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Can I ask a hard question? One of those that doesn’t have an easy answer, but one that is important for each of us to wrestle through anyway?
Where does our responsibility toward others begin and end? How much are you responsible for others?
Several years ago, I was struggling. It felt like my life was falling apart. I was depressed and could barely keep up with basic chores around the house. I felt distant from most people, didn’t have very many I thought I could truly call friend. Oh, I was friendly, but no one really knew what was going on in my heart and mind.
I was homeschooling my kids, but struggled to force myself to do the bare minimum. I was easily frustrated and short-tempered. I just wanted to give up on life—not living, but caring and striving to do better.
It was a dark place, and I was lonely. But how much were others truly responsible for me? Let’s start with the Apostle Paul and his letter to the church in Galatia.
What the Bible says: How much are you responsible for others?
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load.Galatians 6:1-5
This passage may seem contradictory, but when you dig into it a little you’ll find it’s not. When Paul says we’re to carry each other’s burdens, he uses the word baros (bar’ os) which means literally a heavy weight someone is required to carry a long distance.
However, when Paul says each one should carry their own load, he uses the word phortion (for tee’ on) which means a pilgrim’s backpack.
So this tells me that each of us is responsible for some of our own stuff, but when a boulder-sized problem hits, we should reach out and help each other.
That seems simple enough, but some people have trouble discerning between backpacks and boulders. And some people over pack. And some people refuse to let go of hurts or disappointments that weigh down their backpack more than it needs to be.
Don’t forget boundaries
I love the book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. Seriously. Love. I read lots of books every year in all kinds of subjects, but this is one of the few that I strongly recommend that everyone needs to read at least once.
Or twice. Or three times.
Much like a surveyor defines where your property ends and your neighbor’s begins, Boundaries helps you define what you should be responsible for in life. And what your neighbor (or spouse, or child, or parents, etc.) is responsible for. It helps you set biblical limits so you can steward the time, gifts, and talents God gave you.
Again, this sounds simple, but I’ve found that adding living, breathing people to the mix muddies the waters. Even if you know what God has called you to, when that desperate, hurting person stands before you, it’s easy to cave. To spread the boundary wider. To help them with their baros, or at least what they think is a baros.
Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?
But Paul told us to help each other with our baros, right? Yes. Absolutely. But I’ve also been a pastor’s daughter and pastor’s granddaughter most of my life. I’ve been close to pastor’s wives. I’ve done quite a bit of counseling and some mentoring. I’ve served in various capacities within women’s and military ministry for eight years.
I’ve seen firsthand the unrealistic expectations many of us have of our pastors and other leaders. Expectations that we often don’t put on ourselves as regards to our pastors. Expectations that would infuriate us if we were those pastor’s wives.
Let’s look at this from my simple leadership position standpoint. As I’ve grown in ministry responsibilities, the number of invitations I receive to bridal showers, weddings, and baby events has increased. As our church membership and my relationships within the church have grown, the number of funerals and personal tragedies that I know about has multiplied.
As my kids have developed friends, invitations to birthday parties, holiday celebrations, and special occasions rose. As they’ve aged, their own activities and interests expanded, adding appointments to our calendar.
Which do I say yes (or no) to?
On paper, this is much easier. For example, I once made a blanket guideline that I would only attend parties for my or my kids’s closest friends. But then the sweet young mother who was struggling to make friends in her brand new town invites me to her son’s first birthday. Husband is deployed and family lives too far away to make it.
How can I say no to that?
What about a real baros?
Okay, so it was just a birthday party. Well, a first birthday party. And my emotions got involved because we’ve celebrated birthdays while moving.
My daughter’s seventh birthday was spent sitting in temporary housing on our new base. We’d been in town all of five days, and we knew no one outside of the realtor who was showing us houses. He saved the day by presenting her with a large pink teddy bear when we met him to go look at properties that evening.
But what if someone is facing a “real” crisis? What if they just got news that their husband was shot while out on a mission in Afghanistan? Or one of their three children is hospitalized?
What if they realize their life is falling apart like mine was?
I was poisoning myself with negative thoughts, lazy habits, and an entitled attitude. I wanted to crawl into a hole and pretend life could go on just as well without me, but God kept bringing the faces of my three children to mind. They depended on me for many reasons. I needed to get healthy—God’s way—for them.
It was a long struggle to lay down fear, shame, depression, and negativity, one I sometimes still fight. But it was a combination of others and me fighting together.
Which brings us back to the question: How much are we responsible for others?
What about that person who is sitting where I was? What if you are facing a baros but aren’t sure how to proceed? Where does your responsibility end and mine begin?
If your backpack is overloaded, this isn’t a boulder. Perhaps a concerned friend could speak up and help you determine what to unpack, but ultimately this is a phortion that you need to handle.
What about the time I faced my dark place? In my mind, that was definitely a baros, and I definitely needed some help coming out of it. But that never placed the full responsibility on my family and friends. I needed to start by reaching out to others, to let them know how desperate I was.
We are all guilty of expecting people to read our minds from time to time, but I’ve noticed in particular that people in an overwhelming crisis shut down but still expect others to know they are needed. Not everyone does this, but many do. We have to accept responsibility for ourselves and speak up to others.
And I needed to know what others can do to be helpful. Sometimes, this is easier than others. But we also have to be willing to lay down our pride to accept the help that is offered.
For example, during my dark time, a friend and her daughter came to clean my house. She even asked what particularly bothered me, and they made sure in the limited time they had that they got that one thing done.
It was my responsibility to speak up, and her responsibility to follow through.
What about the others though? As I walked through those days, it was not quick process. How long were others supposed to be responsible for me?
This gets tricky. You see, I wanted my friends to check up on me, but this could easily have become dependent behavior which wouldn’t have truly been helpful. I would have been hurt the moment I wasn’t the focus of someone’s attention.
And God helped me to realize that even in my worst moments, I had to give them grace to live their own lives. After all, I was not their primary responsibility. That stung, but it was truth I needed to hear.
I further complicated things by not openly sharing with those I trusted where I really was. As one friend pointed out recently, I don’t usually show outward signs of stress, so almost no one knows when I’m ready to collapse or implode.
I also realized later that I could not expect them to only love me in the ways that I wanted them to, but in how God asked them to. I know that some who seemingly did very little, prayed a lot. And that was perhaps the most helpful thing, even though it didn’t seem like it at the time.
What do you think? How much are you responsible for others?
So where does that leave you? If God brought someone to mind as you read, what do you think is your responsibility toward them in this moment?