Bearing One Another’s Burdens
“I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1–3). This apostolic entreaty to the churches makes an assumption that extends well beyond our gathering together for Liturgy and coffee hour. It assumes that we will heed the new commandment of Christ to his disciples: “that you love one another; as I have loved you” (John 13:34). And it is not possible to live out his commandment exclusively within the walls of our temples and church halls. Our gathering together as His Church in the Divine Liturgy is the source of our communion with one another in Christ; yet it is beyond the Liturgy itself that the liturgy of Christ’s love for us is fulfilled. When we gather together, we see or hear about the needs of our brethren and find opportunities to love one another indeed. “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?” (James 2:15–17) Therefore, if we see a need in the Body that our Lord has enabled us to fulfill, let us not hesitate or be neglectful in love, for it is for this that He gave gifts to each of us.
The apostle’s instruction also directly addresses the reality that we are all sinners who will be constantly confronted with the need to love one another as Christ loved us. As Christians, we freely choose to love our brethren despite their weaknesses and sins, and despite whatever they may do that irritates us. Love is not a feeling, but an action. While we were yet sinners at enmity with God, “Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8), and if we are to be conformed to his Image, we will choose day by day, moment by moment, to love each other as He loved us. As paradoxical as it may seem, this is one of the reasons we must remain in communion with one another in the Church in order to be deified in Christ. God has made the very brothers and sisters with whom we have difficulty the means of our salvation. Without them, we could never share in the fullness of his love and become like him in all things. And lest we be blind to our own faults, each one of us is prone to weakness and sin. Each of us can be irritating, exasperating, or hurtful to others at times. And though our faults may be different than those of our brethren, they are no less a burden for them to bear.
Our unity in the Church is a gift of God and a witness to the exceeding greatness of his love for mankind that our adversary the devil, filled with bitter envy of the dignity that God has bestowed on us, takes pleasure in disrupting. And though he knows that the Church cannot be destroyed, (Matt 16:18) he will nevertheless seize any opportunity to inflame our passions and thereby manipulate us into fostering schism in the Body of Christ.
There are times when we will become angry with one another – sometimes with good reason. Be angry but choose not to sin against the Body of Christ, and do not let anger take root and become bitterness.1 Some will offend us at times. Choose to take no offence. Some will exasperate us at times. Choose to be patient. Some will be harsh at times. Choose to be gentle. Some will lack faith at times. Choose to Have faith for their sake. All will have weaknesses. Choose to bear their burdens. Some may sin against us – even seriously so. Forgive them.
Having this attitude of Christ is the foolishness of God that is wiser than men and the weakness of God that is stronger than men.2 It is the power of participation in the obedience and love of Christ Himself. These are the weapons of righteousness (2 Cor 6:7) that put our adversary the devil to shame. It is the power of the Cross of Christ that we take up daily — the very Life-bearing Cross that is “…a weapon that cannot be vanquished, the adversary of demons, the glory of the martyrs, the true adornment of saints, and the haven of salvation.”3
We confess at the outset that love is as “ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same”4 as God Himself, for God is love (1 John 4:16). Thus, it is impossible to define love, for to define something is to comprehend it. We must also confess that all true love is God’s love, for love is of God. Thus, true love will always correspond to the way God loves us. He has made the mystery of his love known in Christ.
In reply to the question, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” our Lord answered from the Law, quoting directly. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 22:37–40). They show us what God’s love is, as well as the kind of love that will be reflected in the lives of his people who love as He loves.
We must hold fast to the truth of his love and steadfastly reject the subtleties of deceivers who would have us rejoice in iniquity to our ruin and to the ruin of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our Lord Jesus Christ is clear: “If you love Me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). For no one who denies or refuses to live in his love can share in his eternal life.
It should be evident that discerning between God’s love and the many counterfeits requires us to have sound judgment (Heb 5:14). This brings us to another of perhaps one of the most misunderstood words in our culture. As Orthodox Christians, we must be clear in our understanding of the Scriptures and the Fathers when they speak of what it means to judge, lest we be led astray in the confusion of this world.
There is a judgment that condemns others. This kind of judgment is forbidden by our Lord in his love for us, lest we condemn ourselves. For there is no one who does not sin. Not even God Himself condemns sinners; He seeks rather to restore them (John 3:17, 8:3–11). Another sort of judgment doesn’t condemn as such, but constantly looks for faults in others and seeks to correct them while being blind to its failure to correct those in itself. These kinds of judgment are not only foolish and arrogant, they are wholly inconsistent with the love that is of God, and thus they alienate us from his life.
There is, however, another kind of judgment that is required of Orthodox Christians. When presented with anything that conflicts with what God has revealed to us in Christ, we are to judge it accordingly, regardless of how it may appeal to our reason or emotion, and regardless of the apparent ‘authority’ of the source (Gal 1:8). This judgment is one of humility, for great humility is required in order to trust the Wisdom of God when it conflicts with our own or that of those whom we love.5 Judging in this way does not seek to condemn anyone, nor to correct anyone directly. Rather, we stand humbly yet firmly in the truth that is in Christ, refusing to accept lies lest anyone be deceived into believing that the very things which sever us from communion in God’s eternal life are lifegiving. Like the One who is the criterion of this judgment, it loves and accepts those who are deceived but refuses to accept or participate in deception. It is patient and kind, humble, never rude, never provoking. It shares in the suffering that inevitably comes upon those who persist in sin and patiently bears their slander. It believes no one to be incapable of repentance. It maintains hope for them, intercedes for them, and endures all things for their sake.
This self-emptying love that is the eternal life of the Holy Trinity in which we share as members of Christ’s Body, the Church is the Almighty Power that made the heavens and the earth and everything in them. It is the power that made the very wood and nails of the Cross on which He poured out his life for us. Self-emptying, self-sacrificing, love is the omnipotent power of God Himself. Nothing can overcome it. Nothing can destroy it. Death itself is powerless against it. It is the power of the Cross of Christ and the means of victory over our adversaries, sin and death.