So, this past Sunday we heard some of Christ’s words from Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is giving advice as he describes the life of discipleship: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 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. 11:28-30). For me, Christ promises us some sort of relief in this passage. I think, in part, it has to do with the relief from wrongful priorities. Relief from pointless ambitions that the world has taught us to seek but that leave us emptier in the end than when we started. Am I well-known enough? we ask. Rich enough? More talented than others at least in some respects? Because if I don’t have some special talent to offer than what is my value anyway? Moreover, Christ offers us relief from that which has burdened us in terms of our own character. Relief from the pride, the jealousies, the wrath, the bitterness and all other sorts of moral maladies that so often work to destroy us and our dearest relationships. Relief from trying to define and defend our worth in terms of our own abilities or productivity as compared with our neighbors. Relief from the anxiety and the worry that so often plagues us about the future. Relief from the hunger for power. Relief from the fear of death.
And yet, Christ also says, “Take up your cross.” And that doesn’t sound like a relief. That sounds like a hard endeavor. We know what Jesus’ cross looked like. Painful and frightening. How painful or frightening might our own cross be? The theologian CS Lewis had some insight in his book Mere Christianity that I’ve personally found helpful:
The Christian way is different: harder, and easier. Christ says “Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.” …The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self—all your wishes and precautions—to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call ‘ourselves’, to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be ‘good’. We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way—centered on money or pleasure or ambition—and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do. As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs. If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and re-sown.