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.