Casting Burdens

Sisyphus, by Titian (oil on canvas, 1549; Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain). For his crimes, mythological King Sisyphus was consigned to move a boulder up a hill only to have it fall back to the bottom just before he reached the summit. Our well-intended attempts to carry the burdens of others can be equally futile and Sisyphean. In contrast Jesus Christ’s atonement has the power to carry these burdens and remove them once and for all.

One of the telltale attributes of God’s people is their willingness to bear one another’s burdens, to mourn with the mourning and comfort the distressed (Mosiah 18:8-9). Unfortunately it’s not an instantaneous transformation, but a process.  When this process of putting off the natural man is complete, we are able to love our neighbor as much as we love ourself. Jesus Christ was the perfect example of this love, and it is the challenge of all disciples of Christ to learn to love as He did.

Neurobiologists describe this phenomenon in part as empathy: understanding or sharing the feelings of others. But empathy is obviously not exclusive to Christians. We can see empathy in the god-fearing as well as the godless.  It’s roots are even traceable to the animal kingdom.* Across this broad backdrop, empathy is most easily seen between individuals where there is a close social bond, as with parent and child.

Consider the reality that some of the most difficult challenges in life are the problems that afflict those we love.  Too frequently, we drag ourselves into these problems because of our innate sense of empathy. In our haste to lighten the burdens of those we love, we are often tempted to take the burden on ourselves. Though our intentions are good, these attempts to have our loved one cast their burdens on us usually doesn’t solve the problem for very long.  When the burdens relate to issues of dependency or irresponsible choices, our interventions enable them and create codependency in us. Everyone loses. Taken to extremes, bearing another’s burden can actually make the burden heavier.

Things get even worse when we attempt to take on the burdens of others that are the consequence of sin. Though we are willing in many cases, we simply are not able. The atonement of Jesus Christ is a perfect example of how ownership of a problem is transferred from one person to Another.

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4-5)

Our burdens (or the burdens of those we love) are truly lightened as we cast them upon the Lord. In the case of sin, we give them away completely.

How Gentle God’s Commands

How gentle God’s commands!
How kind his precepts are!
Come, cast your burdens on the Lord
And trust his constant care.

Beneath his watchful eye,
His Saints securely dwell;
That hand which bears all nature up
Shall guard his children well.

Why should this anxious load
Press down your weary mind?
Haste to your Heav’nly Father’s throne
And sweet refreshment find.

His goodness stands approved,
Unchanged from day to day;
I’ll drop my burden at his feet
And bear a song away.

Lyrics: Philip Doddridge, 1702-1751
Music: Hans Georg Nägeli, 1773-1836; arr. by Lowell Mason, 1792-1872

Though we as disciples of Christ should be willing to bear the burdens of others, there are some burdens that only Christ can bear. As we bring others to Christ we empower them to cast off their burdens, and truly be freed from them once and for all.


*Examples include scientific studies about yawn contagion and an interesting Radiolab segment on empathic behaviors in chimpanzees.

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