What is the Secret of Jesus’ Easy Yoke?: insights from Dallas Willard

This past weekend I preached from one of my favorite teachings by Jesus, where we hear His stunning invitation:

“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)

One of the most powerful insights into understanding what Jesus means by the easy yoke comes from Dallas Willard in his profound book The Spirit of the Disciplines. In the opening chapter, entitled “The Secret of the Easy Yoke,” Willard writes the following:

And in this truth lies the secret of the easy yoke: the secret involves living as he lived in the entirety of his life — adopting his overall life-style. Following ​“in his steps” cannot be equated with behaving as he did when he was ​“on the spot.” To live as Christ lives is to live as he did all his life. 

Our mistake is to think that following Jesus consists in loving our enemies, going the ​“second mile,” turning the other cheek, suffering patiently and hopefully — while living the rest of our lives just as everyone around us does. This is like the aspiring young baseball players mentioned earlier. It’s a strategy bound to fail and to make the way of Christ ​“difficult and left untried.” In truth it is not the way of Christ any more than striving to act in a certain manner in the heat of a game is the way of the champion athlete. 

Whatever may have guided us into this false approach, it is simply a mistake. And it will certainly cause us to find Jesus’ commands about our actions during specific situations impossibly burdensome — ​“grievous” as the King James Version of the New Testament puts it. Instead of an easy yoke, all we’ll experience is frustration. 

But this false approach to following Christ has counterparts throughout human life. It is part of the misguided and whimsical condition of humankind that we so devoutly believe in the power of effort-at-the-moment-of-action alone to accomplish what we want and completely ignore the need for character change in our lives as a whole. The general human failing is to want what is right and important, but at the same time not to commit to the kind of life that will produce the action we know to be right and the condition we want to enjoy. This is the feature of human character that explains why the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We intend what is right, but we avoid the life that would make it reality. 

…So, ironically, in our efforts to avoid the necessary pains of discipline we miss the easy yoke and light burden. We then fall into the rending frustration of trying to do and be the Christian we know we ought to be without the necessary insight and strength that only discipline can provide…. 

So, those who say we cannot truly follow Christ turn out to be correct in a sense. We cannot behave ​“on the spot” as he did and taught if in the rest of our time we live as everybody else does. The ​“on the spot” episodes are not the place where we can, even by the grace of God, redirect unchristlike but ingrained tendencies of action toward sudden Christlikeness. Our efforts to take control at that moment will fail so uniformly and so ingloriously that the whole project of following Christ will appear ridiculous to the watching world. We’ve all seen this happen. 

So, we should be perfectly clear about one thing: Jesus never expected us simply to turn the other cheek, go the second mile, bless those who persecute us, give unto them that ask, and so forth. These responses, generally and rightly understood to be characteristics of Christlikeness, were set forth by him as illustrative of what might be expected of a new kind of person — one who intelligently and steadfastly seeks, above all else, to live within the rule of God and be possessed by the kind of righteousness that God himself has, as Matthew 6:33 portrays. 

Instead, Jesus did invite people to follow him into that sort of life from which behavior such as loving one’s enemies will seem like the only sensible and happy thing to do. …Oswald Chambers observes: ​“The Sermon on the Mount is a statement of the life we will live when the Holy Spirit is getting his way with us.”

[Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), 4-8.]

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