“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).
What? We are asked to carry another’s burdens? What about “Cast your burden on the Lord” (Ps. 55:22, NKJV)?1 Isn’t that the Lord’s business? Life has caused me to think about this. It moves me to tell a story and share four convictions. The story has taught me four spiritual principles. I have learned (1) that some of life’s heaviest burdens can be overlooked or hard to see; (2) that God can help us bear the heaviest of burdens; (3) that asking for help is part of burden bearing; (4) that bearing my own burdens prepares me to help God help others with theirs.
Every family has their story. Some are told, others tucked away in memory. This is Mel’s story, his and his family’s.
In the early 1980s, while on vacation with his family, Mel was terminated as head of the engineering department of the captive insurance company where he had been employed for 12 years. He had been with the company since its beginning, and his department had developed into a full staff of several engineers.
His removal happened after two things took place. First, a new company president called in an evaluation team to review the running of the insurance company. The evaluators decided that the fire protection engineering department was unneccesary, and recommended cutting the staff. Then an engineer whom Mel had hired proceeded to undermine him in his absence. He wanted Mel’s job. Mel had saved the man’s career years earlier when he should have been fired after having an accident with a company vehicle while driving drunk.
Mel returned from vacation to find that he was out of a job. This was when engineers were unable to find work throughout the country. Mel was in his mid-50s, which made it even harder. His wife was starting a business of her own, but that was still at its start-up phase, and not yet able to support the family and two children in boarding school.
Mel worked at several part-time jobs, doing mostly menial labor at almost minimum wage. He was out of a steady job for two and a half years. It drove him into depression, and as time went by, he became more desperate, feeling increasingly hopeless.
When he lost his job, he lost his company car. With the help of his wife, he was able to procure a car of his own. That car became part of a lamentable episode in his personal and family story.
One night he left home in his car accompanied by his rifle. He pulled up in front of the house of the engineer who had cost him his job. Mel figured it would be the appropriate place for his suicide. He pointed the rifle at his head, but the weapon misfired. Again he lifted the rifle to his head and pulled the trigger; again it misfired. After the second attempt Mel was so shaken that he headed home, stopping on a bridge to throw the rifle into the river.
When he got home, Mel sat on the edge of the bed next to his sleeping wife and wept. She awoke and asked, “What’s the matter?”
Mel’s story left his wife stunned. Lesson one: some of life’s heaviest burdens can be overlooked or hard to see. Mel’s wife had seen no warning signs of anything so desperate; she never recognized the symptoms of how deep his depression was. We do not always know who is burden bearing. The love that teaches us to overlook another‘s faults may do its worst for someone close to us. Mel’s wife never knew how much of a burden her beloved life companion was carrying.
We sometimes think that Adventists are not subject to such depression as to take their own lives. But Adventists, like others, are subject to human frailty. The emotional trauma caused by Mel’s depression and was indescribable.
The Sabbath after his suicide attempt it was Mel’s wife’s turn to play the organ at church. It was terrible. She couldn’t focus. Mel became unable to make meaningful decisions. Decision-making came to be her burden. Mel needed treatment for his depression. They all needed counseling for their new life situation and financial guidance going forward. Family affairs became topsy-turvy: economically and emotionally it was back to the beginning.
Mel and his wife had to start over. They put the house up for sale to avoid losing it completely; it took more than a year to sell and was practically given away. They rented a townhouse for about four years, then purchased a house where Mel’s wife could also have an office.
Their daughter, Melanie, urged Mel’s wife to talk to one of her church pastors. She made an appointment, and they met for lunch. That was a big help. Lessons two and three: God can help us bear the heaviest of our burdens. And asking for help is part of good burden bearing. Mel’s wife didn’t carry the burden alone. Her experience helped her prepare to carry on alone after Mel died. Sometimes a spouse has no idea what to do to carry on with life when their partner dies because they’ve never had to make their own decisions. God leads us along the way, and we can learn if we let Him teach us.
By the way, Mel’s wife, that’s me. Let me tell you another story as a coda to my own. It’s about a friend from church I’ll call Lester.
While Mel and I were going through our experience, Lester was going through his own trial. He had lost his job; then his wife left him. He became increasingly despondent. We saw what was happening; we recognized the signs and their direction. As we talked with Lester, he admitted that he had some tablets he could take if he felt that life was not worth living.
I begged him to throw the pills away. I advised him that when he got to the point of making that final decision he would not be able to think clearly. I urged him to call us anytime—day or night—if he felt despair.
Late one night the phone rang. It was Lester in tears, telling us that he felt life was not worth living. He was at the crashing point. We talked and prayed with him for several hours. We could not promise that in the morning everything would be better, but we did assure him that we understood what he was going through, and so did God, even though he felt far from God at that moment. I promised to call him in the morning. When I did, he was more composed. Just a few days later he was offered a job that later led to another job. In time he was vibrant and active again.
During his time of trial, Lester sang in the church choir. His fellow choristers gave him support, though they didn’t know all the details of his trial. He attended church fellowship dinners, though he wasn’t able to contribute. I encouraged him that when he was able again, he could bring extra to help out someone else to partake of our fellowship dinners. I knew from personal experience how important it is to have spiritual and social support in hours of dark distress.
Lester told me later that he knew he was a difficult person to deal with. Life’s prickly experiences sometimes expose the more difficult aspects of our nature. But our times of difficult behaviors and attitudes are when we most need help. Lester’s supporters and friends did not back away from him when he needed them most. Theirs was one more example of living the life of God in community, of fulfilling “the law of Christ” by helping God help His children to bear their burdens.
Life’s twists and turns may bewilder any of us sometimes. We do well to bear in mind, for our own sakes and for others’, that challenges and difficulties in life are not always the fault of our folly. God “is faithful and just and will forgive” our failures (1 John 1:9). But some challenges come because God is building our Christian spirit and character. Ellen White wrote: “Trials and obstacles are the Lord’s chosen methods of discipline and His appointed condition
s of success.”2 When His grace has brought us through a trial, that success can help us understand another’s similar experience, and we may help God help them bear their burden.
If you, or someone you know, is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Hotline, 800-273-8255, or visit SuicidePreventionLifeline.org.
Peggy Curtice Harris is a member of the Beltsville, Maryland, Seventh-day Adventist Church and a presenter of biblical hospitality seminars.