Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Loaves and the Fishes

“And they all ate and were satisfied” (Mt 15:37).

Matthew 15:32-39 is a story beloved by many. Having been with the crowd for three days, Jesus has compassion on them because they have had nothing to eat. Not wanting them to faint on the way home, Jesus calls His disciples to Him, and they balk at the idea of somehow feeding these thousands of people in the desert. Rather than being put-off by their no-can-do attitude, Jesus asks them to bring what little food they have. After giving thanks for the seven loaves and a few small fish, Jesus breaks them, gives them to the disciples, and has them distribute the pieces to the crowd. They all eat and are satisfied, and seven basketfuls are taken up of what remains. Having fed them, Jesus sends the crowd on their way and continues His journey with the disciples.

This story has always fascinated me. I wonder to myself, What made Jesus worry about people being hungry after three days? Surely, not having food must have been an ongoing problem, so why is Jesus only mentioning it now? While the text might intend the three days to be a symbolic mirror of Jesus’ three days between death and resurrection, and the breaking of the loaves and fish to foreshadow the Last Supper and the breaking of His Body and Blood, it has just never seemed obvious to me.

I think of the three days in the desert with no food and I think, Wow, you must really have wanted to be with Jesus. You stuck it out the whole time He was there, and you probably would have stuck it out indefinitely. I don’t know if I would have had that kind of stamina.

A good part of our faith life is spent sticking it out with Jesus. Long periods in the desert, in dryness, without any nourishment. Long periods of life are spent just hanging on, just keeping on going. Jesus was doing some miraculous stuff in that desert, but not for everyone. Of all the thousands of people who came for miracles, who brought people for miracles, who came to see miracles, there was no one who couldn’t have had their fill in the first hour, the first minute, the first day. “Well, I’ve seen a miracle;” “I’m cured now, bye.” But the crowd stayed for three days, and left because Jesus sent them away.

The really amazing part is that Jesus notices you’re there, hanging around, for all this time. His days are taken up with healing people, making the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, and countless other miracles. Jesus is incredibly busy doing really important stuff. But He still notices the crowd, He still notices that people have been there this whole time, He still notices that they must be hungry because they’ve brought no food. In the midst of all that God is and all that God is doing, God sees that we’re sticking it out. Even if all we’re doing is hanging on, God sees it. Sometimes it’s all you can do, and Jesus knows that. Jesus notices. Whatever is it that’s going on in our lives, it is not beneath God to care about it.

“And they all ate and were satisfied.”

It’s impossible to not see the miracle that Jesus performs in this story. Even if you believe there are many other, scientific reasons that the blind may have started seeing, the lame walking, and the deaf hearing, there’s no other way the loaves and the fish could have multiplied other than that God did it.

Jesus has to coax it out of the disciples. At first, they don’t believe He’s even suggesting feeding all these people. Jesus has to ask them how much food they have with them for the disciples to bring it forward. This is their second multiplying-of-the food miracle (Mt 14:13-21), and they still don’t see it coming. Finally they bring Him what little they have, and Jesus gives thanks and uses it to feed thousands of people.

God takes our small, humble, human gifts and in His power makes them bigger than they ever could be. There’s nothing you could ever bring to God that’s too small for Him to work miracles with. God can make even the smallest of things be enough. And not just enough, but abundant. Jesus feeds the crowd and there are basketfuls of excess. Basketfuls. God’s love is so powerful, God’s power is so abundant, that He gives us more than we could ever need.

It’s easy to feel like you don’t have anything worth giving to God. It’s easy to feel that you are small, and insignificant, like grass that withers away and is thrown into the furnace. What is a human life to God? What could you ever hope to have, or be, that is worthy of giving Him? Everyone has moments when they believe that, and if you struggle with depression you just have more of them. What do I have, what am I, that I could possibly offer God?

Nothing, and everything. You are already God’s, so you have nothing to give Him. But you can give Him your whole self, even the not-so-fantastic bits, because you have yourself to give the One to Whom you belong: that’s what love does. Before God’s awesome power and love, of course you feel small and worthless – but God made you for His purposes and delights in you, for you are fearfully and wonderfully made. Of course you feel that what you have to give God isn’t enough – but God will make it enough. By ourselves, we are small and of little account – but just because God limits Godself does not mean that God is limited. In God, we are made so much more that we could ever hope or ask or imagine.

“And they all ate and were satisfied.”

In Matthew’s story, the crowd doesn’t have to do anything to receive Jesus’ miracle of the loaves and the fish. They just have to be there. In fact, they are there already to receive something freely from Jesus because they are there to witness or receive miracles. They have come to watch the lame walking and to walk; the blind seeing and to see; the deaf hearing and to hear. Jesus gives them this miracle not because of anything they’ve done for him, but simply because they are hungry and He wants them not to be.

So often we think of miracles as the result of prayer, or of faith, or of something we’ve done to be worthy of God’s favor. “God healed me because I have so much faith;” “God gave me a vision because my contemplative prayer life is so regular;” “I saw Mary’s face on a piece of toast because I am so virtuous.” But that isn’t necessarily true. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus gives the crowd a miracle because he feels like it – not because they asked Him, not because they convinced Him, and not because they did anything for Him either before or in return.

Obviously these people had faith: they were out in the desert for three days. But the miracle is not dependant on their faith, it’s dependant on Jesus. The English translation of the text says that he “[had] compassion on the crowd” (15:32). When we talk about compassion we don’t just mean that God understands or knows what you are feeling, but that God is feeling it too. I had a conversation recently where someone much wiser than I am suggested that God feels what you are feeling, that God feels sad when you feel sad, that God feels happy when you feel happy, that God feels betrayed when you feel betrayed. I’ve always believed – always known somewhere deep inside me, even when the darkness has swallowed me whole – that God is with me, that God is beside me, that I am not alone. But I’ve never thought about God feeling what I’m feeling while He’s down there with me. It’s difficult to get my head around it. That God’s compassion doesn’t just mean He feels bad for us and wants to help us, but that He feels bad. In the desert, Jesus fed the crowd because Jesus was hungry.

“And they all ate and were satisfied.”

This doesn’t mean that we should sit complacently by the wayside waiting for a miracle whenever God feels like giving us one. Jesus actively involves the disciples: He could have handed out the loaves and fish Himself, the fruits of His miracle, but instead He has the disciples do it. The disciples don’t even think it’s possible for Jesus to feed the crowd, they cannot conceived of it, and yet God calls on them to be a part of His plan, a part of His miracle. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we know that there are times – perhaps many times – in our lives where God speaks to us or asks us to do something or tries to give us a message and we just completely fail to get it. We don’t hear it. We don’t understand it. And when we do hear it, it can be confusing and seem impossible. But we are called to hand out the loaves and the fishes, to use our small gifts for God, regardless of what we might think about it. We might think we’re too small, but we have to have faith that God will make us be enough.

The crowd trusts that Jesus will take care of them, without hesitation and without fear. There is never any question. No one even brought any food. They went out into the desert to be with Jesus and didn’t think about the practicalities of it, what they might need to do to plan, or how long they might be out there. They were willing to trust that it would work itself out, somehow. We are called to that kind of faith, that kind of trust. Trusting God completely, enough to let go, enough to follow Him out into the desert, is its own miracle. When I pray for a miracle, and God says no, not today, I have to trust that God has a plan, that He knows what He’s doing, that He will take care of me, that I am not forgotten even in the midst of all the big works that He is doing. For we are small and of little account, and we are also infinitely precious in the sight of the Lord.

The crowd that comes to see Jesus is with Him for three days before He feeds them. Sometimes, you have to wait for a miracle, to be patient. You have to be willing to stick it out, to hang around, to keep going. Jesus is sticking by you and you have to stick by Him, even when it’s difficult, especially when it’s difficult. God will provide, but it will be in God’s own way and in God’s own time. God will provide, and do so abundantly.

“And they all ate and were satisfied.”

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Strength of My Hands

For they all wanted to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will drop from their work, and it will not be done.” But now, O God, strengthen thou my hands” (Neh 6:9).

The book of Nehemiah begins with the speaker discovering that the wall around Jerusalem has been “broken down, and its gates [destroyed] by fire” (1:3). As cupbearer to king Artaxerxes, Nehemiah does not live in Jerusalem with those who survived the exile and returned, but he still feels a deep connection to the hoy city: learning its wall has fallen, he sits down and weeps (1:4). Nehemiah asks God to forgive His people for their sins against Him, and comes to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall (1:4-11). He inspects it without telling anyone what he intends, then convinces the people to “[strengthen] their hands” (2:18) and begin to rebuild, so Jerusalem may no longer live in disgrace.

The people of the Nations surrounding Israel don’t like Nehemiah rebuilding the wall. They mock and deride the Israelites for building it, asking if they are defying the king (2:19). Still, they keep building the wall. Their enemies plot to fight them (4:8), and Nehemiah sets a guard on the wall, and they keep building. Their enemies plot to kill them in the middle of their work (4:11), and Nehemiah places people in every space, one person to build and another to defend. He reminds them not to be afraid of their enemies but to remember “the Lord, who is great and terrible” (4:14). They keep building the wall. The people who carry burdens have the load in one hand and a sword in the other (4:17), and they keep building the wall. They labour at their work and sleep with weapons in their hands, retreating into the city at night (4:21-23).

When the wall is built, with no doors yet in its gates, Jerusalem’s enemies try to trick Nehemiah into leaving the city to meet them, so they can kill him (6:1-2). He refuses to stop the work and leave. His enemies accuse him of wanting to be king, thinking that he will be frightened of Persia’s reprisals (6:6-9). People try to fool Nehemiah into closing himself in the temple, thereby declaring himself ruler of Jerusalem and bringing down Artaxerxes’ wrath (6:10-13). Jerusalem’s enemies try everything they can think of to fill the Israelites’ hearts with fear, so their hands will drop from their work, so that they will give up. Through it all, they keep building the wall until the city is surrounded and its gates are secured.

It’s easy to question why Nehemiah was so hung up on building the wall in the first place, and why he was so devastated to hear it had been destroyed: after all, “the people within [Jerusalem] were few and no houses had been built” (7:4). For Nehemiah, Jerusalem – its temple, its people, and its walls – represents much, much more than just a city, much more even than a home. Jerusalem represents God’s covenant with Israel: that He will be their God and they will be His people; that the people will never cease to be; that a king of David’s line will sit on the throne; that they will be a multitude beyond numbering. The people have come up from Egypt and God has delivered them into their own land, which they shall hold forever as their inheritance.

For Nehemiah, and for most of the Hebrew bible, Israel’s misfortunes happen because of sin. The people are sent into exile, and Jerusalem is destroyed, because they turned away from God through idolatry and did not keep His commandments. The temple must be rebuilt so that the people can keep the laws and glorify the Lord. The people must repent and be purified so the remnant can be restored. The walls of Jerusalem must be built because the city is both the reality and the symbol of God’s promise that He will gather His scattered people from among the nations and return them to Himself.

Each in her own way, we are like Nehemiah and the Israelites building Jerusalem’s wall. We all have work we are called by God to do. God has covenanted Himself with us and we are asked to do His work, to follow where He leads us, to repent and turn to Him anew. Like Nehemiah and the Israelites, we are faced with enemies, forces that try to turn us aside, to step off the path, that frighten us into dropping our hands from our work.

Depression can be that enemy in different ways. It can strip you of your energy and will, leaving you paralyzed. Anhedonia can make you lose interest and pleasure in the people and things that are important to you. You might not be able to concentrate, as if you’re thinking and moving and seeing through a thick fog. You could spend hours sobbing uncontrollably, or numb to the world and staring at a wall, or curled up under a pile of blankets. You could be crushed by fear, and guilt, and loneliness, and the feeling that your life has no meaning and is not worth living. Sometimes you might want to withdraw from everyone. Sometimes you might be afraid to be with anyone because you’re desperately trying to hide the reality of what’s happening to you.

Everyone – no matter who they are – has enemies urging them to drop their hands from building the wall. It’s easy to fall prey to these forces because they’re powerful, because sometimes their way looks simpler, because it isn’t always obvious that we’re doing God’s work. The thing about not building an actual wall is that it isn’t always clear what bits of what we’re doing are part of God’s plan. But we know we’re called to praise and glorify the Lord, and to love God and neighbor.

The story of Nehemiah building the wall shows us that it’s important not to allow anything to let our hands drop from God’s work. We must keep striving no matter what tries to frighten us away. Though the Israelites have been beaten down, have been conquered, are still conquered, and have sinned – they are still building the wall, and God is still helping them.

We are not building a wall, not rebuilding a home, because we have a home in Jesus and it can never fall. We have a temple, and God raised it in three days. We do God’s work, however fragile it may turn out to be, on the firm foundation of Jesus Christ, which will never be shaken.

Like Nehemiah, we cannot expect to do it alone, and we need to learn to admit that. I have to learn to admit that. Sometimes I can’t do it, I can’t be who I want to be. I just can’t. Whatever it is that God wants me to do, I can’t today. I am failing. And I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. But God gathered the remnant, and I know when I try again tomorrow He will gather me. Nehemiah wasn’t the only person building that wall, so maybe it’s okay to do it together. To defend us, we have the martyrs and saints, the whole company of heaven, God, and each other. It’s okay to not be able to do it alone. In his moments of weakness, Nehemiah asks God to strengthen him. In darkness, in doubt, in despair, God is the strength of our hands. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

White Birch by the Water

I like to walk around because it helps me to clear my head of the thoughts that clutter it up so much of the time: all that movement, rhythmic motion, all that breath, takes me out of myself somehow. I can’t say I always notice the world around me, but I do try to.

This is not a post about theology, or the Bible, or anything bigger or other than me. If you come here only for the sometimes strange things I say while I’m thinking about God and the Bible, you might want to skip this one.

It was a nice day out, warm for the time of year and sunny, so I decided to go for a long walk. I walked out to around Oka park, along the bike path that runs near my house. I’m fortunate to live so close to this long trail through the forest. I went all the way out to one of my favorite spots, a somewhat isolated pond off the main path through a small trail. I followed the trail to a white birch tree so I could sit in its hollow and look at the water. The trees have lost their leaves, and everything was still and quiet.

I looked at a dead, fallen tree dangling its leafless branches in the still water. In some ways I feel like the tree, not all the way in and not all the way out of life, of living. Partway under the surface. I thought about walking into the water, feeling the pond slip over me like a tree falling under the calm surface, carried by its weight further under the deep waters. I imagined what it would be like, how easy it would feel, to fall asleep beneath the unbroken silver of the pond.

But the water is cold this time of year. And I figured not wanting to die in cold water was reason enough to go back home and leave the white birch tree alone where it had fallen.

The thing is that I’m experiencing a major depressive episode. I’m trying to live my life exactly the way I normally do, but I don’t know what to expect. I don’t know if that’s the right decision or not, or if it will be possible as I fall deeper into this illness. While I have adapted to years of chronic, stable depression, I have never been prepared for these major episodes and I am not prepared now. I am having symptoms that are unusual for me.

I want to thank you for supporting me and keeping me in your thoughts and prayers as I know you’ve been doing. I also want to thank you for reading this blog: writing it, and knowing that I’m not the only person here reading it, is important to me in ways that I hadn’t realized until I began to really struggle with whether or not I should – or could, or can – continue writing it. I started this project because I felt compelled to think seriously about my own depression and my own spirituality and theology as aspects of my life that are intertwined. But it has helped me feel more connected to myself, more sure of my beliefs, and less alone as I struggle with these questions and search for meaning in what I find is happening to me.

Your support means a lot to me , and I hope to have you with me here (and elsewhere) throughout this journey.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Kingdom of God Is Among You

“In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things” (Eph 4:9-10).

“And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever” (Rev 22:5).

Most of us have thought of heaven at one time or another. Maybe we’ve thought about it because we’ve seen pretty pictures of God’s Kingdom in the sky, and have wondered what it would be like to live there. Maybe we’ve thought about it in remembering loved ones who have died, curious about what they might be experiencing. Maybe we’ve thought about it because we’re desperately afraid of hell. Maybe we’ve thought about it as something we long for, and hope for, and dream of.

Heaven, or how we imagine heaven, is one of the ways we think about God’s Kingdom. Revelation 21:1-27 shows us John’s vision of the Kingdom as a heavenly city coming down out of heaven from God after the first heaven and first earth have passed away. This city “made of pure gold, clear as glass” (21:18) has no temple because “its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (21:22). Chapter 22 shows us the river of life “flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (22:1), echoing Ezekiel’s vision of a life-giving river flowing from the threshold of the new temple (Ezek 47:1-12). The river of the water of life flows through the city, nourishing the tree of life whose leaves heal the nations.

In this heavenly Jerusalem, there is no more night, no more darkness, no more sadness, and no more pain, “for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4). Christ Himself is the light. More than just dispelling the darkness – a transformative promise in itself – in Christ’s reign we shall see His face and know Him fully, and live; His Name will be written on our foreheads as we go into the holy of holies and see Him face to face. We will know Him in all His blinding glory. Christ’s rule invites us in, as we share in His reign and in His light forever.

The vision of God’s Kingdom as a place where Christ’s light has dispelled all darkness is powerful. I find myself longing after it, longing after that Kingdom, yearning for an end to the gathering darkness, an end to the separation between God and myself. John’s vision is the answer to the most desperate longing of our hearts: to be with God and know Him.

But John’s vision is also a bit alienating and otherworldly. It’s so far away. It’s so long in coming. It’s so different from the first heaven and the first earth, the lives we’re living, the race we’re running and must not give up running. A Kingdom to be longed and hoped for, to be dreamed of, but not grasped. It’s the Kingdom of the ascended Christ, Who sits at the right hand of God.

Jesus didn’t just leave the Kingdom behind like something He forgot to pack in His knapsack when He came down for a visit. Though Jesus emptied Himself, He brought the Kingdom with Him. We encounter it every time we meet Jesus, in His deeds of power, in His transforming love, and in His death on the cross. Small and infinite, growing and unchanging, here and not-yet-here, God’s Kingdom defies the logic of the human mind and speaks in the language of our heart.

Throughout Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells us about the Kingdom in parables. Impenetrable, obscure, clear, earthly, and comforting: the Kingdom is at once baffling and simple, incomprehensible and the most obvious thing in the world. More to be felt than understood, the Kingdom of God gives itself to us in the humble language of the world and hides itself in the everyday fabric of our lives.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells us that Jesus descended and ascended so that He “might fill all things” (Eph 4:10). We know Jesus descended into hell, and that He ascended into heaven. He is victorious over death and the devil, and sits at the right hand of God. He did spectacular things that only God can do. He also came here, and lived a life. Jesus was ecstatically happy. Jesus wept. Jesus laughed, and ate, and drank. Sometimes He was angry. He was tempted. He was afraid. He got sick, he laughed, he had friends. He was probably bored sometimes. Jesus lived a fully human life so that God could fill all things.

Jesus is with us in our daily lives. He’s with us in the boring bits, He’s with us in the exciting bits, the happy bits, and the sorrowful bits. All our lives are filled with Jesus, even if He’s not doing anything other than being here with us. Jesus’ life fills all things, and we know that even if He didn’t live an experience exactly like ours, He understands us, and we are not alone.

Sometimes Christians, like all people, try and push the difficult bits of life to the side and hide them away, especially if they don’t make sense. While we understand grief and loss and hardship and pain, sometimes the melancholy that has no reason is harder to understand, and so easier to want to cover up. Over the years, well-meaning people have told me to pull my socks up, to get over it, to look on the bright side. If I’m being honest, I’ve sometimes said those things to myself. People whom I know love me have said that it’s wrong to be ungrateful for the life that God has given me, that God would never give anyone a burden they couldn’t carry, and that we are all living the fate we are meant to. I’ve heard it said that it’s wrong to ask God to take our burdens from us, and we should just trust that He knows what He’s doing. Whoever said that has forgotten that Jesus spent a night in the garden of Gethsemane praying for His fate to be taken from Him. The Kingdom of God is there in our despair, and in our questioning, and in the outer darkness, because Jesus is all and in all.

The Kingdom of God is here amidst our brokenness. When we read Revelation, it’s easy to think of the Kingdom as being far off, far away somewhere other than here, a Kingdom of the future. That is both true and not true. We haven’t seen the end of days, so the Kingdom is still coming and not-yet. But Christ is already ascended to the Father and sits at His right hand. Jesus is in the Kingdom that John saw, in the city of gold as clear as glass, with the river of the water of life flowing through the middle of its street. That is the Kingdom that Jesus brought with Him, and the Kingdom is now.

The water of life flows from the throne of God and the Lamb, bringing healing to the nations, as fully as water flowed from Jesus’ pierced side. It is healing, it is life-giving, and it surrounds us always. The difference is that here, in this fallen world, the water is always mixed with the blood, and through them both God offers us the gift of abundant life. In the Kingdom, God’s light shines without any need for light of sun or lamp, because darkness has passed away. The Kingdom is brining eternal life in the midst of our sorrow and our woundedness, and light in the darkness. “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men” (Rev 21:3); The Kingdom of God is among us.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Lay Down Your Burdens

“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” (Mt 11:28-30).

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus makes this promise after he upbraids those who reject His message by comparing them to the cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom: Jesus has done mighty works there but the people did not repent (Mt 11:20-24). To those who do believe, He issues this almost unbelievable promise that we may lay down our burdens and He will give us rest.

Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Jesus’ words speak us all, without exception. Each of us works, though we have many different kinds of jobs. Some of us labor with our hands, some of us do repetitive tasks all day, some of us invent things, some of us serve and engage in service, some of us heal people, and some of us do work that society doesn’t consider work but that, in so many ways, holds the fabric of our culture together. No matter how fantastic your job is, we all have days where the work just feels like work. We all have days where the work feels like more than we can handle or can bear. Life is difficult even when it is rewarding, and no one can really pretend otherwise.

We all carry burdens that weigh on us. We have all suffered hardship, and loss, and sorrow. At times, we are heavy-laden in our worries, our fears, our remembrances. The idea that God is a resting place, that God will lift those burdens and lead us home, away from our slavery to the difficulties of our lives, can be a great and sustaining source of hope. In some ways, I think we see Jesus’ promise as a new kind of Exodus, where we flee from what troubles us into the waiting arms of God.

As a child, I heard this passage read in church and believed that it meant God would help us put down our burdens so we wouldn’t have to carry them anymore. I suppose I believed that God would lift the heavy things off of me and make them disappear, go away, vanish in some kind of God-magic. As I got to be a bit older, the way I thought of those burdens changed and I hoped for somewhat less magical things, like that God would make it warmer in October when I was sleeping on the pavement. But I still believed that if I prayed hard enough God would take the bad things away: that I would feel happy instead of pretending to be happy, that my life would get easier, that the things I had to do I wouldn’t have to do anymore. It took me a lot of growing up before I realized both that God sometimes does give us more that we can carry, and that just because it’s heavy doesn’t mean He will take it away so we don’t have to hold it anymore.

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.

Jesus’ promise to His disciples is two-sided: The promise of rest is tied to taking something up and not just laying something down. Jesus is gentle and lowly in heart, and we are to strive to be like Him. The interesting thing about God is that while He gives Himself to us freely God is not free. There is always a cost to discipleship because God’s love makes demands on us.

The promise isn’t, and can never be, that if we believe in God and trust in Him we can lay down our burdens and never experience difficulty again. God does not take away the fallen nature of this world, although the world is being transformed. Jesus asks us to take up our Cross and follow Him (Mt 16:24), and while he means that in some cases quite literally, we also understand that it means we are called to follow Him regardless of what hardships we may be experiencing or what burdens we may carry.

And you will find rest for your souls.

Jesus thanks God for revealing His wisdom to babes and hiding it from the wise and understanding (Mt 11:25-26) – God’s promise is profoundly counter-intuitive because it runs against the wisdom of the world, against the way that we expect things to work. The kind of rest He promises us isn’t the kind we think of when we imagine coming home at the end of a long day to take a bath and drink a glass of wine. He offers us something more precious and impossible to gain for ourselves: rest for our souls. The kind of burden he asks us to put down also isn’t the kind where we drop all our worldly cares and live trouble-free lives without responsibility or stress.

Before making His promise, Jesus speaks about the cities that did not repent, and later talks about removing causes of iniquity and sinners from His kingdom (Mt 13:41-43). He has already shown us that He has the power to forgive sins (Mt 9:1-8).

The burden Jesus promises to relieve us from is the crushing weight of our sins spoken about in Psalm 38: “For my iniquities overwhelm me; like a heavy burden they are too much for me to bear” (v. 4). In Jesus, the yoke of the law is broken as we enter into a new covenant where sins are not undone by sacrifice or by actions or by observance of a law too heavy to carry, but by the reckless abundance of God’s love.

We are called to put down our sins through repentance and to carry the burden of Christ instead. Where our sins were too heavy to bear, too hard to carry, Jesus promises us rest.

One aspect of depression can be an overwhelming sense of guilt. You can feel like you’re a terrible person. You can feel like you’ve done horrible things. You can be haunted by things you’ve done, or by the feeling that the world would be better off without you in it. Your mind goes over and over the ways in which you are failing in a spiral of negative thoughts. Guilt is a heavy, stubborn weight that eats away at you. People living with depression will sometimes find themselves constantly apologizing, leaving those around them perplexed as to why. You may blame yourself when anything goes wrong, and feel like you don’t deserve to be happy, or even to be alive. You don’t feel at peace. Some researchers believe that feelings of excessive guilt in people with active or remissive depression have to do with abnormalities in the subgenual cingulate cortex and the septal region of the brain, and the way they communicate with the anterior temporal lobe. Regardless of the causal mechanisms behind it, the truth is that overwhelming guilt can be profoundly difficult to bear.

I struggle with guilt, with feelings of unworthiness and worthlessness. I don’t understand how God can forgive me. I feel like it’s impossible. The people who first heard this promise certainly found it unbelievable: how could God just forgive you without an elaborate ritual action founded on the law? How could Jesus have the power to forgive your sins? It’s normal to struggle with sin and the weight of sinfulness, because we are all sinners. And to all of us God offers this unbelievable promise that Jesus can and will forgive us.

Sometimes, putting down your sins is difficult. Learning to lay down a burden is challenging when you’ve gotten used to its weight. Knowing that you’re forgiven can be hard to grasp with your heart, although you may believe it with all of your strength. There is a sense of wild abandon in trusting God to forgive us when we ourselves struggle so much with forgiveness. But still, compared to our sins, the yoke of Christ is easy, and the burden light, because in Jesus we have eternal life.

We are all called to genuinely repent, to turn aside from our old ways and put on the new life of Christ. In taking Jesus’ yoke upon ourselves we are given a freedom from our sins that demands more of us than any law. God’s forgiveness does not act upon us by merely changing our outward behavior to conform to a standard written in stone; God’s promise of forgiveness transforms and demands of you the entirety of your life and is written on the heart.