A Light Yoke Is A Heavy Cross

By Sara Mannen

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

(Matt 11:29-30)

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

(Matt. 16:24)

                                                                   

While commuting home from work, a truck drove past with a large decal of the Isaiah 40: 31, “They shall mount up with wings like eagles.” As I drove exhausted and worn down, I scoffed and smugly laughed at the idea of my strength being renewed by the Lord, “Then why am I so tired?” I felt deep shame that my initial, honest reaction to reading Scripture was to shake my head and laugh. The rest of my drive home was a discussion with the Lord, “Why am I so tired? Isn’t your yoke supposed to be easy? Don’t you give rest? What am I doing wrong?” I am not just talking about physical exhaustion. Restful is the farthest descriptor from my mind when thinking about my life. It seems that every day brings a new battle or problem despite my best efforts to plan and take care of my responsibilities. There is always one more thing to do. The unending flow of time is wearing me down.

If I am being honest, I feel overwhelmed, spent, and perpetually inadequate. This doesn’t sound like a life permeated by the faith, hope, and love of the gospel. During my conversation in the car, the Lord directed me to two seemingly contradicting verses in Matthew—one about an easy yoke and another about taking up my cross—leaving me with this question: Whose yoke are under and whose cross are you carrying?

The three parallel passages in the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus tells his disciples to take up their crosses and deny themselves all share the same context.[1] This admonishment from Christ comes after the following events: Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, Christ’s prediction of his death, burial, and resurrection, Peter’s rebuke of Jesus, and Jesus’ strong rebuke of Peter for hindering God’s plan. The story of the transfiguration immediately follows the call to deny oneself and follow Christ while taking up one’s cross. It is significant that Christ’s call to his disciples to deny themselves takes place immediately after Peter made clear that his idea of what it means to be the Christ, the Son the Living God, is divergent from God’s plan. Most likely Peter was working with the current messianic expectations of Judaism—the Messiah who would reestablish Israel and kick out the Romans. Jesus’ way does not fit with most people’s understanding of the Christ. The disciples were called to deny themselves, their expectations, families (Matthew 10:34—39), wealth, and their lives, in pursuit of Christ and his kingdom. The cross they are to carry is all that they must sacrifice and bear in following Christ. It is no mistake that Christ reveals his heavenly glory to James, John, and Peter after establishing discipleship as the willingness to forsake all for him.

What weighs down my life and leads to my fatigue is my constant desire to pursue growth and fulfill my God-given roles well. My thoughts constantly echo: You are never enough. You could do more. You should be more like Christ. The constant need to improve is fueled by my expectation of what sanctification through the Spirit in Christ should look like. Yet, my life reflects little of what I believe theologically. My first instinct is to equate this desire to grow, or if we are speaking theologically, for anagogic ascent, with bearing my cross. What I am pursuing is not Christ, but my vision of what Christ calls me to pursue—perfection. As Paul implores the Galatians, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”[2] My yoke doesn’t feel light because it isn’t Christ’s. It is a creation of my own misguided desires. I am not bearing a cross because I am still single-mindedly pursuing my expectations of discipleship.

One of the greatest pieces of wisdom I have gained from the Buddhist-Evangelical dialogues deals with this issue. The abbot of the Zen temple stated that those who frequently feel inadequate are not humble but prideful. The feelings of inadequacy are rooted in a belief that we are better than most people. I would say, we think we are slightly more than human. This strikes at the heart of the issue for me. I fail to recognize I am a creature of the Creator. Christopher Holmes summarizing Karl Barth’s theology of divine command and human agency states:

[E]thics thus understood begins with the simple recognition that the person (or community) with whom it is dealing is not someone thrown into the cosmos, but rather is a creature whose being is circumscribed by a God who will stop at nothing—even the death of his beloved Son—to ensure that the creature be freed and thereby sanctified to live as a creature, a creature who does not write her own story about herself but rather submits to the story that God in Christ has given her…[3]

I am a creature attempting to write my own story and it is exhausting. I must daily learn to submit to my loving Creator who writes my story. I need to carry my cross and willing sacrifice something as trivial as my expectations and desire for perfection. I still haven’t completely worked out the connection between bearing my cross and the yoke of the Lord. I suspect the yoke of the Lord will be easy and his burden light as I start to relinquish my pride and control allowing him to lead.

Sara Mannen spends her time caring for her two precocious daughters and husband while attending seminary and working.  Professionally, she has worked in banking for 17 years. Sara’s passion is for discipling and teaching the youth in her church where her love for teaching the Bible and theology are utilized. She graduated from Multnomah University where she majored in Bible and Theology and Youth Ministry, and from Multnomah Seminary, where she graduated with a Master of Arts in Theological Studies.

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[1] The three parallel passages are Matthew 16: 24, Mark 8:34, and Luke 9:23.

[2] Galatians 5:1. I know the yoke of slavery is submitting to the Law for righteousness, yet, this can apply to anything we place ourselves under in bondage.

[3] Christopher Holmes, “‘A Specific Form of Relationship’: On the Dogmatic Implications of Barth’s Account of Election and Commandment for His Theological Ethics,” in Trinity and Election in Contemporary Theology, edited by Michael T. Dempsey (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans, 2011), 191.