Sacred Spaces: On Differentiation and Discipleship

Some daydream about vacations in Italy or winning the lottery. I find myself daydreaming of being a librarian married to a plumber. Strange, I know.

My husband and I have been called to full-time vocational ministry, which means people and souls are the “sacred stuff” of our days. It is incredible and satisifying work, but often it leaves me romanticizing a simpler life involving working with mostly inanimate objects.

Souls are sacred, quivering stuff, which makes souls working with and interacting closely with other souls as a job a simultaneously scary and sacred calling.

As someone whose number one strength is responsibility and ownership, I have wrestled deeply in the past decade to learn the intricate dance between differentiation and discipleship, between two seemingly contradictory commands regarding interacting with others souls.

Bear one another’s burden and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. Galations 6:2.

But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his own neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load. Galatians 6:4-5. 

Paul is not afraid of paradoxes, as He is one who closely followed and sought to understand the King of Paradoxes, Jesus Christ. In one breath, Paul boldly declares to his friends in Galatia that they are to be intimately involved in one another’s lives to the point of helping to bear or carry burdens. The word he uses here, the Greek word baros, means a weight.

However, in the very next breath, Paul is quick to remind them of a complementary truth that can appear contradictory when read on a cursory level. Here, Paul uses the same verb meaning to bear or carry but a different object, the Greek word phortion, meaning a nontransferrable freight or cargo.

It’s as if he says, “Bear each other’s heavy weights; yet remember, each one of you must bear his own load. Love one another, be engaged and empathetic toward one another, but let that be balanced by the fact that each man and woman will be responsible before God for his or her own decisions and manner of life.”

I get the differnce between baros and phortion concept, but in reality, the lines often look very blurry and blended. When interacting with a beloved friend or disciple in real time and space, it is often hard to discern which struggles, burdens, decision and patterns are loads we are meant to come alongside and carry and which are nontransferrable cargo pieces that must be left alone for the responsible party to bear.

When we love people and do life with them, be they our spouse, our children, our coworkers or mentees, the lines between individuals get blurry.  The more intimate we are with people, the harder it is to remember to keep sacred space between us. But we must fight to do so, as there are spaces that only Christ is meant to go, burdens that only Christ is able to bear and healing that can only come from personal ownership of past, patterns, and personality.

When the burdens of those I love get heavy, when stories and patterns are shared, I often find my soul weighted down by burdens that are not mine to bear. I find myself fighting to find that pencil-thin line between differentiation and discipleship.

Weekly, often daily, I find myself having to literally draw out a helpful diagram I learned from Paul David Tripp’s helpful book, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands. I have to wrestle and wrangle my soul back into the circle of responsbility and push other weights into the circle of concern.


There are things for which I am responsible (my phortion) which include taking care of my soul, hearing from the Lord, speaking the truth in love, listening and praying. Then there are things that, while deeply concerning to me, are not my responsibility (their phortion). I can offer suggestions, I can pray, I can weep, and I can wait. But I cannot change a soul, open eyes, change patterns, force healing or conviction in those I love deeply.

The dance of differentiaion and discipleship is an elaborate one that I have not mastered (and never fully will in this lifetime). I don’t know much about ballroom dancing, but my years in cotillion (thanks, Southern culture, for keeping such a strange animal extant), I learned this much: dancers cannot violate each other’s space. The tension between the two dancers is what makes the dance so lovely. In much the same way, as we interact with other souls, we must remember to respect each other’s sacred spaces. We will mess up, we will step on toes and bump heads. When we do, we must reset and continue to learn the dance of discipleship and differentiation.





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