The alternative to bearing one another’s burdens and restoring the brother or sister caught in transgression in a spirit of gentleness would be to distance yourself from them and look down on them; perhaps looking at someone who’s got themselves into a mess and saying: he’s made his bed, he can lie in it.
v3 explains why someone might think like that. It begins with the word “for”, indicating a connection with what came before. The reason you might avoid bearing other people’s burdens and restoring them in a spirit of gentleness is that you’ve deceived yourself into thinking that you’re something, when in fact you are nothing. v4-5 show us how to avoid that kind of self-deceit.
In v4 we’re each to test our own work against the law of Christ rather than other people.
Paul is targeting people who boast of being more religious than their neighbour, like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable in Luke 18v11: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men”. I’m sure none of us would boast out loud about being better than other people, but it’s very easy to slip into the trap of trying to gauge how well we’re doing in our Christian walk by comparing ourselves to other people. That’s what Paul wants the Galatians to stop doing.
It’s all too easy to find faults in other people and make ourselves feel good because we’re better than them, but that gives us a distorted image of ourselves. We think we’re something when we’re nothing. God doesn’t grade us on a curve. We need to test our own work against God’s law and then see whether we have reason to boast. It may be that Paul is being sarcastic here, because when we test our work against the law of Christ, we’ll see how far short we’ve fallen and clearly we won’t have any reason to boast in ourselves. But he could also be making a more positive point, because hopefully, when we test our work over a period of time, we will be able to see progress and growth in Christlikeness, which would give us good reason to be pleased with what we see in ourselves, although of course we would have to recognise that God gets all the glory for making us more like him.
v5 seems to conflict with v2. Are we to bear one another’s burdens, or will each have to bear his own load? Apparently there is good reason that the word used in v5, “load” has been translated differently to the word “burden” in v2. A “burden” is heavy weight that’s difficult to carry, while a “load” is a kind of backpack like a soldier would carry. While we are to help others with their burdens, we’re each responsible for our own load. Christians come from all kinds of backgrounds, and God gives us different sets of gifts and puts us in different situations. We each have our own load to carry, and they vary from person to person. We’re not to rate ourselves in comparison to how other people are doing with their loads and look for reason to boast that we’re doing better than our neighbour. Concentrate on testing your own work. What have you done with the load God’s given you to carry?
Alistair Begg links this with the parable of the talents in Matthew 25. If you have 5 talents, don’t compare yourself to the person who has 1 talent, God’s going to ask you what you’ve done with your 5. Likewise if you have 1 talent, don’t compare yourself to the person with 5, God’s going to ask what you’ve done with the 1 that he gave you.
See also Romans 14:10-12.