A few years back I had a front-row seat to an explosive, scandalous, public moral failure in the church. My dear friend had been asked to attempt to head off the catastrophe through counseling the people involved. Despite her wise words, they ran headlong into disaster, leaving an absolute mess for themselves and others to try to clean up. My friend was exhausted and grieved. Wanting to empathize, I told her I was sorry that she had to devote so much energy to cleaning up this folly.
I will never forget her response – though a simple explanation, it fell on me as a gentle and necessary rebuke.
My friend told me that this was what it meant to bear one another’s burdens. She said that sometimes bearing the burdens of others meant more than just walking beside someone through a trying circumstance – she said it also meant carrying the burden of their foolishness. It meant walking willingly into ground zero and sorting through the rubble of their lives piece by piece. It meant committing to swallow anger and bitterness while searching for a way to rebuild that which was destroyed.
I think of Nehemiah when I think of my friend. Nehemiah was a bearer of the burdens of others, just as she was – a person whose own life was characterized by righteousness and wisdom, interceding on behalf of fools and idolaters. Upon hearing of the unmitigated desolation of Jerusalem, Nehemiah broke down weeping, mourning and fasting for days, making confession for his people:
O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father's house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses.
I do not doubt that Nehemiah sinned. But Scripture indicates that he was a person of judgment and discernment. Rather than shake his head and wag his finger at the foolishness of his people, rather than gaze from afar with detachment and distaste on the evidence of their folly, he identified with them. He entered into their circumstance. He walked willingly into ground zero and began sorting through the rubble piece by piece.
Nehemiah was a sin-bearer. My friend was a sin-bearer. God calls all His people to be sin-bearers. We cannot bear the sin of others as Christ did – we cannot atone. But we can bear their sin to the One who did, with patience, empathy and prayer. We can cry out for the restoration that the foolish person may not yet be able to request. Surely we would want the same to be done for us on the day that we play the fool.
Until God’s kingdom is consummated, folly will live among the community of believers. Because they “ought to know better”, the stumbling children of God are sometimes the slowest to receive our aid. Is there a fool in your life? Has that person’s foolishness encumbered you? Think of He who bore your sins in His body. As Christ did for you, step into their ground zero and help sort through the rubble. Bear well their burden and so fulfill the law of Christ.