The Burden of Light

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble 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 recently heard these familiar words of Jesus at a clergy retreat, but in a radically new way that continues to gnaw at me.

In the past, when considering this passage, I understood Jesus to be saying, “If you stick with me, I’ll help you with your problems and make life more bearable.” Commentators explain that Jesus may have been referring to a double yoke in which two animals walk side by side, pulling the same load. The analogy seems clear: Jesus walks beside you, helping bear your burdens. This is a comforting message for people feeling burned out and worn down. Most of us need rest, and not just rest for our bodies, but also for our souls.

So, I thought I knew what this passage meant. But God has a way of breaking through familiarity and turning what we think we know upside down. Hear the words again:

“For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

“. . . my burden is light.”

“. . . my burden is light.”

“In the beginning was the Word . . . . in him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1, 4-5)

“You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).

With a flash of insight, I heard a still small voice, “My burden is being light in a dark world.”

Followers of Jesus bear the burden of light. In a world where people can no longer distinguish the truth from a lie, we are called to honesty. In a world that venerates the arrogant, we are called to humility. In a world that worships the wealthy, we are called to love the poor. In a world where people sell their souls for power, we are called to take up a cross.

And this is exactly why Jesus was killed. Evil empires operate in darkness and Jesus is light. As the powers of this world nailed him to a cross, what they were really saying is, “Turn off that light!”

Not much has changed in this present darkness, and for those trying to follow Jesus as light in a dark world, it can feel like a heavy burden:

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves . . . . they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me . . . . you will be hated by all because of my name.” (Matthew 10:16-18, 22)

If we embrace the alternative lifestyle of radical love, we will experience ridicule, rejection, and even abuse.

However, in the presence of Jesus we are promised that this burden will become light.

The burden is light because it’s a way of life characterized by surrender. Instead of constant grasping, striving, and achieving, Jesus says, “Let go.” Let go of control. Let go of expectations. Let go of trying to be good enough. Find ways to relax into the presence of God, to just be—be who you are and where you are, knowing that you are accepted by unconditional love.

This is where we find rest for our souls. This is where the burden is made light. This is where we become light.

But, paradoxically, surrender may be the hardest thing we ever have to do.

Learning to let go, to relax into the presence of God and just be, seems to run contrary to our very nature. The shift from a willful to a willing spirit is the very heart of conversion, and it cannot be accomplished by what often passes for prayer today—words carefully crafted to convince ourselves or others of what we already believe to be true. (Or, even worse, long, syrupy, cliché monologues intended to solicit approval from other churchy people.) No, a true renovation of the heart requires the kind of prayer that goes beyond words, the kind of prayer that helps us awaken to the presence of God, so we can relax into that presence and just be—be ourselves and be with God. A kind of prayer that puts us in touch with our soul, so we can listen in stillness, solitude, and quiet. Indeed, a difficult kind of prayer for frenetic hearts navigating a frenetic world.

So, while Jesus’ yoke might be easy, insofar as he helps us carry our burdens, the burden itself—being light in a dark world—is, paradoxically, heavy and light, hard and easy. And I’m not sure exactly what to do with that right now, except let it continue to gnaw at me.

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Loving People in Pain: Humility and Compassion

Sometimes we are impatient with the weakness of others. When those closest to us exhibit neediness, it’s easy to recoil in judgment. Their vulnerability triggers our fear: fear of being blamed, fear of unreasonable demands, and fear that our own neediness will become visible. The result is distance, leaving the other person feeling abandoned in their pain. While this reaction may provide a fleeting sense of control, over time it erodes trust and makes intimacy more difficult.

When people experience weakness, their soul cries out for compassion and support. They need trusted loved ones to draw close, to empathize and tell them that they are still loved. Deep down inside, most of us want to offer these gifts, but fear and pride compel us to withdraw. If this results in shame, we can justify our callousness in the name of tough love or healthy boundaries, thereby increasing the disconnect and adding insult to injury.

The cure is humility.

Humility is a misunderstood virtue in our culture. It is usually associated with impotence and confused with humiliation, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Genuine humility is about self-awareness. It’s about knowing, showing, and embracing our strengths and weaknesses, our beauty and brokenness. It’s an affirmation of our common humanity (our imperfection), which counteracts the tendency to elevate or degrade ourselves in relation to others. Humility teaches, “The weakness that I see in you is the weakness that resides in me.”

When clothed in humility, our response to neediness can be supportive. Instead of compulsively withdrawing in fear and judgement, humility empowers us to connect with the pain of others through empathy, and in this way humility is the gateway to compassion.

Contrary to popular opinion, humility and compassion require enormous strength. It is easy to react in fear, defensiveness, and judgment, leaving others feeling abandoned and bereft. It is difficult to enter someone’s pain and hold them there. In fact, we cannot muster enough courage to love in this way without drawing on a power greater than ourselves, without grace.

So, let us pray for that which makes love possible: humility, compassion, and patience. And let us practice these virtues as others trust us enough to show their weakness and pain.

The Power of Weakness: How Attempts to Be Strong Lead to Impotence

No one likes to be weak. It’s one of our greatest fears. For most, weakness is something to be avoided at all costs because it’s associated with powerlessness, deficiency, and victimhood. We fear that even the appearance of weakness in this dog-eat-dog world will lead to exploitation and all kinds of injustice. While those rendered weak by age, infirmity, or disability mighty be pitied, more often the weak are scorned and derided.

There is evidence for this in every sphere of human existence. Politics at every level includes scathing critiques of “weak leaders” and endless promises to restore the disenfranchised to power. Currently, a significant group of people in America would rather endorse a xenophobic, egomaniacal strongman who promises to restore nationalistic power than candidates who demonstrate even a smidgen of honesty, respect, temperance, and intelligence. Western culture itself is based on a value system of success, and success requires the acquisition of personal power to overcome obstacles on the way to realizing our dreams. Indeed, all of our relationships (not excluding those with close friends and family members), are perpetually wounded by various kinds of power struggles.

Regardless of the situation, human beings tend to act on the assumption that the world is a dangerous place, and that individuals must act with great personal strength to deter potential threats and secure their own safety, reputation, upward mobility, and possessions. Conversely, we assume that if we are weak then we’ll be exploited, victimized, and left-behind to suffer misfortune. In many ways, we have reduced the essence of human life to gaining, cultivating, and leveraging personal power so we can secure ourselves and avoid losing anything of value.

This is why it’s so difficult for us to truly understand the gospel of Jesus, which is about God overcoming the world through the weakness of Christ. Even more difficult to understand is the idea that God continues to overcome the world, not through strongmen who exert top-down power with money, guns, and contemptuous rhetoric, but through the weakness of those who surrender to a crucified savior. Consider the Apostle Paul, who after having glorious visions and revelations from God was given a “thorn . . . in the flesh” to keep him aware of the true source of power. “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for [my] power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9).

One of the hardest lessons that God continues to teach me is that the more I flex my muscles the weaker I become. My fear, insecurity, and vulnerability are proportionate to my insistence on securing and protecting my own interests. Why? Because real power does not come from me, it comes from God. When I exercise personal power in attempts to gain control and accomplish my own agenda, it forces the power of God to the margins of my life. The more I posture, position, and protect, the less space there is for the power of God to move in any given situation. But as soon as I acknowledge my weakness, surrender to God, and move my ego out of the way, divine power begins to work in mysterious and unexpected ways to accomplish greater purposes. This is why Paul says, “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (v. 9b). These are strange words to people who are fearful of even the appearance of weakness and are hell-bent on cultivating a personal power strong enough to secure themselves. But even more difficult to hear (maybe even impossible without the Holy Spirit) is what Paul says next: “Therefore, I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10).

If we don’t grasp this essential truth in the gospel, then the power we work so hard to attain will eventually destroy us. Jesus says that if we try to save our life we will lose it, but if we are willing to lose our life then we will gain it (Luke 17:33). Is it possible that in our very efforts to avoid weakness and exert strength that we are sowing the seeds of our own destruction? Can those who abhor weakness ever experience the true power of God? In all of this, we do well to ponder the power of weakness, because weakness has the power to get us out of the way so that God’s power can move through us to accomplish greater things.

If you liked this article, then you might like others by Pastor Mark:

“Take Up Your Glock and Follow Me: Whatever Happened to Martyrdom?”

Bah Humblebug! What is Humility and Why Is It Important?

As counter-intuitive as it might seem, the humble are the most powerful people in the world. They are also the most dangerous to those in positions of power, because they are difficult to manipulate with flattery or fear. God’s assessment of their life is what’s most important, so people pleasing is left behind. Since they do not feel compelled to project and defend an idealized self-image, the humble do not need the praise and admiration of others. This enables them to live authentically. In the teaching that follows, Pastor Mark explains how the virtue of humility has been distorted in our contemporary context. Drawing on the example of Christ and the Christmas story as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, he goes on to explain the true meaning of this virtue and why it is important for Christians today. The audio is also available on Pastor Mark’s iTunes podcast. Other messages in this Advent series can be found on Pastor Mark’s YouTube channel.

All Reading Is Interpretation: The Application of Perspective in Biblical Meaning

This is the fifth essay in a collection entitled, A Course in Understanding the Bible. The full collection is organized as follows:

  1. The Bible is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration
  2. Going Fishing with Grandpa and Learning to Tell the Truth
  3. God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture
  4. Why the Bible is Important to Christians: Rethinking Scripture and Inspiration
  5. All Reading Is Interpretation: The Application of Perspective in Biblical Meaning

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed an idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him” (Leo Tolstoy).

Have you ever read a book a second time only to discover something new that escaped you the first time? New meanings emerge, but the book is the same and you are looking through the same eyes. What’s different? Over time, you had a vast array of new experiences that altered your horizon of understanding, generating new interpretative possibilities and evoking fresh insights. What changed is your perspective.

This strange experience of reading with “new eyes” gestures toward an important principle in philosophical hermeneutics: all reading is interpretation. The meaning of a piece of writing is “not an automatic and unproblematic exercise of deciphering a set of consistently identical signs on paper in front of us” (Werner Jeanrond, Theological Hermeneutics, 1). The meaning of a text is not objective and self-evident, as if any well-intended reader could easily discover “the right meaning.”

When talking about the Bible, some people argue the contrary. They claim to have easily discovered the correct meaning of a passage with a simple, literal reading. No interpretation is necessary, only common sense. “Look!” they say, “The meaning is plain as day, right there in black and white.” But this naïve, uneducated, and highly personalized approach is shallow, misguided, and dangerous.

To the contrary, hermeneutics helps us understand that the meaning of a text (including the Bible) is not an objective fact waiting to be discovered like a quarter under a couch cushion. Rather, meaning is something that is created when our minds interact with a text. Simply put, meaning is an event. Since the meaning of a text emerges through the application of a particular perspective, it is important to remember that our perspective is always limited.

So what shapes our perspective? An extensive list is beyond the scope of this article, so a few general examples will have to suffice. First, we might consider how a wide range of formative experiences in early childhood influence how we see the world, especially in our family of origin. It would also include our education, both secular and religious, and how this influences our views on things like politics, morality, and religion. Our perspective is also shaped by the way we see ourselves and others in relation to gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, age, and sexual orientation, as well as the way the dominant culture interprets and assigns value to such identifiers. When it comes to interpreting sacred texts, our past and present experiences in a community of faith will generate various “pre-understandings” that must also be taken into account. For example, before we ever start reading the Bible on our own, most of us begin with a particular image of God and a wide range of assumptions about what the text could possibly mean and how it should be interpreted. These pre-understandings usually come through the inculcation of religious traditions in a specific community of faith, but they can also be acquired through the absorption of cultural stereotypes. Regardless, these pre-understandings serve to highlight and privilege certain interpretive possibilities, while obscuring and repressing others.

The main point is that a wide range of continuous experiences generate innumerable interpretive filters and pre-understandings that come together to create a person’s limited perspective. This perspective provides a world-view that functions like a pair of glasses through which we see everything, including our sacred texts and traditions. When different perspectives interact with a text, different meanings emerge. So, a twenty-three year old Columbian woman living in extreme poverty will interpret the Bible differently than a wealthy, white, fifty-five year old American man. They will focus on different passages and, in some cases, discern divergent meanings.

Since meaning is an event that happens when different people’s perspectives interact with a given text, multiple meanings are possible. Texts are polyvalent. While we are not entirely enslaved to our own perspectives (see below), no one can achieve a perspective-less God’s eye view. This does not mean that interpretation is a free-for-all in which we can make a text say anything we want. When it come to the Christian Bible, there are interpretive boundaries established by the community of faith, by the academic disciplines of Biblical studies and theology, and by common sense. But firmly grasping the role of perspective in the event of meaning and the polyvalent nature of all texts will help keep us humble in our interpretation.

One of the biggest dangers for religious people is forgetting that they are reading with a pair of interpretive glasses, that they are reading through a worldview constituted by a complex set of interpretive filters and pre-understandings. If we are not even aware that we are interpreting through a particular perspective then we unwittingly become a slave to the limitations and dangers of that perspective and foreclose on the possibility of deeper and more transformational meaning. Henceforth, anything we can do to become more aware of our interpretive filters and pre-understandings will encourage humility, expand our horizon of understanding, and hopefully evoke fresh insights that will make us more faithful interpreters of the Bible. The best way to do this is to read the Bible in conversation with others, especially those who are different!

One important conversation is between the reader and the author(s) of the text. Anyone who has engaged in the academic discipline of Biblical studies knows that the contemporary reader does not have direct access to the original intent and audience of the author. These must be tentatively reconstructed using tools provided by multiple disciplines like archaeology, history, ancient languages, literary and form criticism, and cultural studies. This attempt to determine what an author was trying to communicate to the original audience is the work of exegesis, and (since this is reconstructive work) it too requires interpretation.

While historical-criticism does not operate on the basis of certainty, much can be learned about the ancient world, the perspective of the author, the context of the original audience, and the message being communicated. As those who live on the other side of the Enlightenment, the perspective of the author and intended audience will be very different from ours. Acknowledging these important differences allows us to distance ourselves from our own interpretive filters so we can listen to the text on its own terms. While we never do this perfectly (because we cannot completely escape our own perspective), to a certain extent we can resist the urge to blindly project our own modern presuppositions on ancient texts, effectively collapsing the radically different worldviews of the author and contemporary reader. In hermeneutics, this is known as distanciation. We can provisionally bracket our own presuppositions and allow the text to speak to us as a genuine other in ways that will illuminate, challenge, and even change our interpretive filters, as well as broaden our horizon of understanding.

In addition, Christians believe that God somehow works through this interpretive conversation with the Bible to speak to us in transformative ways. God can and does speak to us through the kind of scholarly exegesis described above, but God also speaks to us in more devotional readings of scripture, like the ancient practice of lectio divina. Indeed, both of these approaches are important as we seek to understand the Bible and encounter God through it. (See my article, “Shaped By Scripture: Two Different Ways of Reading the Bible.”) As God speaks to us in and through the interaction of our perspective with the Bible, it becomes the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. This encounter with the Word can illuminate, challenge, shape, and even alter our interpretive filters in ways that broaden our horizon of understanding and allow us deeper access to divine truth. This is at least part of the process by which we mature in the faith and grow in wisdom. The more spiritually mature the reader, the more faithful the interpretation. This is why the Bible should also be read in conversation with spiritual directors and teachers who have become wise through contemplation.

It is also important to read the Bible in conversation with the larger Christian tradition, both synchronically and diachronically. Gaining more knowledge about how Christians have interpreted the Bible in different ways over the course of 2,000 years will help surface and evolve our interpretive filters, as will contemporary conversations with other Christians around the globe who occupy very different perspectives. We not only ask how Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Wesley interpreted the Bible, but also how Christians in Africa, South America, and Asia interpret the text today. We study the history of Christianity but also Latin American Liberation Theology, Black Theology, Feminist and Womanist Theology, and Minjung Theology, all of which confirm the added benefit of conversations with philosophy and critical-theory. One could also argue the benefit of reading in conversation with people of other religious traditions. A great example of this is the interreligious dialogue between Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh.

Again, it should be clear that we don’t have to be slaves to a narrow and shallow interpretive framework. While our reading is always perspectival, our perspective can evolve and deepen over time by disciplined engagement in the various kinds of conversations mentioned above. One way of understanding this truth is by reference to the hermeneutical spiral.

Hermeneutical Spiral

As you can see in the diagram above, we start with pre-understandings that give us an interpretive framework for understanding the text. As we practice distanciation by bracketing our presuppositions, we allow the text to speak to us as a genuine other in the interpretive process. New insights emerge that are appropriated and assimilated in ways that transform our pre-understandings.

In conclusion, the purpose of this article is to destabilize the idea that textual meaning is a neutral, univocal, and static object that is passively waiting to be discovered by a well-intended reader. I am also trying to destabilize the idea of reading as a literal one-to-one correspondence between the human mind and printed words on a page. Taken together, I am criticizing what Merold Westphal calls “cognitive transubstantiation” and emphasizing the importance of interpretive humility. Furthermore, by sharing some key insights in philosophical hermeneutics, we have seen how important it is to be aware of our own perspective and to read sacred texts in conversation with others so that our interpretive filters can evolve and our horizon of understanding can be expanded.

The faithful interpretation of scripture is a life-long process, and our hope is that as we continue to grow in this regard that the Bible will continue to be a narrative space where we can encounter the risen Christ and be conformed to his image.

(Image Source: http://www.metanexus.net/essay/entangled-narratives)