When doing good is exhausting

Galatians 6:9 is an admonition from the apostle Paul, "May we never tire of doing good."

We do though—as Christians—don't we? We grow tired of always doing the right thing. If you look back on anything you were once enthusiastic about, I’m willing to bet you can point to the moment your enthusiasm waned and you grew tired of doing it.

Kids and dogs grow tired of their toys, millionaires grow tired of their money, kings grow tired of the crown, soldiers grow tired of the fight. Husbands, all too often and even in the church, grow tired of their wives. Wives, all too often, grow tired of their husbands.

Likewise, the Christian grows tired of doing good. It can be so exhausting to go about your day continually asking, 'What’s the next right thing I should be doing?' over and over and over and over.

But doing the right thing is God's will for your life. Romans 12:1-2 says that as our minds are being renewed, we're learning more and more each day to be able to discern the right from the wrong. We’re being refined in our understanding of God’s plan—what's good and pleasing and perfect.

So how do we work this out? If it's God's will that I do good all the time, how do I fight burn-out? Can’t I just crash every once in awhile? take a load off? just enjoy myself? let my guard down? let my tongue slip? take that next sip? spend my money as I see fit?

How can I possibly do what is good and acceptable and perfect all the time?

If you’ve ever had that thought, you’re not alone. I think Jesus was speaking to a whole group of people who were thinking the same thing when he said:

“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)

I needed to brush up on my farming metaphors to know just what Jesus meant there. In a yoke, one animal is subjected to the other and has to go at the pace of the other. The stronger ox or the stronger horse leads the weaker as they pull the cart or carriage or plow.

In Scripture, the yoke is used as a metaphor to describe subjugation or enslavement, such as subjection to Roman rule.

Jesus saw that his audience felt pulled and rushed along by the overwhelming burdens of the Jewish legal system, by all the many Old Testament laws but also all the extra laws that the Pharisees had simply made up over time.

On top of all of that, they were subjected to Roman rule, to Roman laws and Roman taxes, with soldiers kicking down their doors a few times each year to collect the state's cut of their hard earned money.

It comes as no surprise then that Christ’s message—to simply follow him—was a shocking relief to so many. Look at the Gospels, look at all those times when someone asked Jesus, “What must I do to be saved?” Examine their responses when Jesus simply said, "Follow me."

Jesus beckons us to just simply follow him. He asks us to give up our burden and to walk at his pace. This is difficult for us at times. Oddly enough, we tend to like the things that are weighing us down. For example, the rich young ruler in Mark was told to go and sell everything he had and give all of the proceeds to the poor. This, in order to follow Jesus.

Jesus will ask you to set aside whatever is keeping you from following him. In other words, that young man's money wasn't helping him following Jesus. It was a burden. He was shackled to it. That wealth was leading him along—he was the weaker ox under the influence of his own wealth—it was leading him to places Jesus didn't want him to go.

Have you read the context of Matthew 11? It's really interesting in context. I'll tell you the story.

John the Baptist, Jesus' cousin, is in prison. Herod's going to kill John later on in the grossest way. He's going to make his own daughter do a striptease for all of his buddies, and he'll serve John's head on a platter at the party. Herod was a disgusting fat pig.

But ok, so in Matt 11, John's in prison. And John sends word to Jesus and asks, "Are you really him? Are you really the chosen one, long foretold, the Messiah? Is it you?"

I don't know if I'm reading this into the passage but I hear doubt and fear and hopelessness in John's question. The NIV translates it, "Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

The greatest prophet in history (according to Jesus), John the Baptizer, and here he is doubting God. John had heard the very voice of God on multiple occasions. John's mom heard the voice of God. John's dad, Zechariah, met the angel Gabriel. John's aunt and uncle Mary and Joseph heard the voice of God—his entire family had received prophecy in one form or another.

I always hear people say, "I wish God would just speak to me." I admit I've even said it myself. But here's an example of a man—the first prophet to come along in 400 years—whose entire family heard the voice of God, and yet he still had his doubts.

When John began his own prophetic ministry, his task was to make the 'paths straight' for the Messiah to come through. In other words, he was Jesus' hype man. Yet here he is, now in prison, facing execution and knowing he's at the end of his life and then of his ministry, and there's no hype whatsoever.

He has none of the joy or exuberance that we first saw in him, when he met Jesus on the banks of the Jordan river to baptize him. When everyone around heard the voice of God as Jesus came up out of the water: "This is my son, in whom I am well pleased."

Israel's final prophet, doubting God. Is it you, Jesus? Are you the one? Did I accomplish my purpose or was my life's work a total waste?

Jesus' response is golden. Jesus' response is what leads up to Matthew 11:28, to the "take my yoke" verse. Jesus says in Matthew 11:4-6:

"The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

I know I've said this a thousand times before—but you have to see that Jesus always always always says the exact thing that the person questioning him needed to hear. Every time. Go study the woman at the well passage for a clear example of this. Jesus the Master Teacher always teaches masterfully.

So we read as Jesus responds to John the Baptist (through John's disciples who were carrying the message): "What do you think? Am I the Messiah? Let's see here, well, blind people are now seeing because of me. I made paralyzed people walk again. The sick are being healed. What do you think?"

Then Jesus says, "Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on my account." That's a weird thing to tack onto your response there, Jesus. What does it mean?

In the Gospels, the word blessed means "happy," as in the beatitudes (Matt 5) when Jesus says, "You will be happy when you ________." And stumble in the Greek means to offend, or to force someone to act against their God-given conscience. See Paul's writings in 1 Corinthians—"Don't cause a brother who might have a weaker conscience than you to stumble."

Jesus is saying, "What do you think? Do I not look like the Messiah you were expecting? Does that offend you?"

The English Baptist John Gill wrote (and I love this insight):

"The Jews were offended at Christ's parentage and birth, at the poverty of his parents, and at the manner of his birth, by a virgin; and at the place of his birth, which they thought to be Galilee; at his education, because he had not learnt letters, and was brought up to a mechanical employment; at his mean appearance in his public ministry, in his own person, and in his attendants: his company and audience being the poorer sort, the more ignorant, and who had been loose and scandalous persons, publicans and sinners; at the doctrines he preached, particularly, which respected his own deity and eternity, the distinguished grace of God, and living by faith upon his flesh and blood.
The disciples of John also were offended in him, because he and his disciples did not fast, and lead such an austere life as they and their master did; because of the meanness and obscurity of Christ's kingdom; the imprisonment of John, and the many reproaches, afflictions, and persecutions, which did, and were likely to attend a profession of Christ: this our Lord knew, and had a peculiar respect to them in these words; but happy are those persons, who, notwithstanding all these difficulties and discouragements, are so far from stumbling at Christ, and falling from him, that they heartily receive him and believe in him."

Jesus was not the guy they were expecting. He's from the redneck land of Galilee? He didn't go to priest school? He builds furniture for a living? He lives with his mom at age 30? He's this dirty, rugged traveler, not some rich king? not some military officer?

Is that—wait hold on—is that Zacchaeus sitting at his table?! Zacchaeus is a scum bag! No Messiah I know would ever hang out with Zacchaeus.

After he responds to John the Baptist's disciples, they begin to file out and Jesus turns to the crowd. He says, "John the Baptist is the last prophet in a long line of prophets—going all the way back to Elijah. Don't you understand that in your lifetime you got to see an Elijah? Why can't you appreciate that?"

He continues to teach the people, almost scolding them, "Listen: John comes to you—he doesn't eat anything, he doesn't drink anything, he lives like a monk—and you say 'He's demon-possessed.' Then I come to you and I partake, and you say, 'This Jesus is a drunkard!' So we're damned if we do, damned if we don't."

Of course I'm paraphrasing here, but Jesus is very clearly saying, "What more could you possibly want from me?" Keep in mind that these were the same people who were following Jesus around and demanding that he show them magic tricks to prove that he's the Son of God. Jesus goes on to rebuke all those who failed to accept his simple teachings from places he had already traveled.

Quick recap: We see John doubting. We see a people who don't accept his message—they've imprisoned him. Then we see that they've also rejected the message of the Christ. Now in verse 25, Jesus lays it all out for them. He says they couldn't accept this simple, common sense message of love because God obscures truths like this to the wise and reveals them to the likes of children.

If you think you have all the answers then you're too proud to be taught simple, lowly truths. Or maybe you're like me, and you're expecting the greatest truths of the universe to be revealed in some set of philosophical theorems or assertions.

Maybe you're expecting all the answers to come from scholars and scientists and priests and authors and artists. You're not looking for truths that even a child could grasp, you're looking to get your mind blown.

That's when Jesus says, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light." Now do you get it?

He says, "Walk with me. I won’t tug you along. I won’t drag you behind. Learn from me—learn from me with the curiosity of a child. The truth is a very simple thing. My law is love and that’s all you have to be accountable for. Just love God, love people."

How do we do what is good and pleasing and perfect all the time without getting exhausted? We just let go. Just let go. Become a child. Accept the sweet, simple truth that all you're accountable for is love.

Jesus has no list of rules for you to check off. He's got no prerequisites. He's offering no religion. He's shackling you to no pharaisical set of laws. His yoke, instead, is easy. His burden—not to keep all these rules but to just love, just love—that burden is light.

When we take his yoke and his burden on, we cast off the other burdens we’ve been carrying. The burden of perfectionism, the burden of rule-keeping, the burden of bitterness, the burden of a secret sin, the burden of bad habit or addiction. He beckons us to give that over to him and to take on the load that he is pulling, the work that he's doing. The simple work of love.

Love is difficult in our own power. If you’ve ever tried to forgive someone who’s wronged you, or love someone who mistreats you, then you know what I’m talking about. We can't do it in our own power. That’s why Christ asks us to strap ourselves to him and let him pull that weight.

In context, Matthew 11:28—this verse that we quote all the time—has such a deeper meaning.

Do you doubt him like John the Baptist did? Are you facing a trial like John was facing? Do you have lofty expectations of God like the people of Jesus' time did? Were you expecting more than a carpenter? Are you shackled to influencers who are stronger than you, pulling you in ways you don't want to go? is it family? is it the Pharisees in your own church?

Are you carrying a burden that's too heavy for you?

Let's do an exercise. Make a fist, right now. As tight as you can. Really constrict those muscles—use all of them. Are you making a fist? Ok, now try to pick something up with that fist. Use one of the other muscles in your balled hand to pick something up.

You can't do it! All of the muscles in that hand are squeezing tightly to make that fist. When you're holding so tightly like that, the only thing you can do is let go.

The only way to open a fist is to relax each muscle that was making it. Letting go is not the work of a new muscle, it's not a new task for you to add to your list of chores. Do you see that? Making a fist is work. Letting go is not work. Letting go is release. In Matthew 11:28, Jesus beckons us to release.

Earlier I quoted Galatians 6:9, "May we never tire of doing good." The book of Galatians was written to Christians who were turning back to the old Jewish laws, the old system, and rejecting salvation by faith alone. Young Jewish Christians were insisting that non-Jewish Christians (called Gentiles) follow the whole of the Law.

Paul opens his letter, "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel." That different gospel was the Satanic idea that through rule-keeping we can save ourselves—we don't need Jesus.

Legalism, perfectionism, rule-keeping, religiosity and religious fervor, "degrees of higher perfection" as the London Baptists put it in the first Baptist confession of faith—none of those things offer the release that Christ offered in Matthew 11:28.

Those things only serve to exhaust us so that we're unfit for the real work of the gospel, the call to love our neighbor. And in that spiritual exhaustion, we're fodder for the Enemy, who—as Jesus said—is stalking us like prey.

Paul implored us to do good, writing to people that he knew were under the influence of toxic religiosity. He knew that in our own strength we'd grow tired of doing good instantly, but trusting Christ, we could learn to let go. We could do the simple work of love. Doing good would no longer be a chore, but rather, it'd just simply be our life, our walk with Christ.

"Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light." The Message paraphrases this passage:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Freely and lightly living. I like that.