You probably know this verse: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30
What you might not know is that verse is really talking about religious burden. He’s talking to churched people. You see, all we ever hear is the first part, where Jesus wants to take our burdens, which is a great part of the verse. I think it’s fully within the character and nature of Jesus to say something like that and mean our struggles and our pain. BUT if you read the verses after that, using that context, you kind of want to scratch your head.
In the Jewish context of Jesus’s time, a yoke was often meant to symbolize your religious responsibilities to God. The Greek word for “burdened” here is also used in Luke 11:46, when Jesus is handing the Pharisees (religious leaders) their butts on a platter for “loading people down with burdens they can hardly carry”.
I grew up in the church. In fact, if you looked up “churched” in the dictionary, you would find a picture of me. I was there every Sunday (morning and night) , every Wednesday night, at every church camp, at every outreach, on the youth leadership team, leader of girl’s small group, faithful attender of Crazy Jesus Thursdays at my high school. I have countless prayer journals filled with pleading for my friends and family. I even had…Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul.
I tried very hard to be faithful. Do you see the operative word in that sentence? Tried. Somewhere along the line, probably a combination of my churchy upbringing and my own sense of personal responsibility, I had collected a list of what “Good Christians Do”. It included things like having a quiet time every day and praying for at least 20 minutes every morning. My past prayer journals are full of “I’m sorry for ignoring you, God”. The problem is that the apology is offered more like a kid who didn’t do his homework than a child who’s returning to the fold of their parents’ arms. Like I’m waiting for a slap on the wrist instead of a joyful hug.
Ya’ll, I was burdened. I was tired. I was weak.
So, in every sense of the word, I was overly-churched- shackled to a list of things that I have to do in order to convince myself that I’m good enough for God’s favor.
In my sophomore year of college, I had the chance to go to Syria. The missionaries that we were visiting there were member of a house church, so we went. It was like something clicked inside me. There were no bulletins or policies. There were no seminary requirements for speaking. There were no microphones, light shows, powerpoint slides. There was just Jesus.
When we got back to College Station, a few people from the trip started a house church. We talked alot about freedom- freedom from feeling obligated to do things to make God love you. In fact, our official house church shirts had “Don’t SHOULD on yourself” and “Friends don’t let friends SHOULD on themselves”. After years of feeling guilty if I didn’t __________, the shackles of obligation were loosened and I felt truly free for the first time.
I began tearing apart my views on what “church” and “faith” meant. I guess I could say I was deconstructing my faith but that sounds too polite. This was not a pleasant break-up. It was more like the institutional church was a cheating boyfriend and I was throwing all his stuff out into the street. I raged. I passed judgment. I scoffed. I was cynical. I shunned routine. I thought that all institutional churches were useless. I pitied the people that went there.
I know now that I was mourning the loss of what felt comfortable, what I had believed my whole life (and I stayed in the angry stage for quite a while). Before this revelation, I knew what I needed to do to “make God happy”. Give me a list of rules and I’ll follow them. Now, the rules had changed (really, there were only two important rules) and I was free-floating.
And I have been ever since, really. I saw any spiritual discipline or routine as The Man’s attempt to slap the shackles of obligation back on and so I’ve avoided it like the plague. Where I wrote in my prayer journal every day in high school and early college, I’ve now had the same journal for three years. That’s not to say that I haven’t prayed in 3 years or that God and I haven’t had moments of fantastic, passionate communication. It’s just that I’m so wary of anything that smacks of “just do this for this amount of time and God will be okay with you”. My deconstruction included associating routine with the yoke of spiritual obligation and I just haven’t been able to bring that particular item from the break-up back into my spiritual house.
I’m going to be honest. Finding a church home (like a church that has a website and a building and a Sunday morning service with music and a sermon) has been really good for me. For about 5 years, Alex and I bounced around to small groups, house churches, Bible studies, looking for fellowship. I still get frustrated and I still battle cynicism. My ever-patient pastor could probably tell you how strongly I resist any “programming” and passionately fight for anything that is organic and natural as opposed to scripted and rote. But God is using this church body to help me start to sort through all of the possessions that I tossed out into the front yard and pick which ones are still okay.
Lately, I’ve felt a stirring. A stirring in my brain that is hinting that maybe not all routine is bad. Maybe some structure would help me return to the Father more often. Maybe I could think of my relationship with God like my relationship with my husband. Alex and I schedule time together, but it’s not because we have to, it’s because we want to. When we have a date night on the calendar, I look forward to it. I love spending time with my husband, whether it’s spontaneous or scheduled.
Maybe Jesus isn’t lying when He says His yoke is easy and His burden is light.
Lord, I want to want You.
Full disclosure: I haven’t been at church the last couple of weeks because 1) I was super sick but also 2) I have wanted to try out some other churches and get a different perspective. We can definitely discuss the “why” next time we see each other.
However, the sermon I heard this past Sunday at Watermark kind of touched on what you talk about in this blog. Please check it out around the 8 minute mark:
Ooh, thanks for sharing, Phillip! I’ll definitely give it a listen.