Dealing with Life’s Burdens
A man sat in the office of a
psychiatrist and poured out his heart. “I’m lonely”,
he said. “I find it hard to get up in the morning. There is
no joy in my life. I have few friends. I feel my life is at a dead
end and I don’t know where to turn. I try to do things for
people but they don’t appreciate me. I feel sad all the time.
There is no joy, no purpose, nothing can make me happy”. He
appeared to be at the end of his rope. After listening to him for
some time the doctor told him he had an idea. He proposed the
patient take some medications that might be helpful in lifting his
spirits. He then talked about various coping mechanisms the man
might adopt. After all, there was not such thing as “hopeless”.
“I am going to suggest one extra thing.” he said. “You
sound as though you are spending too much time alone, mulling over
your problems. You need to get out. There is a circus in town. One
of the best acts is the performance of a certain clown. I have seen
many clowns in my life, but this one is the best. He makes everyone
laugh. Take a night off work and go and see the circus. I guarantee
you will laugh too.” The man looked up with sorrowful eyes and
said to the doctor with an air of resignation, “I don’t
see how that will help me. I am that clown”.
Life is full of contradictions. What
we see on the outside is often at odds with the reality. People put
on brave faces and cover up what they are going through, what they
are feeling inside. Life in the affluent, technological West should
be easy and carefree. We have every device, every toy, and life
expectancy is climbing. Never in human history have we been so well
poised to conquer disease, improve our quality of life and build on
strong emotional foundations. The irony is that levels of personal
stress continue to climb and the story related above is compounded by
the fact that psychiatrists are among the nation’s most likely
professional group to commit suicide. Like the clown, when we “know
it all”, when we have heard (and used) all the set answers,
when we manage to hide our true feelings from others, there is almost
nowhere else to turn.
A sign on a colleague’s desk
read: “I’m going to have a nervous breakdown. I have
worked for it. I deserve it. No one is going to deprive me of it”.
This does not sound like a society that has everything going for it.
There comes a time when we realize what we have is inadequate to
meet life’s greatest challenges, that we do not have all the
answers. At such a crossroad, we can give up or look for solutions.
The Bible says that the only one who can truly satisfy is Christ; he
is the only one who can change a life and give sound hope for the
I once sat in a market place in
Cochabamba, the third largest city in Bolivia. I was in the midst of
an introductory Spanish language training course; it was felt by my
employers that the best way for me to learn the language was go be
placed in a Spanish-speaking environment. “Sink or swim”.
So off I went, to a school run by the Maryknoll Fathers.
Bolivia is one of the poorest
countries in Latin America and it showed. Most of the public
infrastructure was out of date, the average life expectancy for males
was just over 45 years, the Government was unstable (there had been
more governments than years of independence) and the country was a
known supplier of drugs for the North American market. Rabid dogs
walked around the streets of slums (I was in the neighbourhood one
morning when I came across a group of angry men beating a mangy dog
to death because a girl had died of rabies). A fellow-student
contacted amoebic dysentery and bubonic plague was a problem in parts
of the county.
As I sat in the market and took in the
sights, sounds and smells I noticed a line of men carry sacks of
wheat. A truck had arrived from the countryside and the sacks were
being transported for milling. Each of the stocky Aymara men grabbed
the corner of a huge sack, hoisted it onto his shoulders and walked
down the street, his back almost parallel with the road. I felt
sorry for the labourers, for whom this was about as good as it got.
Life did not offer much more. Their faces were grimy, they grunted
beneath the loads, they had wads of coca leaves in the mouths and as
I watched them it occurred to me that this was the way it had been
for centuries. Life was a long labour and then they died, to be
replaced by younger men (teenagers, more likely) starting the same
downward spiral of hard work, low pay, struggles to keep a family
housed and fed, followed by intermittent sickness and ultimately
death. I felt sorry for them. In this modern world human existence
does not have to be like this. But there was nothing I could do. I
was not able to take their burdens and relieve them of their loads.
Coming to Jesus with our burdens
My mind went back to Jesus’
days, when labourers and slaves served their masters in the same way.
Wherever Jesus went he saw people struggling beneath heavy loads.
Only those with enough capital to own oxen did not have to do all of
the carrying for themselves. One day as he watched tired peasants
carrying loads he said to them, “Come to me, all you who labour
and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you
and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly of heart. And you will find
rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29).
Jesus saw another dimension to their
problems. Beneath the physical packs they struggled with emotional
and spiritual burdens that no one was able to lift. It seemed they
were destined to suffer, and ultimately die and be buried by family
and friends, almost forgotten as the hard struggle continued. To
make matters worse they were burdened in many other ways by society.
Living as they did under a cruel Roman occupation they carried
burdens of racial hate, underclass status, frustrations, excessive
taxation and obligations associated with providing for the needs of
their oppressive overlords. Their spiritual leaders added additional
layers of religious legalism, designed to keep ordinary people in
check while they maintained their rights and privileges as part of
the ruling elite. There were literally hundreds of rules and
regulations to keep.
Temple officials and teachers of the
law kept track of rules and regulations, monitoring peoples’
compliance, always looking out for new loopholes for themselves while
making the onus on the common people weightier. As Jesus stood and
spoke these words they would have resonated with many of his
listeners. He called them “tired”. They were certainly
tired. He spoke of “rest”. They desperately needed
rest. No wonder Jesus was popular with ordinary folks. He
understood where they were coming from. He articulated exactly what
they were feeling.
There are millions of people today who
need to hear the same words from Jesus. They are not necessarily
struggling beneath physical loads, but they are constantly burdened.
Their “loads” may be worry, financial fears, a sense of
personal failure, frustrations at work, problems coping at home,
marriage and family break-up, loneliness, peer pressures, guilty
consciences and hurts stemming from peoples’ attitudes. It
seems no one cares, no one understands. Everyone has his or her own
problems to deal with, with little or no time left over to think
about others. To make matters worse, there are spiritual problems.
The Bible talks about the burden of sin (Psalm 38:4, 6). Spiritual
problems need spiritual answers. The only durable answers come from
Coping with problems, pressures and
We all face pressures and problems.
They can be character-building, or they can destroy us. Some people
make every effort to get away, but they go in the wrong direction.
Like the British family who were so concerned about the possibility
of nuclear fall-out and social problems for their children growing up
in Europe that they looked at the map to find somewhere in the world
that was the furthest they could go to get away from every threat.
They sold their home and emigrated, arriving in the Falkland Islands
just a few weeks before Argentinian President Leopoldo Galtieri
ordered his armed forces to storm the islands and incorporate them in
the nation’s sovereign territory, sparking a bitter war that
left death and destruction in its wake. Some escape!
How do we cope with problems,
pressures and stresses? Few of us find sympathy in the workplace.
We try the escape of high tech entertainment, but often emerge
depressed and bored. Young people (and their parents) experiment
with a wide range of chemicals and drugs, to no avail. Others try
education, looking for answers in learning but all too often losing
hope because of the emptiness of so-called rationalism. A knock on
the door reveals the presence of a religious salesman offering hope
and answers through one of the cults. Occult involvement,
witchcraft, New Age groups are growing and becoming “respectable”,
but do not contain the answer. A newspaper advertisement offers a
get-away to a sunny beach resort and suggests couples take advantage
of the opportunity to sort out their issues. The package is called a
“Marriage Saver Weekend”.
We turn to our political, business,
education and religious leaders, but they are also searching for
answers. As a result, most opinion polls show trust in leaders to be
in low single per centage terms, barely on the chart. Where can we
turn? Who is listening? Who can explain the loneliness, depression,
disappointment, boredom, discouragement, mental and emotional
tiredness that make so many people just want to give up, and define
solutions? Life appears to be a continuous struggle.
Even Christians sometimes fall into
this trap. An old hymn started with the following words, “I’ve
wrestled on toward heaven, through storm and wind and tide”.
Is this the answer? A life-long wrestle? Continuously striving?
Surely this is not the answer Jesus came to offer. This is no
Committing our way to Christ –
he has “been there”
When Jesus called the weary to come to
him for rest he was actually calling them to follow him. The Bible
says that he was tested in every area in which we are tested in life.
There is no temptation we encounter, that he did not face in some
form (Hebrews 2:18; 4:15). Jesus was a teenager and experienced
changes every young man goes through. He was a young man in a world
where young men competed to show their virility. He was often
tempted, but he did not sin. He saw social injustice and was touched
by racial and economic prejudice. Even though he was God he knew
what it felt like to be hungry, tired, lonely, rejected, thirsty,
betrayed and to feel emotional and physical pain. He wept at the
grave of a friend who died. He was often misunderstood and his
motives impugned by his opponents. But he overcame it all. Jesus
was not deterministic. He did not belief defeat and failure were
inevitable. He taught that it is possible to break the moulds into
which people try to pour us, and to start all over again.
When we learn to trust him, we find
the key to great spiritual and emotional release. Psalm 37:1-7. The
passage tells us not to “fret”, to burn out as a result
of what we are going through. Instead, it urges us to delight in
him. It is just like pouring our feelings, negativity, anxiety, and
anger into God. The word “commit” contains the notion of
rolling. We are to roll our burdens onto the Lord’s shoulders.
Then we are to relax and trust him. Psalm 55:22. He has promised
to “sustain” us’. He will not allow us to be
moved. “I will give you rest”. Christ offers us
refreshment and renewal. That does not mean inactivity, but the
ability to rest in the middle of the most trying and confusing
circumstances. Jesus was not talking about escaping from problems,
but holding up in the midst of them. Psalm 43:5. When we learn to
trust God like this, we experience change and God’s peace and
An illustration from everyday life
To illustrate his point Jesus drew his
listeners’ attention to a team of oxen pulling a cart. Those
who could afford to do so had at least two oxen. Typically, one
would be young and strong, but relatively inexperienced. The other
would be older, but more experienced and disciplined. Together, they
had strength and experience. The best part of the team was effective
partnership. Our inexperience and Christ’s lordship can forge
an effective partnership. What we need to do is take his yoke on our
shoulders. The irony in Jesus’ call is that submission leads
If we follow the way Jesus Christ
leads, doing things his way, listening to his advice, we find that we
are not struggling alone; he helps us When we don’t know where
to go, all we need to do is ask, beside he is there, right beside us.
When the going gets too heavy, we can let go and he will shoulder
the burden. The Bible says that we should cast all our cares on him,
because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).
The other key element of Jesus
statement is that we should learn from him. Older oxen taught their
younger team mates. There are basically two attitudes we can adopt.
If we are teachable, we will learn. If we are stubborn and
unteachable, insisting on our own way, rebelling against God’s
dealings in our lives and the circumstances he allows, we will be
frustrated and inadvertently increase the load. He wants to teach
us. He said that he was “meek and lowly of heart”. If
we have this attitude, this spirit, we will be sure to learn. The
Holy Spirit will come along side of us (that is what “paraklete”,
the New Testament word often translated “Comforter”
literally means) and show us how and where to go. He will not
necessarily change our circumstances, but we will be able to see them
in a new context. He may also send other experienced “oxen”
(fellow-Christians) alongside to help us (cf Galatians 6:2).
He is gentle. He does not pressure
us, demand, judge or place unrealistic expectations on our lives.
The weight he places on our shoulders is sufficient; not so easy we
think we can do it in our own strength; not so much that we crumble
beneath the weight. The paradox is that the more we yield, the more
we find ourselves.
The invitation of Christ has a major
appeal. It is as relevant to sophisticated modern man as it was to
Jesus’ original audience. Only he has the power to transform
the human heart, but when he does so it is unmistakable and