Every religion tells followers to accept a yoke, a discipline that is thought to help transform the adherent into a better self. If you were Hindu, you might engage in regular fasting, or practice body postures, or memorize and recite Hindu Scriptures, or study philosophy, or one a a handful of other disciplines each of which is known as a yoga. The Sanskrit word yoga is actually etymologically related to the English word yoke. A yoke is a piece of wood that harnesses a pair of oxen so that they can work together to pull a wagon or a plow. Both the Sanskrit word yoga and the English word yoke have that literal meaning, but they also have two metaphorical meanings: (1) a discipline to which one submits willingly, and (2) enslavement to a discipline imposed by others. The first of these metaphorical meanings articulates powerfully what a religion means and how it accomplishes the good toward which it aims. When Jesus invites His followers to take on His yoke, he’s asking them voluntarily to adopt the way of life that he embodies: humility and gentleness, and trust in God’s goodness.
Like Hindus, we Christians have several different yogas, different yokes or disciplines, that we think will bring us closer to God. For some of us, prayer and reading of Scripture are spiritual yokes that we do our best to shoulder. Others of us focus on giving alms, or serving the poor and downtrodden, or regular attendance at Mass. Monastics take on the yoke of submission to the chain of authority in their order. If we were Jewish, we might take on the yoke of keeping a kosher home, or studying the Torah and the Rabbis.
But the second metaphorical meaning of a yoke, oppressive enslavement by others to their agenda, is something we all have to deal with. Our culture is obsessed with striving. We’re offered countless programs for self-improvement, everything from weight loss and smoking cessation to improving memory and emotional stability. We’re bombarded with messages about our culture’s ideals and how we fall short of them. We’re taught that constant attention to self-improvement is noble and we’re warned against the dangers of stagnation and acceptance of the status quo. We’re saddened when we notice someone who fails to live up to their potential, by which we mean that they don’t meet our culture’s standards of effort and accomplishment; we think they’re wasting their life and talent.
Our yokes can make us arrogant and intolerant if we’re not careful. If I take on the discipline of sobriety, it’s easy to be judgmental about anyone else who doesn’t. If I express my faith mainly by working for social justice, then I may be tempted to regard as inferior those who seek God in lives of solitude. Christians who are peace activists may be tempted to think the Christianity of the crusaders is un-debatable. It’s so easy to praise ourselves by dismissing others’ efforts. But if I’m honest with myself I realize that the challenge of living a Christian life, even by my own standard, is one that I repeatedly fail to meet. There’s just too much that has to be done, and I’m just one person. I get overwhelmed by the vast gulf between the world’s need and my ability to meet that need. Even just for myself, there’s too much work that needs to be done, too much to strive for. If meeting a supposed Christian ideal of life and character is what it means to be a Christian, I’m afraid I’ll never make it.
Of course there are some people who maddeningly manage much of the time to do what they set out to do. Yet I suspect that even they may not feel as successful as they seem to others. Maybe the worst thing about the self-improvement obsessed culture we live in is the fact that it robs from us our ability to relax. There’s always some project on which we should be working — learning a foreign language, training for a marathon, working off those pounds, working on being a better spouse and parent — and if you’re like me you sometimes feel buried under the seemingly inexhaustible supply of things that need to be improved, each one worthwhile and some even essential. There are so many important yokes to bear.
And Christianity teaches us that the main yoke we must bear is a cross. When Jesus invites us to follow Him in bearing our crosses to Calvary, he is bidding us suffer and die with Him, and promising resurrection. He’s inviting us to yoke ourselves together with Him in His project to save the world. The cross is a yoke that can only be taken in gentleness and humility, because even the slightest impulse of pride causes us to throw that yoke off. It goes something like this: “I shouldn’t have to suffer in that way. I deserve to be treated better than that. It’s beneath my dignity. I’m not going to stand for this kind of treatment.” But to bear the cross-shaped yoke is to willingly submit ourselves to humiliation and pain, again and again, not defending ourselves, not resisting evil, offering the second cheek when the first has been struck. That’s the yoke of Jesus that he calls us to bear.
But riddle me this: How on earth can he call that yoke easy and that burden light? The way of self-denial, of submission to torture and death, the way that feels often enough like “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That doesn’t sound easy, so why does he say it is? I think it’s because we don’t have to be successful; we just have to bear up. Success is in God’s hands, not ours; all we have to do is trust that God’s Kingdom is victorious. If we will accept this yoke that leads us through the lowest, most ignoble defeat, then we are assured of success.
That’s why this passage from Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans has always held such power for me. I remember even as a teenager deriving a lot of hope from the fact that Saint Paul himself, a man of huge importance, struggled with failure. I identify with his frustration at being unable to make much headway in the project of self-reformation. I’m as caught up as anyone in our general cultural idea that life is all about becoming a better version of oneself, but more often than not I fail at the yogas I attempt to live by, and even when I don’t fail, those yogas don’t accomplish what I hope they’ll accomplish. The thing I want to do is the very thing I don’t do; and the thing I don’t want to do, that’s what I do. I know well enough what I should do, but find myself unable to meet the challenge consistently. Given my inability to pull myself up by my own bootstraps, how is any improvement possible? Paul’s answer resounds, “through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Because the thing is, when we take on Jesus’ yoke, the partner we’re yoked with is the very Son of God. He is like the powerful ox that pulls the cart inexorably to its true destination. Our contribution, compared to His, is minimal. Yet, if we take on that yoke, He takes our half-hearted, weak-kneed, feeble efforts and strengthens them so that they become part of the transcendent story of God’s victory. Success is certain, indeed it’s already accomplished. We can stand up under our yoke and keep walking with Jesus through suffering and death, and right on through resurrection and ascension. He will recreate us as the version of ourselves that we ought to be, and that will be better than a thousand self-help programs. If we trust Him to do that, we will find peace.