On the surface, these two statements of the apostle Paul – only a few words from each other – certainly seem contradictory, but are they?
First, we should recognize that ancient literature often compares and contrasts opposite situations – just as in the biblical proverbs that say “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him” (Proverbs 26:4) and “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 26:5). The two thoughts are complementary, each giving part of the story. Paul frequently uses this same technique of contrasting opposites in his epistles (for example, Philippians 2:12-13, 2 Corinthians 6:8-10, 2 Corinthians 7:10, 2 Corinthians 12:10), and what Paul states in Galatians 6 is complementary in the same way.
When Paul tells us we should carry each other’s burdens then that we must carry our own loads, he uses two slightly different words. The first word, translated “burdens” in verse 2 (Greek baré), always connotes the weight of the burdens and stresses the “burdensome” nature of what is carried. The word translated “load” in verse 5 (phortion) was often applied to the pack carried by a soldier on the march. It can connote something heavy or light, whatever has been assigned to the individual. It is the word Christ used when he said “My yoke is easy, and my load is light” (Matthew 11:30) and when he spoke of the heavy loads the Pharisees placed on their followers (Matthew 23:4).
We see what Paul had in mind regarding the load each one must carry when we look at the immediately preceding verse: “Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else” (Galatians 6:4). Paul shows here that rather than comparing ourselves unwisely with others, we should look at our own situations and “test” or check our own standing, because we all stand alone before God in terms of His assessment. Paul is stressing – as he states next – that each person has individual responsibilities that no one else can carry. We must prove own standing before God, as no one can perform our religion or fulfill our beliefs for us. That is the “pack” assigned to us for our march. On the other hand, life has many difficulties and problems that weigh us down, and Paul reminds us that these are burdens we can help each other with.
So, Paul’s meaning is clear. We are all given the responsibilities of our faith to bear in life and these are things we must shoulder and bear willingly as good soldiers on the route march to which we have been called. Yet, if we are walking with God and not entirely by our own strength, as Christ showed, those loads need not be oppressive or heavy. On the other hand, every one of us carries the weight of personal problems and difficulties which are just part of life. We can certainly look to God for extra help in times when those burdens become oppressive – and one of the ways He answers that prayer is through help given us by fellow believers.
We all have a burden we are expected to carry, but the more closely we walk with God the lighter it seems – and the more we are able to help those who need help with their own burdens.