Bearing and Boasting in Galatians 6: Wait, What??

At the most recent Iron Men assembly Monday night several minutes of head scratching were devoted to the jumble of directions in Galatians 6:1-5. Besides the question, “When was it that boasting became appropriate?” there’s also the matter of how we’re to help carry each other’s burdens (verse 2) because everyone has to carry their own burden (verse 5). What?

Breaking the paragraph apart and reading each verse atomistically, the individual sayings make sense. The question in our mind though was what is the logical structure of the paragraph that gives rise to each of these phrases? Scripture isn’t an inspired grocery list of unrelated generalities- there’s an order that permeates the canon from first to last and the resulting thick description of redemption in Jesus yields rich dividends when examined in light of that order and logic. Right off the bat then we couldn’t accept the conclusions of a few commentators who did the interpretative equivalent of throwing their hands up and saying, “This section is just a random non-sequitur.” Exegetical fail, dudes. These verses aren’t a few Boy Scout generalities randomly loaded onto the caboose of Paul’s Galatian freight train, disconnected from the burden of the rest of the book. That might be how many preachers would treat this section (find three points to hammer home and call it a day, leaving your people utterly bewildered as to how the Bible is a unified whole) but that sounds pretty jive to Paul himself, who not only understood better than most the organic unity of the canon but also knew how to construct linear, progressive argumentation to make his point.

Given that there were no chapter divisions in the original letter we could see that the directions in these verses are implications of living in the Spirit and leaving the Law behind as in 5:13-25; Paul hasn’t departed from that topic in order to throw out a few good ideas that just occurred to him. The directives in these verses are how living in the Spirit should impact the Galatians in the wake of the controversy that erupted there and heal the divisions that have split them apart. Still- how do the points in vv. 1-6 flow logically out of the last chapter? Ragnar Bring (an intense if ever there was one) and Richard Longenecker had some cool insights that have helped me too see that logical flow more clearly. The first ten verses of Galatians 6 continue from 5:25-26. In light of what has gone down, restoration is number one in the Galatians’ immediate situation because the natural outflow of life in the Spirit is a mutuality that drives us to identify with one another in such a way that we help to carry each other’s burdens in humility. 

Here’s a few comments from each of these chaps that really helped me:

Here in his directive Paul applies the exhortation “keep in step with the Spirit” in 5:25 to the specific problem of how believers are to treat fellow believers who have experienced moral lapses. It is a problem that evidently gives rise to pride and conceit on the part of the Galatian Christians not so entrapped by sin, as 5:26 implies. Paul, however, urges that those guided by the Spirit be involved in a ministry of restoration with “gentleness,” which is one of the expressions of the Spirit’s activity in life (cf. 5:23), characterizing their attitudes and actions.

Significantly, it is more the attitudes and actions of “those who are spiritual” that Paul deals with here than the attitudes and actions of those who have sinned. Libertinism among the Galatian Christians evidently expressed itself in pride, aloofness, and conceit (as sadly it does also among Christians today). And while Paul was always against sin in whatever form, for him pride, aloofness, and conceit were also sinful, being often, in fact, far more damaging to the community of believers and the gospel message than overt moral lapses. So here in a practical manner he brings together his two lists of vices and virtues in 5:19-23, showing how in practice “the fruit of the Spirit” overcomes “the works of the flesh.”

(Richard Longenecker, Galatians [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990], pp. 273-274)

The Christians are not pictured as sinless at all; instead they are reminded how easy it is to fall into temptation. But the realization of this ought to prevent them from presumptuously condemning those who failed. In the spirit of “the flesh” men forgot their own faults and condemned others according to a more rigid norm which enabled them to regard themselves as righteous. In the mind of “the Spirit” men see their own weakness and are not anxious to judge others. A disposition to judge the erring by a hard and fast norm indicated a lack of desire to understand their situation and temptation. In so doing they placed themselves on a different and higher level above those who were judged…

The real Christian attitude in such a situation was to share the burden of the neighbor caused by his trespass. They were to bear his guilt and judgment with him. A self-righteous rejection and condemnation of those who trespassed did not belong to the mind of the Spirit. Just as Christ bore the sin and guilt of others, so the Christian must do likewise. The word “burdens” may refer not only to trespasses but also to difficulties and anxieties in general (cf. vs. 5). But the context seems to indicate especially the guilt which each one may have to bear. To bear one another’s burdens is to fulfil “the law of Christ.” “The law of Christ” seems to be used in contrast to the law on which the Judaizers wanted to base righteousness, just as in Rom. 8:2, where Paul contrasts the law of the Spirit of life with the law of sin and death. To share in the difficulties, failings, offenses, and guilt, and not to condemn presumptuously but rather to help the neighbor- this is to live in accordance with the love of Christ… The law of Christ is not external commandments which may be defined rationally and fulfilled by human efforts. It can be rightly fulfilled only in the life of the Spirit. In this life there is a given unity with the neighbor, so that we do not condemn and isolate him when he transgresses, but share with him in his suffering under the burden of guilt.

The opposite of bearing one another’s burden is the self-satisfied spirit in which one thinks he is something even though he is nothing. A self-complacent man sees not his own faults but the faults of others; he sees the speck in his brother’s eye but not the log in his own. The Pharisee in the temple felt that he was obviously better than the publican. In that spirit it is easy to consider oneself better than others. But this is self-delusion. This is not the kind of life lived in the Spirit. It is necessary, therefore, to test one’s own work (cf. Rom. 14:10ff.)… 

One could reject a person because of his offenses, guilt, difficulties, and faults. This attitude would be an example of the life of the flesh. But if one lived the life in the Spirit, it would be possible to be so united with a person that one suffered with him, accepted his offenses as one’s own, and as far as possible lightened his burdens. This attitude would not exclude a moral reaction against the wickedness and offenses perpetrated; but when one feels these things in love as being one’s own for which one would suffer that they might not destroy the offender, every possibility of indulging in a moralistic condemnation would be removed, and the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself would be realized.

If instead of being united with others and bearing their burdens, someone separated himself from them in self-sufficiency, as if he were better than they, he would deceive himself. Paul expresses himself hypothetically, “if any one thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” Anyone who despised others and in his self-sufficiency thought himself better than others did not see the reality concerning himself. What we are in ourselves can be seen only in the light of the gospel. But the gospel excluded self-righteousness and moralistic condemnation of others, and fostered instead love to the neighbor which is the fulfillment of the law.

(Ragnar Bring, Commentary on Galatians [Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press], pp. 273-275)

The second part of v 4 gives a rationale for the directive just given. The correlative adverbial particle (“then”) undoubtedly has temporal force to mean, “then, when he has tested his own actions, the following will ensue.” The noun (“boast”) appears frequently in Greek writings and a total of ten times in Paul… “It is,” as Burton observes, “in itself a less opprobrious term than the English word ‘boast,’ referring rather to exultation, gratulation, without the implication of the English word that it is excessive or unjustified” (Galatians, 333)…

With, therefore, the third person singular future verb (“he will have”) and the contrast between (“in himself”) and (“in someone else”), the rationale for testing one’s own actions is so that “then” such a one “will have a basis for boasting in himself, and not by comparison with someone else.” The warning here is not to live as spiritual people in a state of pride or conceit, always comparing one’s own attainments to those of others and so feeling superior, but rather to test one’s own actions and so to minimize the possibility of self-deception. Christian feelings of exultation and congratulation should spring from one’s own actions as seen in the light of God’s approval and not derive from comparing oneself to what others are or are not doing.

(Richard Longenecker, Galatians, 277)

When law rears its ugly head and we go back to revering some external standard rather than Jesus we fool ourselves into believing we’re better than we actually are and we look down on everyone who doesn’t keep the Law as well as we presume (mistakenly) we do. Pride in law keeping is fleshly, though, and we and the Galatians need to be reminded. The flesh is so deceptive that those who indulge the flesh through law think they are cultivating the Spirit. If I’m living in the Spirit I’m not getting my jollies through legalistic feelings of superiority over others- I’m humbly aware of my own propensity to fail and I am helping my brothers and sisters along, aware that my obedience will not be assessed by God at the judgment in relation to anyone else’s. The burdens we help one another with (baros) are not the same as the burden (phortion) we will answer for at the end, so forget measuring yourself against someone else and sitting in smug judgment over them; Paul will not have to answer for Peter’s service and you will not answer for anyone else. We each will bear our own load, so stop counting the failings of others, start cultivating the sympathetic manifestations of the Spirit, and find your satisfaction and joy in God’s acceptance of you for Jesus’ sake alone.



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