As I read and reread the Gospels, it became more and more apparent to me that the Jesus I found there was extraordinarily simple. What's more, he invites us into a relationship of simplicity: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take 5my 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" (Matt. 11:28-30).
Jesus knew we would face the temptation to complicate our lives with religion. He knew we would be inclined to put limits and demands on ourselves that would slowly, subtly bring us to a breaking point. In fact, it was already happening even in Jesus' time.
Jesus was a rabbi, and as a teacher one of his primary responsibilities was to interpret the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) for his followers. The Torah is the holiest of Scriptures to the Jews, and included within it are the Ten Commandments as well as 613 additional laws about worship, cleanliness, marriage, nutrition, and every other aspect of Jewish life. Any given rabbi's interpretation of the Torah consisted of dozens of hedges, which were additional oral laws or rules designed to protect the Law (this includes the extra 613). A rabbi would have had thousands of little laws or hedges he taught as his interpretation of the Torah, his suggested way of living. This way of living was referred to as that rabbi's yoke, and every rabbi had a distinctive yoke.
When you consider this context, Jesus' call to "come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" takes on new significance. Jesus was addressing those burdened by the impossible weight of the religion of that day. Jewish law was immense in itself, yet the Hebrew people had to follow not only the biblical law but also the extraneous yoke of their rabbi of choice. Jesus invites his followers into a new way, a way to enter into his life. He promises us that he is gentle, 6humble in heart, and that we will find rest from the complexities of our hedged-up religions. Remarkably, the yoke Jesus offers doesn't add weight to our shoulders; it removes it. The rest we gain from following his way begins with taking his yoke on us—his way of life. He promises us that his yoke is different: it is easy and it is light.
Jesus invites us who are weary and burdened by religion to take his yoke upon us. He understood that the religion of the Pharisees left the people miserable. Any parameters we place on our relationship with Jesus, anything that becomes "law" in our lives, is religion. For example, having a daily time with God is a common practice and discipline for those who follow Jesus. It is a good thing. It allows us to refocus and re-center our lives on Jesus. When I spend regular time with Jesus—reading his word, listening to him, capturing my thoughts about him (journaling), and talking to him—I experience his intimacy. If I am to follow him, I have to have theses times of closeness. However, if our lives become more about our daily routine, something we check off (I've done my quiet time or had my daily appointment with God), then the Jesus we encounter during that special time becomes a law that we hedge ourselves in. When this happens, our relationship with him becomes more about religious activity we have to do in order to be right or accepted.
To be really honest with you, I have discovered the more disciplined, compartmentalized, and rigid I have become with my early morning 7quiet time, the less I experience Jesus in my daily walk. As a pastor I often move from task list to task list, checking off each religious activity with zeal. It becomes more about the doing and less about the being.
On the other hand, it is a beautiful thing when I get in rhythm with Jesus. Often I wake up early in the morning and I feel his closeness and it draws me into worship. I find myself sitting before him, reflecting on his goodness, reading his gospel, journaling my thoughts, confessing my sin, praying for a friend, having my heart filled with his love and expanded for others. Other times I get up and I feel his gentle nudge to begin writing about his thoughts that he has placed in my heart sometime and somehow during my sleep. There are other times I hear him tell me to sit near my wife as she prepares for her day and serve as a conduit of his love for her. Regular time is important with God, but it's not the end, only the beginning. When my relationship is less rigid and more spontaneous, it is not unusual for him to interrupt my day with his closeness and his agenda. Recently in our regular weekly meeting with a friend, God spoke to us, inviting us into a time of prayer that quickly turned into worship. It was so humbling and renewing.
You can see how it doesn't take long for religion to take a downward turn. It quickly becomes about something we do or don't do in order to meet the expectations or approval of God and others. It can consist of rituals, practices, or even spiritual disciplines that we begin to substitute for our relationship with Jesus. It could be a certain way of praying, attending the right church, giving an amount 8of money to a charitable cause, ascribing to a set of doctrines, or serving to such an extent that the action begins to overtake the intent. All of these things can be good, but they can also become a substitute for an intimate relationship with God. When this happens, we become religious. And when we become religious, our lives become complicated.
Religion can also be defined by the things we don't do. I grew up in the South, where we lived by the mantra, "Don't smoke, drink, curse, chew, or dance with girls that do." You probably had similar restrictions on your adolescence, and you may have even carried them into adulthood. These, too, are the markings of a religious life. We become so concerned with not doing the wrong thing that we ignore our subtle wandering into pride, greed, jealousy, and other less overt offenses. We become defined by what we are against instead of what we are for or, more importantly, whom we are for.
It's no wonder we're tired. We forbid ourselves from doing one thing, while requiring ourselves to do others—all superfluously. I began to understand this when I realized that my entire life was tired. My thoughts, my relationships, my schedule, my marriage, my habits, my job, and even my free time had become tired. I had placed so many laws on myself, so much religion, that I became unable to function normally. Think of an animal: When a horse has too heavy a load on its back, it's unable to walk even the straightest, easiest trail because it can't manage its load. This is what I had done to myself. This is what we have all done to ourselves.
We can't blame ourselves entirely though. These yokes of religion are being laid upon us constantly by a variety of sources. We may live this way because it's all we know, but it's possible that someone or some group of people gave us this yoke. A church or pastor may have placed this load on your shoulders, directly or indirectly, intentionally or inadvertently. Chances are someone communicated that in order to be right, to be fulfilled, to have purpose, to be accepted, or to get God's approval, you had to live up to a standard, probably a very high one. And a wall has been built around you, with row after row of laws and hedges and more laws and more hedges, such that you are unable to see over it anymore, to see into the quiet, beautiful simplicity of Jesus and his ways.
Whether you built your own hedge or it was given to you, the truth is that we can never do enough to get God's approval, and we can certainly never do enough to meet everyone else's approval. What great news that God accepts us just as we are and invites us into a relationship based on his love and his love alone!