Recently I have been coming upon articles and books which speak of burdensomeness. It’s not a concept we like to hear. One frequently hears the view expressed among the infirm elderly “I don’t want to be a burden to anybody”. It is difficult for us to admit that we need help. We don’t want to be a bother to others.
We live in a world that is enamored with power and strength. With the evolutionary model of the survival of the fittest before our eyes, we hesitate to admit weakness, believing that it shows us in a bad light. Our society is glamorized by self independence, evidenced by all of the self-help manuals on the market. We are programmed by our society to avoid being dependent on others. Unfortunately, holding this attitude has had a devastating effect on the family and the church. It makes us afraid to admit our own weaknesses. Deep inside our hearts we know we have them. Since no one talks about them, it becomes very easy to think that we alone have such problems. This leads to discouragement, and can even lead us away from faith.
But in both church and family, weakness is essential if we are to live in community. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book Life Together says that “not only do the weak need the strong, but also that the strong cannot exist without the weak”. He further adds that it is only the weak that prevent the death of a fellowship. The Anglican theologian and pastor, John Stott, near the end of his long life wrote in his book The Radical Disciple that dependence is one of the most neglected areas of discipleship, concluding that “we are all designed to be a burden to others”. In his mid eighties, while preparing for a sermon he was to preach, he fell, breaking a hip. Lying there, unable to move, he was totally dependent on others. As he reflected on this event a couple of years later, he concluded that total dependence is a place where radical disciples need to be from time to time. The film Driving Miss Daisy focuses on the tension between dependence and independence. At its beginning, fiercely independent Miss Daisy refuses to accept any help, not wanting to be dependent on anyone. By the end of the movie, ninety-seven year old Miss Daisy graciously accepts being fed by her former chauffer.
Gilbert Meilaender goes so far as to claim that “Is this not in large measure what it means to belong to a family: to burden each other – and to find, almost miraculously, that others are willing, even happy, to carry such burdens?” He adds that when we reject this, we cease to live in a moral community which deserves to be called family. God has designed the life of the family, both our nuclear and church families, to be one of “mutual burdensomeness”. We are to carry each other’s burdens. The nuclear family which refuses to accept this role will cease to function as a family. Likewise, the church which refuses to bear each others burdens will cease to function as the church was created to be.
Mutual sharing of burdens allows us to care for each other. It also gives life giving freedom to those who are suffering, enabling them to in turn care for others. We have two questions before us that we must answer. Are we willing to carry another’s burden? Are we also willing to be a burden to others? The answers may tell us a lot about our faith.