The Blessing of Limited Power: Freedom from Crushing Burdens

The Madness of King NebuchadnezzarRight in the middle of an outdoor feast, at a time likely chosen to garner the greatest amount of attention, Jesus said something extraordinary. If you’re at all familiar with your Bible, you probably already know that Jesus said many extraordinary things, but I want to call your attention to one that, on the surface, doesn’t seem to make any sense.

Instead of quietly performing “the proper religious feast ritual” like every other good Jew in attendance, Jesus grabs the mic, instructs the Temple stagehands to turn the spotlights on Him and proclaims in a loud voice, “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, ESV)

As Christians, we are all called to live redemptively in a broken, sinful and hate-filled world that, by and large, despises the message we carry; what exactly is “easy” about that? Nearly every Christian I know has eventually had to make some sort of real, tangible sacrifice – declining more money, denying themselves “greater” sexual fulfillment, declining popularity with lifelong friends, etc. – as a means of faithfully following Christ rather than pleasing human beings. How then can Jesus accurately use the word “light” to describe the kinds of burdens this world so often throws at His followers?

Whatever your belief system, it’s something of an understatement to say that Jesus was, is and remains something of an enigma. The Bible makes it quite clear that at the last supper, Jesus knew full well that He had come to the hour of His death (Matthew 17:22–23). As the God-Man, Jesus had the power to do anything he desired as a way of reflecting that He is truly sovereign and fully in control of the unfolding events. And yet…He chooses to stoop down and perform the most menial of tasks for His disciples, something that would normally be assigned to the lowest servant on staff at the master’s household. The genuinely-surprised response of Peter (John 13:6-9) would seem to indicate that this was the first time Jesus had ever performed this act of service; couldn’t Jesus have chosen something far more significant to do with his last night on earth than to wash the stinky feet of his disciples?

Humility by C.J. MahaneyPersonally, if I had all the armies of God at my command (Matthew 26:53), could control all the forces of nature just as if I were the fictional character Storm from X-Men (Mark 4:39) and were able to knock down all opponents merely by stating my name (John 18:6) – and yet knew for certain that I would be dead within 24 hours – I would most definitely not pick up a bowl of water and towel to clean dirt off of anyone’s feet. Instead, I would want to harness that unlimited power to “maximum effect;” flashes of lightning, trumpets blasting, the army of God becoming visible to all, something more along those lines.

In some ways, I think all of us are like that. We wish we had more power over our lives and, if we did, we’d probably use it in big ways.

Our realistic appraisal of our own powerlessness, combined with our hubris, provides yet another opportunity for depression to hijack our lives. Flash-forward about 2,000 years from the night when Jesus washed those nasty feet: “From 1999 to 2012, the percentage of Americans on antidepressants increased from 6.8% to 13%, according to a report published this week by the Journal of the American Medical Association.” Few would seriously argue the point that depression is gaining ground in our culture and, let’s face it, there is certainly no shortage of things to be depressed about.

It seems as though every day brings with it a new mass-shooting, another suicide bombing or some equally-appalling act of violence. While the Internet and social media have given us the ability to inexpensively stay in touch with family and friends all over the globe – undeniably a great gift! – the trade-off has perhaps been far steeper than we might ever have wanted; all the atrocities in the world come screaming to our attention via online connections. Even worse, terrorist organizations feel honor-bound to post gruesome videos of torture, execution and other unspeakable acts of avoidable human suffering. Our understanding of worldwide violence has become more frequent and more graphic. In addition, online pornography is destroying the minds of far more people than we care to admit – Internet porn has become so pervasive (and so darkly deviant) that it has essentially put Playboy magazine out of business and motivated municipalities to declare it as a hazard to public health.

Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin by Cornelius Plantinga Jr.So…how is the burden of living in this world “easy” or “light?” It seems pretty hard and heavy, and sometimes especially so for those who follow Jesus. Our spirits groan; we very much want to do something about the world’s crushing problems, and yet we are largely powerless. Jesus’ call to his yoke is not a nonsensical statement, but His attempt to call to His powerless people, “These burdens are too much for you. Come to me and find rest in my power.”

What I have come to understand as I cruise into my late 50s is, essentially, two things: 1) if my “burden” on any given day feels either tremendously difficult or soul-crushing, I have somehow managed (yet again) to walk off into the weeds, away from Jesus. This is not to say that I will not have difficult days, of course, or that I will not encounter unsolvable problems. Obviously, those things happen quite often. Rather, it simply means that the burden in front of me is intentionally and graciously larger than I can hope to overcome. Put another way, I will need help, and the sooner I wise up to that fact, the sooner I will be back on the right path. This takes me to the second truth: 2) Jesus was right. When I go through my day acknowledging that I am powerless but leaning on Jesus-the-all-powerful, my burdens are indeed “light.”

Rocket Fuel for Anxiety and Depression: Plausible Half-Truths (a.k.a. “Deceptions”)

Below, I have listed five of the most common lies designed to lead us off the path that Jesus is asking us to walk alongside Him. The enemy of my soul (and yours) does his best work by taking statements that are actually true, and then giving them a twist such that they slowly become heavy lead weights that sink their hooks into our spirit. If we allow “heavy” statements to go unchallenged by the Word, we unwittingly give them a nesting place in our consciousness, but kind of like a pesky house guest walking into your bedroom at 3:00 a.m. to ask for a drink of ice water, they are never content to stay confined to the basement; they always grow and expand their influence in our lives and our decision-making.

Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan PrayersThe point is straightforward enough: We can’t let lies – or even half-truths – to take up residence in our souls. The apparent truth must be challenged with what Francis Schaeffer liked to call, “True Truth.”

  • “The world should not be this way.”
    • Obviously true in nearly every interpretation, this “truth” does not rightly stand alone. If it is allowed to stand by itself, the burdened human soul supplies its own corollary, i.e. “And it always will be.” This breathes hopelessness and futility into our hearts and minds, which in turn makes us less willing to live redemptively with others, which in turn makes its own contribution to the brokenness we see everywhere in the world around us…and now that futility has been “proven” – ironically by our own sinful negligence – we get back on the carousel and go for yet another spin; hopelessness breeds paralysis, which breeds cynicism and distrust, which leads to isolation, which fuels depression, etc. The best response to the world so clearly not being the way it is supposed to be is the promise of redemption; God is making all things new again (Revelation 21:5), His ancient promises have been fulfilled via Jesus (Amos 9:11-15) and now you just need to decide if you want to take part (Joshua 24:14-15).
  • “I should not be this way.”
    • Yes, that’s right; you are not, at present, the person that God had in mind when He thought you into being before the foundations of the world were being established (Ephesians 1:4-5). You have been broken and tragically marred by sin, both inherited and personal. So has everyone else, so in Christ there is actually much in the way of great news to attach to the idea that you are a mess. In short, your value to God has never been lost (Matthew 6:25-34). God views you like we might view a billion dollars tossed into a sewage lagoon; the value has not vanished because it’s now covered in poop. Yes, you are not the way you ought to be, but you are still valuable and God is more than happy to drain all the sewage lagoons in all of His Creation to reclaim you; He paid the highest-possible price to initiate your rescue from filth (1 John 2:1-2).
  • “You should not be that way.”
    • When we undergird our apprehension of others with the certainty that we are a mess – see above for helpful poop-themed word picture – we are simultaneously freed up to grab tightly to the truth that absolutely everyone is a big fat mess of a human being, however “clean and shiny” they may appear on the outside. Some of the most faithful people I have ever met are recovering addicts; some of the most blind, seriously screwed-up people I have ever spent time with appear to the outside world to “have it all.” The bottom line is that accepting what a mess I am frees me up to accept everyone who desires friendship or connection; I no longer feel any need to make sure I am seen with the “right” people. There are no right people (Psalm 14:3; Romans 3:10), so I should not be surprised when someone else shows themselves to be a hot mess. Instead of focusing my attention on how jacked up someone else is, I should ask rather if I have anything to offer that person that might be helpful.
  • “Somehow, in a way I cannot articulate, I am personally implicated in all of this brokenness.”
    • Spiritual depression demands that you personally take responsibility for absolutely everything in the world. On the conscious level, of course, we know this is ridiculous, but our own wrongdoing in life convicts us again and again, no matter what’s being reported in the media, because we rightly apprehend that we as human beings are diminished by moral evils such as pornography, drug abuse, murder, warfare, marginalization of others, etc. The drumbeat of depression reverberates with every piece of bad news: “You should have done more to fight against this sort of thing. Remember those times you looked at porn? Now your failures as a human being have fueled human trafficking.” Down and down and down we go, accepting absurdities in an ill-advised campaign to somehow redeem ourselves, assuming a burden Jesus has already lifted. Yes, we have failed. Yes, we all have much to confess and repent. But we cannot save ourselves, we must instead confess openly and often, then (this is key) repent and move forward (2 Chronicles 7:14; Acts 3:19; 1 John 1:9).
  • “This problem is too big…nothing I do could possibly matter.”
    • Dead wrong, even though it can often sound right. Using the example above, can you personally fix the human trafficking problem? Probably not, but for starters you can stop personally visiting prostitutes or watching porn. You could start there. Further on up the road, you could repent by working to remedy those very issues, seeking social justice for victimized women and children, if you feel both called and capable to do so, but the problem is, indeed, far too widespread for one person. Instead, it’s key to remember that it is not out of the grasp of Jesus and He might be pleased to use your life powerfully should you decide to surrender yourself to Him. You will stumble along the way, for sure, but where you are faithless, He is faithful not to abandon you. And whenever the Futility Boogeyman raises his ugly head to challenge your desire to make even a small difference in this violent, over-sexualized American culture, you really only need remind yourself that even just the act of declaring personal warfare on sin and hopelessness is itself making a difference, whether you are able to catch a glimpse of the difference you are making or not.

Depression is often fueled by what we can actually see right in front of us; it’s important in those moments to remind ourselves over and over again that we are not alone; that we are yoked to Jesus, and He goes with us into the fray.

Resources

Please Note: If you are contemplating suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Lifeline provides toll-free access to trained telephone counselors, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The diagnosis and treatment of clinical depression, anxiety, and associated disorders requires a qualified mental health professional. Experiences and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of pastors and staff at The Crossing EPC.

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