A few months ago, I left my job. I stepped down from all positions of ministry leadership I’d once held. As someone with a high value for productivity, purposeful work, and efficiency, it was an extremely counterintuitive step to take. I had been on staff with a campus ministry for about 5 years and felt that I’d invested all I possibly had to give into the students, the ministry, and the work that God invited me into on campus. Why should I leave now? I’ve already invested all that I have into this ministry, to start over elsewhere would be foolish.
Initially God’s invitation to enter into vocational ministry begun as a life-giving pursuit of partnering with Him to expand His Kingdom on campus. However, as the natural ups and downs of ministry (and let’s be real, life in general) came into play, I found it difficult to experience the same joy and renewed vision He had given me from the start. By year five, I found myself burnt out, jaded by the concept of ministry leadership, and barely able to get out of bed each morning to face what felt like an impossible day ahead. It felt as if I’d lost my purpose in life, as my soul’s tiredness created a barrier in being able to grasp God’s vision for His work on campus. As I’d lost vision, I lost the necessary passion for the day-to-day. As I lost passion, I began losing hope that Jesus was in it with my students and I at all. Before I knew it, my personal sense of value and worth had plummeted as I’d entered into a never-ending downward spiral of exhaustion and feeling that all I had to give was simply not enough.
In Matthew 11:28-30 (ESV) Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
I’ve heard this scripture quoted time and time again, and in theory love the concept: follow Jesus, let Him take care of you (cue, Jesus Take the Wheel). However, more often than not, I found myself in a regular state of stress and anxiety…Yes, I know that I’m socially exhausted and need space to recharge…but if I could just fit in a couple more coffee meet-ups, perhaps newcomers in our ministry will feel more welcomed. Yes, I know that my schedule is so packed that I’m skipping meals here and there, but if I don’t get tasks A-Z done then everything will fall apart.…the list of self-created obligation goes on and on.
I’ve heard more than a few times that our generation (i.e., millennials) have an ever-increasing likelihood in experiencing mental illness – particularly in the forms of depression and anxiety. I myself have had my own battle with the two over the years, and only recently began seeing a therapist to gain clarity in how to acknowledge and address it.
In John Koessler’s Radical Pursuit of Rest, he claims that anxiety is not a result of misaligned priorities, but misaligned confidence. When we place confidence in ourselves and our ability to manage or control our lives rather than trusting our Creator to lead us through life, we curate anxiety due to the fact that we will never be able to control the outcome of our circumstances.
I’m not trying to make any claims about clinically diagnosed mental illness, and I acknowledge that appropriately addressing mental illness is not as simple as changing one’s spirituality or mindset. God calls some of us to become therapists, psychiatrists, and counselors for good reason – there are certain situations in which seeking professional help truly is the most appropriate next step.
I am however, wanting to highlight the paradox I find myself in quite often…
If Jesus calls us to trust in Him because His yoke is “easy”, why does life (and even ministry) still feel so draining and impossible? How do we address the disparity between the rest Jesus promises, and the seemingly endless burnout so many of us find ourselves in?
I’ll find myself reading article after article on social media about the latest local or national tragedy, natural disaster, or current political issue. At the same time, I can’t scroll through my feed without seeing at least half a dozen recommendations regarding the latest “self-care” tip, new experience to try out, or eatery to taste. In the very media I consume, the call to action and engagement is in tension with the rest and pleasure to be had. The concept of balancing “work” and “rest” is confusing, to say the least. It seems that in order to work, one sacrifices rest. In order to rest, one has to set aside work.
But I believe the rest that Jesus refers to in Matthew 11 gives a paradigm to realign our soul such that responsible rest and purposeful work are integrated, going hand-in-hand with one another. That we should not “labor in vain” but take on the yoke of Jesus and partner with him in His good work; all while being in a position to receive His grace.
The rest that Jesus invites us into consists of more than an isolated activity, specific meditation, or even physical sleep. He offers rest that shifts one’s entire soul to orient toward His purposes, His way of pursuing those purposes, and His power fueling that pursuit. When our soul is oriented toward Jesus and His way of life; our mind, body, and heart are able to experience full rest. It is when we pursue purpose without the guidance and empowerment of God’s spirit that we spiral into never-ending discontent and eventual burnout.
I’ve had my own struggle embracing Jesus’ restful yoke, as my meritocracy-based spirituality has led me to burnout time and time again. When I decided to follow Jesus wholeheartedly mid-college, I immediately jumped into every opportunity I could find to “serve” Him. Well-intentioned enough, right? What I didn’t realize was that in the process of doing so, I subconsciously replaced Jesus’ gift of partnership with Him in His work, with my own means to “earning” His love. I really took to heart the whole “faith without works is dead” concept. In retrospect, I don’t believe that devoting my life to serving Jesus was misaligned. I do however, see how in attempt to serve Jesus primarily through action, I disabled myself from letting Him align my soul in a way that both purposeful work, and responsible rest were integrated.
A meritocracy-based spiritual mindset speaks discontent and discouragement. It perpetuates the need to always be doing. You’re not enough. You need to do more. You need to do better. A spiritual mindset that embraces Jesus’ yoke speaks life. You are enough simply because you are created by God. He is already in control of orchestrating all that needs to be done. You are invited to partner with Him in what He’s already doing to better the world around you.
So where does this leave us? What do we do to position ourselves to give Christ our burdens, and receive His easy yoke?
Perhaps the issue at hand is less about answering this particular question, and more about the belief that there’s something we can do to experience the restful life that Jesus promises. Our culture praises the doers of our society, and it’s no surprise that it has inadvertently become ingrained into our understanding of faith and life with Jesus.
In Matthew 11 Jesus invites His followers to take His easy yoke, and light burden. This means that though there is certainly work to be done, Jesus invites us to put our confidence in His wisdom, and His power to complete what needs to be accomplished. It means letting go of our ego and self-made yoke of obligation to earthly things, in exchange for the vision and direction that Jesus will regularly renew in us. It’s something we must to choose to do daily and even hourly. It means that rather than starting the day with “Okay Marky, here’s the list of all that you need to get done today,” we begin our day asking, “Okay Jesus, how do you want my soul to focus its attention today?” We must position ourselves to listen and humble ourselves to respond appropriately. Sometimes response will require action. Sometimes it will require refocusing our thinking. Other times, He may ask us to simply “be still, and know that I am God.”
When God’s spirit stopped me in my tracks halfway through year 5 of campus ministry and encouraged me to leave all positions of ministry leadership I’d held, I was shocked. Why would God ever ask me to stop serving Him? What is faith without works to validate it? I couldn’t fathom a life with Jesus in which He would ask me to stop doing all that I could to “do His kingdom work.” But as I heard His call to step away from “work”, I knew I needed to respond in obedience regardless of how little it made sense to me.
Responding to Jesus may not always be the most productive way of life. It may not be the most efficient. But Jesus prioritizes people over productivity. Unlike the culture around us, He would rather cultivate healthy souls than produce a large volume of church-goers (though I’m sure if the church were consisted of mostly healthy souls, the volume of church-goers would also significantly increase).
In repositioning our purpose to simply being with and responding to God’s spirit, we can experience the rest that Jesus’ yoke is meant to bring. Our value and worth are no longer in what we do or create, but in who we are as the created. As our sense of value and worth shifts, our priorities shift. As our priorities shift, our soul aligns with Jesus and His vision for our lives. As we align more deeply with Jesus’s vision, we experience the integration of purposeful work in Jesus’ yoke and responsible rest for our souls.
In the months following the decision to leave my job, Jesus began doing an incredible work in me as He restored my sense of self-worth, and what it meant to cultivate a healthy spiritual life with Him. Though I wasn’t doing or creating anything that the world might deem as purposeful and productive, He began helping me see the value I had for simply existing as one created by Him. He equipped me with a stronger sense of inherent belovedness, and spiritual disciplines that will be necessary to remain focused and rested, even when life’s busyness inevitably kicks in. As I enter into a season of doing, creating, and producing again, I’m sure that I’ll continue to struggle with prioritizing Jesus’ restful yoke above my self-created one. However, I’m grateful to serve and know the gracious God that I do, and I’m humbled that He will forever value who I am more than what I think I can produce. I trust that despite my own tendency to attempt to “earn” His love through works, He will always bring me back to the easy yoke He has for me to carry.
Words by Mariko Sandico
Photos by Sarah Mohan