By T. R. Robertson
In the early 1970s, my family lived in a small town in rural Missouri. Early each growing season I would watch from our backyard while our neighbor prepared his field for planting. He was small and wiry, weathered and wrinkled. He appeared unable to stand completely upright. I was amazed he had the strength and endurance to plow and cultivate an acre and a half of rough ground.
To pull the old fashioned metal plow, he had more than capable assistance in the form of two enormous Missouri mules, Jake and Jenn. They were without a doubt the largest creatures I had ever been that close to outside of a zoo.
He hitched those mules to a yoke and harness and then walked along behind the plow, snapping the reins and calling out instructions in a grunting code understood only by man and mules. Jake and Jenn pulled together with equal strength and matched mule-headedness, and they responded to their master and to each other in concert.
Then one day, to my surprise, the old farmer showed up with only one mule and yoked himself to the huge beast. The two of them pulled on the plow, going in circles until the man collapsed.
I made up that last part, of course. Such a thing would be absurd. Though that’s the scenario suggested by the concept that we are yoked to Jesus.
In Matthew 11:28-30 Jesus offers his yoke to us, promising it will be easy and his burden light. When I read those words I always picture Jesus as an unimaginably large beast of burden, and I shake my head at the idea of being yoked to him. In what possible way could that yoke be easy?
In one sense Jesus is promising an easy yoke because it is different from the yoke that the teachers of the law had placed on the shoulders of God’s people for centuries. Theirs was a yoke of obligation to law-keeping. Only by following all the laws and their many interpretations of the law could the Jews maintain good standing under the code of their religious leaders. This was never the intent of God’s law, and Jesus promises he has no intention of placing this sort of burden on those who join him.
The teachers of the law not only piled on the rules and regulations, they did so in the role of taskmasters rather than yokefellows. They took pleasure in finding new ways to make the people knuckle under, even though they were continually inventing loopholes and exceptions to make their own burdens lighter.
Jesus, though, offers to share the burden with us, and this is no mere word picture he is painting. With the Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts, Christians are truly yoked to the almighty God of the universe. There is no greater resource of power, and Jesus offers it to us.
And yet there would seem to be no way to keep up with such an outsized partner in the yoke. How could we not be like the farmer yoked to the Missouri mule, running and stumbling to keep up, finally falling and being dragged alongside? How are we to make sense of Jesus’ description of his yoke as easy, as a burden lifter, not a chore that will run us ragged?
In Galatians 5:25, Paul offered the key when he said we need to “keep in step with the Spirit.” Earlier in that epistle, Paul warned the Galatians not to return to their old yoke. The Judaizers had assumed the taskmaster role of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. They were insisting that Christians needed to keep every requirement of the law in order to be acceptable to Christ.
They were like a mule that is constant-
ly trying to follow a different direction and set a different pace from the other mule in the yoke. With the two animals at odds with each other, the row ends up not being straight, if it’s completed at all.
In Step with Jesus
Keeping in step with Jesus isn’t about matching the pace and power of our outsized yokefellow. It’s more about knowing our partner and staying in sync with him.
Most of us in 21st century America have little experience or personal understanding of a farming team yoked together. But there are other word pictures that might resonate with us more.
Picture the Holy Spirit as a constant dance partner.
Celebrity dancing competitions have become popular in the reality show era. Often the producers try to pull in a male audience by pairing someone like a football player with a decidedly petite and feminine dance partner.
If the male dancer were to interact with his dance partner like he does with opposing players on the gridiron, the result would be in shambles. The successful dance contestant is able to lead without overwhelming a more fragile partner.
The best dancers do this by developing a close relationship, getting to know each other extremely well. They know each others’ moves, their tendencies. If there’s a misstep, they adjust together. They’re intimately connected, even if they’re not romantically a couple.
They exemplify the relationship David expressed toward his more dominant partner in Psalm 119:10: “I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands.”
The closer his relationship with the Lord, the more intimately he understood God’s heart and shared God’s priorities. When we do the same, it’s easier to keep in step with God and his commands.
Jesus said, “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me” (John 14:21). The heavy yoke way to read those words puts the emphasis on law-keeping, on the never ending task of tracking all those laws and the struggle to be consistent in obedience.
Instead, we should read this as Jesus’ invitation to love him. The Christian who knows Jesus intimately, growing in love for him, will be the type of person who naturally knows and keeps his commandments.
The bride of Christ finds it easy to dance in rhythm with him.
Another way to picture the easy yoke of Jesus is the experience of on-the-job training.
Paul told the Christians, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). He wasn’t talking about piling up head knowledge, but training to be an able coworker with the Lord.
The best coworkers learn to keep in step with each other, to closely coordinate their individual efforts. The biggest problems I’ve encountered in any job have come when I’ve been teamed up with someone who would rather goof off than work hard or who couldn’t learn to work together to get things done.
Working alongside Jesus requires some on-the-job training also. Yokefellows in training learn to be effective through diligently walking by faith, trying to discover how their talents fit in with the work God is doing. With experience, their priorities become aligned with God’s priorities, and they find themselves more easily walking side by side with him.
Keeping in step as we’re yoked to Jesus is also made easier if we’re keeping in step with his church. As the body of Christ, the church is the most physical presence of our yokefellow that we will encounter during our life in this world.
If you’re trying to go through the Christian life as a loner, doing your own thing, you’re missing out on a huge part of Jesus’ promise of the easy yoke. It’s like building your own plow, heading out to a field, and trying to pull the thing through the soil all on your own.
Sometimes working with a congregation of Christians can seem like a troublesome burden. Not everyone has the same idea of which direction we should all be going. Some would rather debate theories of plowing, while many settle for just paying a professional to do it all.
Jesus gathered us together as his body for a reason. The very act of working through our differences to reach a common goal strengthens us as a whole. Paul promises in Ephesians 4:13 that together we can actually grow into “the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” The body of Christ, yoked together with Christ himself, is able to keep in step and follow his lead.
It’s that easy.
T. R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.
How Stressed Am I?
Psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe developed a scale in 1967 to help people get a sense of their stress level in order to predict stress-induced illness. It assigned different values to 43 common life events. The events they considered most stressful are:
1. death of spouse
3. marital separation
4. jail term
5. death of a close family member
6. personal injury or illness
8. fired at work
9. marital reconciliation