Embodying Jesus’ way isn’t easy. Compassion, justice and faithfulness require work. You get tired because you bring a meal to a new mom, house a family in need, and give a listening ear to a hurting friend late into the night. You’re crushed because the state sends your foster child back to a neglectful mom. Or you struggle financially because you refuse to make money off of uneducated consumers and underpaid workers.
On nights you can’t hold it all together, you rant. You stare. You question and cry “mercy!” Then a well-intentioned friend says: trust God and things will get better. Jesus promised to give you rest. What do you do with that?
Maybe you hit your friend in the face. Or maybe you hold yourself back and nod like that statement somehow helped you. Or maybe you feel worse because you don’t expect things to get restful so you feel like you’re failing to have faith.
Should you believe God will make everything better?
You might be thinking: Jesus said, “Come to me all who are tired and burdened, and I will give you rest. … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” That sounds a lot like relief from all our troubles, right? I’m glad you brought that up. Or at least I hope you’re glad I brought that up.
When Jesus talks about giving you “rest” from a heavy “yoke,” he is adapting language Rabbis used to refer to “extra rules” they added to the Law. The “yoke” of a Rabbi consisted of all the extra instructions for life created from one’s interpretation and application of the Hebrew Scriptures. The “burden” is a metaphor for hundreds of “dos and don’ts” Rabbis required people to follow.
Rabbis in Jesus’ day told people how far to walk on the Sabbath, when God would and would not accept them at the Temple, where to spit, whether to carry half a fig or a whole fig, when to cover your donkey on the weekend, etc. Jesus doesn’t do that. He doesn’t add thousands of microscopic rules to oppress you. He keeps it simple. He tells you to “love your neighbor.” He also tells you to “deny yourself.” But he doesn’t tell you, “I’m here to solve your problems and give you an easy life.”
Remember what Jesus said to one of his disciples who told him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus warned him: “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus was making a point. This “following him” stuff is not easy.
It’s Not What They Told You
I’m not saying Jesus doesn’t want you to be blessed. But his idea of being blessed isn’t a more comfortable, pain-free life. Jesus says, “Blessed are you when men hate you and ostracize you and insult you and scorn your name as evil for my sake” (Luke 6:22). That doesn’t sound like a blessing I’d want. It doesn’t sound like the protection and favor people falsely promise that God provides. That’s because it’s not. Jesus’ way endures pain and problems. It doesn’t avoid all of them.
Jesus’ way only makes sense with the bigger picture in mind. Endurance through difficult circumstances builds character and leaves a counter-cultural witness. It serves a purpose. The idea that God wants to navigate you away from problems is a disappointing cultural myth. That myth hangs around too many discussions about Jesus’ desire for your life. That myth excuses a growing industry of Christian comforts promising spiritual renewal and growth in a vacation context that defies the path Jesus blazed. Don’t buy it.
I wrote this reminder because I just heard another pastor use Matthew 11:28-30 to assure us Jesus will make everything all right. It’s not true. And if you put your hope in a false promise, you will be disappointed in a false god.
Hebrews points out: “Jesus learned obedience through suffering.” That is the example to follow. Character is formed in the fire of difficult times. Jesus exemplified a love that led to sacrifice and pain and all sorts of personal problems. He invites and even commands us to take the same approach. His call to “take up your cross and follow” is not a pathway to relaxation and serenity; it’s a pathway to changing the world.
The good news is we don’t have a long list of rules to worry about all day and twice on Sunday. In that sense Jesus’ way isn’t burdensome. But we also don’t have one giant promise from God to make life easy whenever it feels hard. So the next time you’re tired, crushed or struggling, don’t listen to anyone quoting Matthew 11:28-30 to tell you it’s about to get easier. Embrace the way of Jesus.