There are two teachings of Jesus which might seem irreconcilable or at least a source of rational tension. On the one hand, Jesus tells us that following him comes at a significant personal cost. He says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Mt. 16: 24-25). Elsewhere he tells his followers, “you will be hated by everyone because of me” (Mt. 10:22). The Apostle Paul reiterates this same point when he asserts, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). Paul also goes so far as to say that “we are heirs—heirs of God and coheirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings” (Rom. 8:17). This theme of suffering with Christ is heavily emphasized by the biblical writers, as it recurs in such passages as Rom. 5:3-4; 2 Cor. 1:5; Phil. 3:10-11; 1 Pet. 4:13; James 1:2-4; and 1 Pet. 1:6-7.
Of course, these sobering declarations regarding the difficult road of submission to Christ are also accompanied by the promise that our loss and suffering on earth will be more than compensated for by heavenly reward, as Jesus assures us that those who faithfully serve him are storing up “treasures in heaven” (Mt. 6:20), that “the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done” (Mt. 16:27). Therefore, promises the Apostle Paul, “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).
So there is a certain irony here—that one must lose in order to gain, suffer in order to know everlasting joy. But the point of tension to which I refer emerges when we consider another teaching of Christ, remarkably one that aims to comfort us. I am thinking of Jesus’ invitation in Matthew 11: “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” (Mt. 11:28-30). This naturally begs the question, if life in Christ is marked by suffering and difficulty, how could such be an “easy yoke” or a “light burden”? I certainly would not describe the travails of the Apostle Paul or his fellow apostles in that way. Nor would I be inclined to use such terms to describe the lives of the many Christians who are currently being martyred around the world these days.
Of course, it is indeed helpful to place all such Christian suffering in eternal perspective. Knowing that we will be forever comforted and relieved of all burdens in the afterlife does make our suffering more bearable. But there is another consideration that must be borne in mind here, and that is the contrasting burden of the person who refuses Christ and lives for their own self. A psalm says, “the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction” (Ps. 1:6). A proverb declares, “the way of the transgressor is hard” (Pr. 13:15, KJV), and another proverb asserts, “the righteous person is rescued from trouble, and it falls on the wicked instead” (Pr. 11:8). In fact, the prevailing theme in the book of Proverbs is that the life of wisdom brings joy and great reward, while the life of folly brings frustration, sorrow, and destruction. So here we have a clear contrast between the comparatively easy yoke and light burden of wise life as opposed to the hard yoke and heavy burden of the foolish life. Add to this the weight of guilty conscience which plagues the fool, and the burden is compounded. As John Calvin once said, “the torture of a bad conscience is the hell of a living soul.” The true disciple of Christ is spared this torture, having been fully forgiven and also empowered by the Spirit to live a repentant, obedient life.
Considered in this light, Jesus’ observation that his yoke is easy and his burden is light makes much sense, even on this side of paradise. We might experience significant suffering in this life, but we have the joy of knowing this will flower in eternal reward in the afterlife. And during our earthly sojourn, we are spared the oppressive burden of a guilty conscience. For all of the difficulties we may face as Christians, that is certainly a comparatively easy yoke. So Christ’s teachings that there is a high cost to following him and that his burden is light are reconcilable after all.