The following teaching is adapted from our Hearing God’s Voice Course, Resource Sheet 6 – Special Ministry Gifts. See the Listening to God website for the whole course.
In Galatians 6:2 we are told to bear one another’s burdens. Then in Galatians 6:5 we are told that each one should bear their own load. What does this mean? The Sandfords describe burden bearing this way: “Burden bearing is predicated upon the capacity of our spirit to identify with another, to empathize, to share and shoulder emotional loads. In the same way that two physically can carry a log which one alone cannot lift, burden bearing takes one end of a load, and so enables a brother to survive and function. Whereas two must be in proximity to lift something physically, burden bearing requires no spatial nearness. We can feel, identify, share and pray about another’s burdens at whatever distance we may happen to be.” (Letting Go Of Your Past, p 171)
Paul says, “[We are] always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you.” (2 Corinthians 4:10-12)
I could say much about how burden bearing works, the nature of a person who becomes a burden bearer, and the difficulties burden bearers can get into. However, this is a big topic, and will form the basis of a future seminar. Instead I will make just a few comments from my own experience as a burden bearer.
I believe burden bearers are generally born, not made. I have encountered many people with this gift, and they all had it since birth. Mostly they did not know they had it, but once its nature was pointed out to them it became obvious. Usually they come for ministry and begin to describe their problem, then I say to them, “And does this … happen, and this …?” They say, “Yes, how did you know?”
Like prophets and intercessors (who are often also burden bearers), God makes burden bearers as a gift to the world and the church. He calls them from birth, and has already equipped them for it. They are able to sense what is happening in other people; feel what they are feeling; almost read their minds sometimes! This is a natural psychic ability, given by God. All people have it to some degree, but it is often undeveloped. Some people who think they are burden bearers are not. Again, like the role of prophet, it is not to be desired just because it sounds like a nice thing to be. It is too costly. Does anyone willingly choose to feel the anguish in the Spirit of Father God when one of his dear ones dies? In a natural burden bearer this gift generally causes them difficulty, because they do not understand where all the bad stuff they receive from others comes from, nor do they know how to get rid of it! Mark Sandford describes it as being a lightning rod, walking around getting zapped by other people’s emotions.
Jesus is the true burden bearer. His own body bore the sin of the world, and carried it to death. No other human can do this, but some do try. There is a place for picking up part of someone else’s load when they can’t to carry it alone, but there comes a time to put it down again. If we don’t it will damage us.
I used to go into the city to shop or work, and come home feeling thoroughly ill. I was like that lightning rod, being zapped by the emotional pain of everyone I came near. As well as this I would often know when someone was about to say or do something which would cause someone else pain, but I was powerless to do anything about it. I would see it coming and only be able to stand and watch. When, after many years as a Christian I finally had my spiritual eyes opened and became able to communicate with the Lord and see the world in the way he does, the Lord challenged me about my burden bearing. He showed me that I was doing it using my own psychic ability, and that I would have to renounce it. I knew that if I did I would also lose my spiritual vision. It was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made, but I had no choice. And for quite some time I was blind again.
Jesus, in his grace, has redeemed that gift, and given it back to me in a form which no longer damages me. I only receive heavy things when I need to. I can’t do it whenever I want to, but only when he wants me to. And now I can always unload the burden back onto him, though I sometimes forget to do so, and suffer. Burden bearers deserve and need to be nurtured and protected by the rest of the church. When you recognise this possibility in someone who is hurting, please point them towards someone who understands what is happening to them.
There is an opposite to the burden bearer. This might be called the ‘leech’ or someone with a ‘vampiric spirit’. This is someone who, as the Sandfords say, “does not pay the price of prayer to sustain his own life, and perhaps fails to maintain emotional or mental hygiene and discipline as well, who therefore sustains himself by drawing on the strength of others.” Beware of leeches in ministry.
Intercessory burden bearing is a deliberate choice to help someone else carry their cross. Realise that Jesus did accomplish all on the cross. Redemption is a finished work. However, in God’s wisdom, he intends to complete that work of redemptive suffering through the Body of Christ. This is another of those ‘now and not yet’ things of the Kingdom. In this way we can understand with Paul (Colossians 1:24, etc.) that it is Christ’s suffering we carry with us in burden bearing.