Jesus said to the crowds:
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for yourselves.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Matt 11:28-30).
On reading a passage like this, two problematic reactions are possible. One is to react resentfully, thinking, “There’s nothing light or easy about the burdens I have to carry!” Another is to simplistically conclude that if one just follows Jesus, all one’s troubles will vanish. This is a recipe for future disappointment and resentment.
Both of these reactions should be avoided. Jesus gives us here a balanced teaching on the role of suffering and the cross that is best understood in its subtleties.
I There is a yoke and there is a burden in following Jesus
Jesus uses these very images; He does not exclude them. A burden is a weight that must be carried. We do not grow or gain in strength by reclining on a couch. We grow and gain in strength by carrying the weight of our duties. Burdens, though unpleasant, are necessary for growth.
A yoke is a device that helps us to carry our burdens. Consider an ox pulling a wagon. A rope around its neck would kill it, and so a wooden truss is built to distribute the weight across the front of its body. Some yokes permit two oxen to pull a load together. Horses sometimes wear a leather yoke that goes around their midsection. People who transport water from wells seldom carry pails with their hands as it is too painful for any extended period of time. Instead, they use a wooden beam, carved to fit their shoulders, with pails hanging from it.
A yoke does not lighten the load; it just makes it easier to carry. Jesus indicates that we who would follow Him will not have a life that is free of burdens; there are burdens and thus there is the need for a yoke.
II His yoke is “easy”
The common English translation of “easy” fails to capture the subtlety of what the Lord is conveying. The Greek word use is χρηστὸς (chrestos), and it refers to what is suitable, useful, well-fitted, or beneficial—not merely “easy.”
Consider how old shoes can be a blessing because they fit us perfectly; new shoes sometimes cause blisters until they (and our feet) adjust to each another. A good carpenter would work carefully to craft the yoke to the contours of the animal or to the shoulders of a human being. Only after these adjustments would the yoke be said to be chrestos (well-fitting).
One can almost picture Jesus, as a carpenter, doing this sort of work quite frequently. One can also whimsically imagine a sign hanging outside Jesus’ shop: “Well-Fitting Yokes Sold Here!”
Spiritually, Jesus is indicating in this text that while He does have a yoke (or cross) for us; it is suitable for us and will bring benefit. The burdens and yokes He has for us are not suffering merely for the sake of suffering. If carried and accepted with faith, they will benefit us. Each of us needs certain yokes and burdens, crosses and sufferings, in order to grow, be humbled, and gain wisdom. The Lord has crafted these yokes and burdens for us carefully. They are for good, not ill; for growth, not diminishment.
III. My yoke, my burden
Jesus is careful to refer to “my yoke” and “my burden.” For indeed, not every suffering we endure is from Him.
Frankly, we pile a lot of extra burdens on ourselves that He neither wills for us nor wants for us. Surely our sins bring us extra burdens, but beyond this there are many things that are good in and of themselves but which are not what God asked us to do.
Some of us undertake projects and efforts that are good and beneficial to others, but we do not ask God if it is His will that we do them. Perhaps God would tell us that He has other things for us to do, that He doesn’t want us to spend time doing things He has reserved for others and then end up not being able to do what He has designed for us.
And thus we must discern carefully what the true yokes and burdens are for us. God gives us the strength for those yokes and burdens, not for the yokes and burdens of our own design.
Here, then, is a brief teaching on burdens, suffering, and the cross. God does have these for us because we need them, but they are suited to us; they are possible for us to endure; they are carefully crafted to benefit us. “Beware,” says the Lord, “of what is not my burden and yoke, but is instead from you.”