Even when I was a boy, Jesus’ claim that his yoke was somehow easy and light mystified me. Had he not warned of heavy, even severe, costs for following him? In Bonhoeffer’s unforgettable words, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” What’s easy about that?
I landed my first paid political campaign job shortly after college. After months of envelope-stuffing and minor editing roles, I was thrilled by my candidate’s offer: “Want to fly with me to attend a fundraiser for a candidate I’m trying to help down south?” Boy, did I ever.
Riding in a private plane on “business” made me feel grown up, like a real political operative. Once we arrived, I was charged with seeking out any reporters who might want to do an interview with my candidate. Again, my buttons were bursting with big-boy pride. Once I’d done my job connecting with the handful of media outlets on site, however, my enthusiasm began to flag. Looking around, I realized I didn’t know a soul.
Blooming pride wilted toward insecurity. I enjoy people, but hate efforts to manufacture conversation. I must have gone through the food line a dozen times to keep from standing in one place, alone. Making matters worse, I’d been told often how important it is in politics to “make contacts.” Each moment that ticked by was a wasted opportunity to network. I kept wondering, too, what the well-heeled folks around me thought of this gangly, apparently friendless 23 year old. By the time we boarded the plane to return, my shoulders, head, and gut all hurt from the tension I’d felt all night.
A year earlier, I’d watched an ox at work in rural Bangladesh. A hand-hewn beam straddled his sinewy shoulders, bound in place by a thick harness that connected beneath his chest. Two leather straps linked the beam to a multi-bladed plough behind him, guided through the field by a farmer in turban and loin cloth. During turns at the edge of the field, the plough rose to the surface of the soil and the ox moved easily. But as he turned back into the planting area, the farmer climbed atop the plough and forced it down into the crusted earth again. The ox faltered as he strained forward, the yoke biting deeply into his steaming shoulders.
That’s a bit what I felt like that night at the political fundraiser. To be honest, it is what I feel like every time I strap on the yoke of reputation, image, and connection-making.
Implicit in Christ’s description of his yoke is the assumption that we will bear a yoke. What’s at question is whose: his or the world’s?
I sometimes think of that Bangladeshi ox as I read tabloid headlines in the checkout line. Imagine being a rising Hollywood starlet: young, slim, and striking, thirsty for fame. But even as you reach your zenith, however high it may be, you find you’re in continual danger of being displaced by younger, slimmer, and more striking. You envy those who still seem above you, and you disdain and fear those below. The wrinkles under your eyes this morning are the worst they’ve ever been, and they remind that you’re also now the best you’ll ever be. Botox and digital enhancements will only delay the loss of everything you hold most dear.
Of course, this dread load isn’t borne by Hollywood stars alone. Whichever of the world’s many yokes we may choose, the weight is much the same. It is carried by the sharp-suited businessman eager for wealth; the pastor hungry to grow the size of his church and influence; the Ivy League professor who exults in praise received for her recent tenure, yet knows she only has so long to publish again before perishing; the homemaker continually comparing herself with other moms; the fabulously fit fifty year old whose identity is founded on triathlons.
Bernard of Clairvaux put it well nearly a thousand years ago. The hunger for affluence and other worldly aspirations “brings far more torment to the soul than their enjoyment brings refreshment.” Whether wealth or beauty, accomplishment or accolades, fame or respect, their “acquisition . . . is found to be all labour, their possession all fear, and their loss all sorrow.”
As much as I know this to be true, I find it so easy to strap on the world’s yoke yet again. For me, the yoke of choice has always centred on the desire to be respected. Although perhaps a perfectly fine objective in its proper place, wanting to be admired can so quickly grow into a weight that bites down into my shoulders. It can turn a moment of appropriate celebration into puffed-up pride, or a small setback into insecurity. It can remake God-honouring work into a self-centred and onerous burden.
Leading a nonprofit as I do now, the financial future of both the organization and my family rarely feels entirely secure. I’m not a particularly anxious person, but at times, worry over how I’ll raise needed funds consumed me. I’d pray fervently that God would provide, and I tried mightily to talk myself into trusting Him for provision.
With some surprise, however, it struck me that funding may not be the main issue after all. The deepest source of my worry was not anxiety that the organization would disappear or my family would starve. Almost certainly, neither would happen, even if the bank account hit zero. What was amplifying my legitimate concerns about financial viability was fear that if money ran out, I wouldn’t be seen as a capable leader. I’d not be admired or respected. They’d say, He’s a good guy, but didn’t have what it takes to make it work. As I pondered this, I began to see the real yoke I was straining under: reputation, image, respect. Not all that different from the night at the political fundraiser. It’s a heavy yoke.
Seeing this, my prayers have shifted slightly. I still ask for financial provision. But just as much, I pray God will help me shove off the yoke of reputation and exchange it for Christ’s yoke. Regarding the money, He may provide all I ask and even more. Or, He may desire to refine the organization’s vision or teach me humility or give a hundred other good gifts through the mysterious blessing of lack. Regardless, to the extent that I take on His yoke—simply seeking to faithfully serve Him and lead well, regardless of outcome—the burden has grown remarkably lighter.
For Christ’s yoke is utterly different than the world’s. Yes, it costs much. We must give up the well-worn yoke we have been carrying and all its false promises. But this very choice is what yields the lightness. It simplifies and unburdens. The ever-shifting demands of selfishness give way to a singular focus on serving Christ in others. The endlessly snarling-and-purring voices we hear when we listen for the world’s assessment of us fade to the singular sound of God’s “well done.” The tension of identifying good contacts and making the right impression at a conference or party is traded for a simple prayer that we’ll bring good to the people God puts in our path. The burden of protecting what we have becomes the freedom of open-handedness. The load of wondering what everyone else thinks drops off and is replaced by the light yoke of self-forgetfulness.
Perhaps this is why T.S. Eliot described our faith as “a condition of complete simplicity (costing not less than everything).” Of course, each of us must decide if “everything” is too heavy a cost. Having alternated between Christ’s yoke and the world’s for much of my life, though, I feel certain about my answer.
The world’s yoke may slip on like a feathery cape, but it soon bears down with crushing weight. Christ’s yoke, in contrast, is formed in the troubling shape of an old, burly cross. To take it costs everything we’d previously been carrying. Yet it ultimately proves light indeed: like exiting finals into the first day of summer; like shedding a heavy backpack at the end of a twenty-mile trek; like an ox turned out to pasture after a long day at the plough.