere, the Bible gives a step-by-step process for restoring fallen sinners. Perhaps Paul was familiar with the teaching of Jesus: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:15–17). This careful process, which gradually moves from private confrontation to public condemnation, is sometimes called church discipline. The Reformers considered it so important that they identified it as one of the marks of the true Christian church.
The Apostle Paul recognized that the whole process demands gentleness. The goal at each step of church discipline is to heal the church by restoring the sinner back into the fellowship of his spiritual family. This is likely to happen only if the sinner is embraced with a gentle spirit. Consider the way Martin Luther instructed a pastor to help a fallen brother: “Run unto him, and reaching out your hand, raise him up again, comfort him with sweet words, and embrace him with motherly arms.”
In some ways, restoring a sinner is not all that different from setting a broken bone. The process is bound to be painful, no matter who does it. But the more deftly the bone is set, the sooner healing can begin. In the same way, someone who tends a sinner’s wounds must do so with gentle kindness.
Such restoration requires humility. The Scripture gives this warning to those who practice spiritual surgery: “Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Gal. 6:1). Even spiritual people may stumble. The particular temptation that Paul seems to have in mind is spiritual pride. It is hard not to feel at least a little self-righteous when we are correcting someone else’s sin. The more we learn about someone else’s depravity, the easier it is to look down on him or her. This temptation must be resisted, and the way to resist it is by examining our own hearts. We are as prone to fall into sin as anyone else, maybe more so. As Paul warned on another occasion: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).
Bear One Another’s Burdens
There is a second kind of spiritual work that demands less gentleness than restoring a sinner, but also takes more effort. Martin Luther said that this work requires “strong shoulders and mighty bones.” It is less like setting a broken bone and more like carrying the stretcher. It is the work of bearing someone else’s burden: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).
This verse implies that Christians will have burdens, and heavy ones at that. Being caught in sin from time to time is one burden, but there are many others as well: sorrow, worry, doubt, failure, poverty, loneliness, illness, divorce, disability, and depression. Not only do we face such hardships, but we are incapable of handling them by ourselves. Sometimes our burdens are so heavy that they must be shared if they are to be carried at all.
There is a sense, of course, in which God carries our burdens for us. Our biggest burden of all—the infinite burden of our sin and guilt—is a burden that only God could bear. He did this when Jesus carried his cross to Calvary and died on it for our sins. If God has already carried our greatest burden on the cross, then surely he can handle our lighter loads as well: “Cast your burden on the Lord,” wrote David, “and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved” (Ps. 55:22). Perhaps the apostle Peter had this very psalm in mind when he spoke of “casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). God’s shoulders are broad enough to carry all our burdens.
The fact that God carries our burdens, however, does not mean that he is the only one with whom we should share them. Often the way God lightens our load is by getting other Christians to do some of the carrying. If we are discouraged in the Christian life, it may be because we are trying to carry too much weight all by ourselves. God has given us one another. Every believer is called to be one of God’s bellhops, always ready to pick up someone else’s baggage. This means that we do not need to keep all our troubles to ourselves; indeed, it means that we must not.
Many times people in the church suffer heavy losses, losses too heavy to bear alone. When they do, they usually share their burden with one of their pastors and a few close friends. Together, everyone helps to carry the load. Some do it through prayer. Others offer warm hugs and speak kind words of comfort and sympathy. Still others help in practical ways, by cleaning the house, bringing a meal to share, or sharing an appropriate Christian book. This ought to happen every time a member of the church is in difficulty, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual. If we have a heavy load, we need to let someone else help us to carry it. And if we see someone else struggling under the weight of trouble, we need to put our own shoulder to the task. Christians always rally around to help.
Whenever Christians bear one another’s burdens, they are fulfilling the law. Paul wrote, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). This would be a surprising verse if Paul had not surprised us already. After spending two-thirds of his letter explaining that justification comes by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, he amazed us by telling us to keep the law: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (Gal. 5:14). We are called to keep the law of love, even though our salvation does not depend on it. Though we are not under the law, nevertheless we fulfill the law.
What the apostle means by “the law of Christ” is the moral law. It is called “the law of Christ” because Christ himself taught it throughout his ministry, interpreting, clarifying, and applying the moral requirements of God’s eternal law. And of all the ethical instructions Jesus gave—and he repeated all the main points of the Old Testament law, including the Ten Commandments—his most basic instruction was to love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34). Or again, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). The law of Christ is the law of loving one another.
One way to fulfill the law of love is to bear one another’s burdens. By caring for one another, we become law-abiding Christians. Of course, we are not saved by keeping the law. However, God’s will for our lives, as expressed in his moral law, has not changed. Now that we have been saved, we must keep the law of Christ. We must continue to love our neighbors as ourselves, bearing one another’s burdens, just as Christ showed his love for us when he bore the burden of our sin on the cross.
Consider Others More Important
The only way to love our neighbors as ourselves is to recognize that our neighbor is at least as valuable in the sight of God as we are. This brings us to a third thing that spiritual people do: They consider others more important than themselves.
The way we treat others depends in large measure on what we think about ourselves. People who have a rather high opinion of themselves are generally unwilling to carry anyone else’s baggage. They are too self-centered to be self-giving. They think serving others is beneath their dignity. Why should they stoop to shoulder someone else’s burden? This attitude was especially common in the ancient world, where it was considered demeaning to help others.
Often the only way to manage someone else’s burden is by putting down our own burdens for a while. Needy people have a way of demanding our time, changing our plans, and rearranging our schedules. Helping them requires the kinds of sacrifices that we will make only if we consider them more important than ourselves. In fact, helping others is possible only for those who have the mind of Christ, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant” (Phil. 2:6–7).
What the Scripture says to people who think that they are something special is that actually they are nothing: “For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Gal. 6:3). People who are fascinated by their own abilities and attributes are only fooling themselves. A stewardess once told the heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali to prepare for takeoff. “Superman don’t need no seatbelt!” he objected. She replied, “Superman don’t need no airplane.” Sooner or later, people who think they are something they are not end up crashing back to earth.
Was the apostle Paul right to call people “nothing”? Some commentators suggest that he was exaggerating to make a point, and he may have been. However, we really are nothing, in and of ourselves. Calvin said, “We have nothing of our own to boast about, but are destitute of every good thing.” Everything we have comes from God. If we are anything at all, it is only because we are created and redeemed in Christ.
The way to avoid thinking that we are something we are not is to see ourselves the way that God sees us. This is what the Scripture means when it says, “But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor” (Gal. 6:4). The New International Version renders the verse like this: “Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else.” There is a way to be concerned for others without comparing ourselves to them. Such comparisons are usually odious. Either we get discouraged because we are less spiritual than someone else, or we become proud because we are more spiritual (especially compared to someone caught in a sin). But either way, we are making the wrong comparison.
Instead of comparing ourselves to others, we should test ourselves against God’s standard, which is the only one that counts. This kind of testing—or self-examination, as the Puritans called it—is a necessary part of the spiritual life. There is a danger in being overly introspective, of course. Some people spend so much time examining and reexamining their lives that they hardly know how to live. But we need to prove our thoughts, words, and actions the way that precious metal is proved in the fire.
It is not easy to make an accurate assessment of our gifts and shortcomings. Often it requires the help of Christian friends. Usually we do not want to know what they really think of us, but sometimes it would help us if we did. Self-examination also requires good judgment. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Rom. 12:3).
Knowing how we measure up to God’s standard will help us to bear one another’s burdens. The people who “one another” most effectively are those who know their own strengths and weaknesses. Testing ourselves also enables us to take pride in what we do, in the right sense of the word. When Paul speaks of boasting, he obviously does not mean that God wants us to go around bragging that we are better than someone else. What he means is that we should be confident of who we are in Christ. When our actions meet God’s test—as they do whenever they truly are done according to his Word, in service to Christ, for the advancement of his glory—then we can properly take pleasure in his praise.
The apostle then adds a rather curious comment: “For each will have to bear his own load” (Gal. 6:5). At first this seems like a contradiction. Verse 2 told us to bear one another’s burdens, whereas verse 5 commands us to carry our own load. So which is it? Should we share our burdens or keep them to ourselves?
These two verses are not contradictory, but complementary. What they mean is that mutual accountability must be balanced by a sense of personal responsibility. To see this, it helps to know the difference between two different Greek terms: baros and phortion. The word baros refers to a heavy load, like cargo being loaded onto a freighter. Not surprisingly, baros is the word used in verse 2 to describe a weight that must be shared because it is too heavy for one person to carry. The word phortion, on the other hand, refers to a man’s traveling pack, almost like a backpack. When the Scripture says that everyone must carry his own weight, it has this lighter burden in mind. There is a weight that every person must carry—the weight of our own personal responsibility before God.
God has given you a unique set of gifts for your situation in life. You will not have to answer for what you might have done with someone else’s gifts. But you, and you alone, will have to answer for the way you carry the responsibilities that God has given you. Martin Luther wrote, “A faithful sexton is no less pleasing to God with his gift than is a preacher of the Word, for he serves God in the same faith and spirit.” This is true because God will not judge sextons on the basis of their ability to preach (or preachers on the basis of their ability to repair the church). God will judge us all on the basis of our calling, gifts, and obedience. So do your own work. Do it without comparing yourself to anyone else. And do it well, for one day you will have to answer to God, both for what you have done and for what you have left undone.
Share with One Another
There is one more thing that spiritual people do, and that is to share with one another. The kind of sharing that Paul mentions is primarily the kind that takes place between a pastor and his congregation: “One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches” (Gal. 6:6). Both the minister and the church have something to share. The minister shares good, solid teaching from the Bible. The word Paul uses for “teaching” is katēcheō, from which we get the English word “catechism.” It refers to any kind of oral instruction in biblical truth.
Teaching the Word—this is as simple and as clear a job description of the gospel ministry as there is. These days ministers are tempted to perform many other jobs. They have become salesmen, businessmen, musicians, entertainers, comedians, janitors … anything and everything except preachers. But a true minister is nothing more and nothing less than a minister of the Word. The center of any gospel ministry must be the exposition of Holy Scripture.
This is a full-time job, which brings us to what the church has to share with its minister: “all good things” (Gal. 6:6). This refers to all kinds of goods, but especially the material support that someone needs to survive and thrive. Teaching the Bible is the minister’s livelihood, so he should be paid generously for what he does. God insists on this. As the Scripture says, “The Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:14; cf. Luke 10:7).
One is almost tempted to say that pastors are professionals, but this would leave the wrong impression. The Scripture does not speak of contracts and salary packages, but about sharing. Unlike pagan religions, in which priests charged fees for their services, pastors were to be supported by the voluntary gifts of God’s people.
The reason this kind of sharing is necessary is very simple. As Martin Luther explained, “It is impossible that one man should be devoted to household duties day and night for his support and at the same time pay attention to the study of Sacred Scripture, as the teaching ministry requires.” Preparing to preach—if it is to be done well—is costly labor. Therefore, a minister must be free to spend his time preparing to teach God’s Word. It is much easier for him to throw himself into this work when he is not distracted by financial concerns. It must be easy for ministers to abuse this privilege, because they often do. Some men abuse the privilege of the pastorate by seeking to become wealthy. They are in the ministry for the money (and so are their wives, in some cases), and so they “fleece” their flocks. Others abuse the pastorate by becoming lazy, and thus fail to give their congregations a good return on their investment. Greed and sloth are two of the deadliest vices for ministers.
When it comes to finances, it is also easy for churches to abuse their ministers. Some people use the purse strings to control the minister and the church. Others try to sanctify their minister by keeping him in a state of relative poverty. Still others fail to recognize the importance of a minister’s preparation. Perhaps this was true in Galatia. Paul had just finished explaining that everyone should carry his own load (Gal. 6:5). “All right, then!” someone might have said. “Let’s see the minister get a real job for a change, instead of freeloading all the time!”
This is not the way that a spiritual person thinks, however. A spiritual person knows how to share, including with his minister. John Calvin struck the proper balance:
He [God] does not want them [ministers] to have an immoderate and superfluous abundance, but merely that they should not lack any of the necessary supports of life. Ministers should be satisfied with frugal fare, and the danger of luxury and pomp must be avoided. Therefore, so far as their needs demand, let believers regard all their property as at the disposal of godly and holy teachers. What return will they make for the inestimable treasure of eternal life which they receive by their preaching?
Sharing with one another is part of what it means to be spiritual. But it is hard to share from the top of a pole in the desert. Remember Simeon the Stylite? Eventually, Simeon decided he wanted to become more spiritual. After all, his pillar was only six feet high. So with the help of friends he built a column sixty feet high and three feet in diameter, with a crossbar to keep him from falling off in his sleep. There he remained until his death thirty years later! God blessed Simeon in many ways. Still, one suspects that he would have been even more fruitful if he had climbed back down from his pole and lived the spiritual life in the biblical way: restoring sinners, bearing burdens, and sharing all good things. It is not easy to do very much “one anothering” from a pole sixty feet off the ground!
A better example to follow comes from a little Baptist church in Buckinghamshire in England. In 1790, the church meeting at Stony Stratford signed a covenant to treat one another according to the principles of Galatians 6. They promised to walk in love toward those with whom we stand connected in the bonds of Christian fellowship. As the effect of this, we will pray much for one another. As we have opportunity, we will associate together for religious purposes. Those of us who are in more comfortable situations in life than some of our brethren, with regard to the good things of Providence, will administer as we have ability and see occasion, to their necessities. We will bear one another’s burdens, sympathize with the afflicted in body and mind, so far as we know their case, under their trials; and as we see occasion, advise, caution, and encourage one another. We will watch over one another for good. We will studiously avoid giving or taking offenses. Thus we will make it our study to fulfill the law of Christ.
This was a good covenant to make, and an even better one to keep. Anyone who is able to make and keep such commitments knows what it means to live the spiritual life.