“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.”
~ Matthew 11:28-30
For years, when I thought about Jesus, I was pretty sure that he didn’t like me. What I heard when I read the Gospels was condemnation. “Woe to you, you hypocrites!… Woe to you, you whitewashed tombs!” (Matthew 23) “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven – for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7)
I did not count myself as the woman who was forgiven much. For an awfully long time, I called myself a Recovering Pharisee. In the early years of giving myself that moniker, it was mostly in hope. I didn’t want to be a Pharisee. But I knew I was one. And Jesus didn’t seem to have any love for the Pharisees.
I’ve always been a pretty “good” girl. So in any given story about Jesus, I always felt like I was the character who was not liked. Every negative or harsh thing that Jesus said felt like a barb toward me, while every positive thing was for people very much unlike me – those “sinners” whose sin was evident to all.
I intellectually agreed with the Gospel (in a nutshell, that God loves sinners and demonstrated it by sending Jesus to die in order to pay for our sin, and Jesus conquered death by his resurrection so we can live with him forever). But I had a very hard time believing it in my soul.
But I was in ministry, and evangelistic ministry at that. My job was to tell people how much God loved them! As you can imagine, I was exhausted, trying desperately to believe and live something that I couldn’t quite make myself believe, not deep down in the marrow of my bones. If Jesus couldn’t love me, then who possibly could??
After several years, I quit my ministry job (for many reasons, but exhaustion and burnout factored largely), and I took some time off. I had felt called to ministry since high school; it was the majority of my identity. What was I to do if I couldn’t do ministry? Who was I if I wasn’t someone in ministry, someone who made a difference in the world??
It was there, in that season that I had no job, no ministry, and no energy to do anything that God began to speak afresh these few verses from Matthew 11 to the depths of my heart.
I was exhausted, and he invited me in to rest.
I saw him as harsh, and he showed me gentleness.
I was in a dark place, and he lit the soft candlelight of his love.
I had been trying to shoulder the weight of saving the world all by myself, and he quietly pulled the yoke off my neck and put it on his own.
Everything I’d been trying to earn from him, everything I’d been trying to prove about how worthy I was to be loved – all was set gently aside. I came to him laboring and heavily laden. I could do nothing else.
And I realized that his harsh words that I’d always read as condemnation towards me were actually love. They were a love that said, “There’s more to this life than constantly trying to prove yourself. I already love you. Lay aside your pretensions and anxieties. Let me help you.” (Matthew 23 again; it was there all along.)
I came back to these verses in Matthew 11 over and over again in those months of unemployment, drinking deeply of the grace Jesus offered.
The season of forced rest became a saving grace to me. For a Pharisee to grasp the love of God, she must first be stripped of all the extraneous things that she held onto. In his love and grace, resting in His work (not my service to Him or my knowledge about Him), my grip has loosened on those Pharisaical tendencies to try to prove myself.
I began to open my hands to receive from Jesus – receiving love, grace, compassion, power to live the Christian life. I can honestly say today that I operate more and more from an overflow of grace. It has taken a long time. It has not been instant, and it has not been painless. It is not yet finished. But it has been freeing, like filling my lungs with fresh air.
Living under his yoke, I have a strange and deep assurance that He loves me whether I work in vocational ministry or not. My motivation to teach the Bible and mentor younger women is now more clearly the result of how He loves me. I couldn’t make myself believe He loved me, and I couldn’t conjure up the faith I longed for. I had to stop my striving and rest before it could sink in.
How odd that resting produced faith!