The True Fellowship of Burden Bearing
A few years ago, I was in a crosswalk when I was very nearly crushed between two cars. One vehicle had stopped in the crosswalk, and another sped rapidly toward it, the driver not paying attention. I was caught in between just as the speeding car neared. Instinctively, I jumped, lifting myself onto the parked car as the speeding car rammed into it. The impact threw me onto the pavement and into oncoming traffic. Fortunately, all drivers were able to stop.
The negligent driver leaped out and ran to me, shouting, “Are you okay?” A few steps away on the sidewalk, my wife, Kelly, was stunned. Thankfully, she hadn’t crossed with me. She sprinted toward me, shouting at the driver, “Of course he’s not okay; you almost killed him!” For an instant, I thought she might lift him up and stuff him back into his car.
I was somewhat in shock. Yet as I heard Kelly take up my cause, my head cleared. I thought, “Yeah, baby, you tell him!” I’m so thankful for my wife. She’s an amazing presence for anyone in their moment of crisis.
When you’re hurting or in trouble, it means everything to have someone stand beside you and take up your cause.
If Kelly hadn’t been there with me, my pain would have multiplied. In such a moment, any hurting person would feel alone among strangers, disoriented and fearful they won’t find help. That only makes their crisis worse.
This was driven home to me a few years earlier, when I received a call from a mother I knew well. Her voice was frantic, and I knew she was in trouble. I raced to her home, where I beheld her worst nightmare: Her teenage son had hanged himself. The boy had carried a deep pain within him, and yet no one ever knew. He left a note reading, “I am so lonely.” This young man was involved in church and played in his high school band. Nobody suspected the inner agony that had crushed his spirit day after day.
Without someone to walk with us and help us bear our suffering, our trials can be overwhelming. Every study reveals that young people increasingly feel isolated, fearful and rejected. This crisis isn’t just about youth, however; multitudes of adults live in silent despair.
The apostle Paul knew what it meant to suffer alone in a soul-crushing situation. He was shackled and imprisoned several times, often in horrific and inhumane conditions. At one point, Paul asked Timothy to bring him a cloak to keep him warm. At times, he may have relied on people to bring him food. I suspect that every day he spent in prison Paul was fraught with desperate need.
As awful as his situation was, his inner trials were even harder. His letter to the Philippians contains revelations of how alone he felt. Still, we know this man of great faith wasn’t easily dissuaded from his hope in Christ.
Paul wrote, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:3-5, ESV). The word for “thank” here has the same root as the word “eucharist.” This is the word we use for communion, the bread and wine that represent Christ’s body and blood. The first part “eu” means “well,” as in “deeply” or “fully.” The second part “charis” means “grace.” So, when Paul wrote, “I thank,” he was saying, “I express my gratitude for how much I have been given.” It’s telling that he expresses this gratitude in the context of fellowship.
How was Paul able to be thankful amid his excruciating trials? Simply put, his mindset wasn’t based on circumstances but on the life-giving grace God gave him. He testified that such grace welled up in him as he thought of God’s people. Later in the epistle, he thanked the Lord that the Philippians stepped forward to make a difference for him. Otherwise, he would have been all alone in his crushing trial.
“Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only” (Philippians 4:14-15).
The Christians in Philippi knew Paul was in trouble and hurting, and they wanted to bless him.
The Philippians had already helped Paul twice. “Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Philippians 4:16-18).
The gifts Paul mentioned were probably food. These were basic necessities, yet to Paul they felt like “a fragrant offering.” The Philippians’ kindness touched him so deeply that it stirred him to worship. “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me” (Philippians 4:10).
In every trial, God reserves for us an infilling of grace that gives us access to deep joy. This grace is meant to be poured out on our suffering so that we may endure it. Very often, the vessels
of such grace are the members of Christ’s body, such as the Philippians. Like them, we are to pour out his fragrant, gracious beauty on one another in times of need.
Paul was thankful for the Philippians’ acts of grace, yet he also wanted to reassure them that Jesus was faithful to meet his every need in all circumstances. “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Philippians 4:11-12).
What an incredible secret to learn, the ability to face both abundance and hunger with equal gratitude. That kind of peace isn’t obtained by walking into a Barnes & Noble and buying a self-help book. Paul spoke of something mysterious here. It’s a very specific grace that enables us to enjoy his abundance and share it with others and also to rejoice when we’re hurting, hungry and in need. Paul was stating with conviction, “If I’m thrown into prison, I can face it. If I’m starving, I can face it. Through Christ, I can find joy in my hardest times.”
The same is true for us. Paul told us this happens because Jesus sustains us supernaturally through his power. “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
Millions of Christians quote this verse daily with great faith, yet almost none of us know the verse that follows it.
Paul testified of two things here. “I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble” (Philippians 4:13-14, my emphasis). Yes, Jesus is faithful to us in our crises, and the kindness of God’s people also makes a huge difference. Indeed, God’s people are the body of Christ through him Christ’s faithfulness is experienced. Through both the Holy Spirit and the people of God, a loving presence touches our suffering with great comfort.
Paul went so far as to liken the Philippians’ kindness to a sacrificial offering that pleases the Lord. “I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Philippians 4:18).
Evidently, Epaphroditus pastored the church in Philippi. What a joy it must have been for Paul to see this godly man come to his prison cell. I picture Paul looking up from his shackles to behold a fellow minister bearing food, clothes and warm hands to clasp through the cold iron bars. Paul tearfully asks, “How is the young slave girl who came to faith?” and Epaphroditus answers, “She who was once demon-possessed now preaches the gospel in the streets.”
Paul’s heart would have been overjoyed by Epaphroditus’ presence. Yes, we need Jesus’ help to endure our hardest trials, yet he may choose to show up in the form of a humble sister or brother. As I once heard someone say, “Jesus comes to us with skin on.”
Sharing burdens is part of what Paul meant when he said the Philippians were his partners in the work of the gospel.
“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you…because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:4-5). The Greek word Paul used for “partnership” is koinos, meaning “to share.” He was saying in essence, “We share in this life together.” That clearly includes bearing each other’s sufferings as well as our Sunday-morning joys.
This is true for the church now more than ever. If the message we preach is to have power in a suffering world, it has to come from true koinonia fellowship where needs and burdens are shared. The literal body of Jesus Christ was broken so that people of all tribes, tongues and cultures might be brought into one spiritual body, drawing on abundant life.
Our fellowship doesn’t have to be perfect. It only has to be consistent in grace. Paul wrote, “It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace” (Philippians 1:7). He assured them, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). I love Paul’s confidence here. He was certain that Christ was faithful to complete his work of grace in the Philippians.
Every church has hurting Christians whose pain would be lessened if graced by “Jesus with skin on.” Can we say with assurance he is completing his work in us if we neglect our hurting brother or sister? Lord, may those who suffer among us behold the fullness of your good news through the comfort of your people joyfully delivering gifts. Show us the great need in your body that we may pour out your grace to each other. Amen.