THE YOKE OF SUBMISSION
A yoke, as you know, is part of the harness of the labouring ox: a beam of wood across the top nicely curved to the shape of the neck, and a peg through on each side in front of the shoulders. The yoke is strapped to the plough or cart, so that as the ox presses forward into the yoke his energy is channeled into useful work. Jesus had probably made dozens of such yokes in the carpenter's shop in Nazareth. Perhaps he had the slogan written up in Hebrew over the door: "My yoke is easy!"
During Old Testament times, however, a more sinister meaning had been given to the symbolism of the yoke. After a victory in battle, the successful general would yoke the defeated king to his chariot and make him drag it along like a beast under the lash. Thus the yoke became the sign of SUBMISSION. If a vanquished city wished to capitulate to an invading or besieging army, the leading citizens would appear on the top of the walls wearing yokes. The prophet Jeremiah put a wooden yoke on his own neck to indicate to the people that they must submit to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. Hananiah, who favoured resistance, took off Jeremiah's yoke and broke it. But the Lord said to Jeremiah: "Go, tell Hananiah, You have broken the wooden yoke, but I will make in its place yokes of iron." (Jeremiah 28:10, 13.)
Against this background of usage, with the yoke symbolizing submission and even slavery, the calm statement by Jesus that his disciples must take his yoke upon them acquires a bite which is lost to us today. "You must submit to me absolutely. You must become my captive, even my slave." There is nothing soft or sentimental about that!
Christ is the imperious King. He demands that we bear his yoke, giving him a total commitment of all we have and are. We must come humbly out of our walled cities, with yokes on our necks and the keys in our hands. "Great Conqueror," we must say, falling on our knees before him, "we surrender unconditionally. We hold nothing back. You shall be our Master for ever."
What I am telling you is very unpopular these days, especially in a nation brought up to the ideal of the freedom of the individual. There is a Master who has absolute claim upon our property, our time, our talents, our life. Everything we think and say and do must be submitted to his scrutiny and rejected if it is not in harmony with his will. Nothing can be hidden from him, and it is useless for us to try to have any private life at all behind shut doors. Even if we make our bed in hell, he is there.
But wait a moment! There is another side to this. If you are prepared to submit yourself to God without reservation, and when you actually do this, the whole situation changes. Once you are committed to him as a slave, you find him no longer a demanding task-master but a loving Father. Having accepted his yoke, we find that, in fact, it fits us perfectly and does not gall us in the least; it is an "easy" yoke. Having undertaken to carry his heavy burden and hitched it up on our backs, we find it as light as a piece of styrofoam!
Many people in the past—saints and ordinary folk like ourselves—have proved this to be the case, and have recorded their experience: that "it is not so difficult to live the life of heaven as is commonly believed." For, once you have given yourself up to the Lord, he takes all your responsibilities off your shoulders.
How difficult, how complicated, is the life of him who tries to live for himself. Always he must be considering his status; on no account can he afford to "lose face". He is in a perpetual state of anxiety lest someone should creep up and outdo him. He must be building up his ego all the time. He must be praised; but if anyone else is praised or preferred before him, it is bitterness and gall. Much depends on his possessions—his property; if he loses a few pounds or dollars, it is like the extraction of a tooth! And so he is in a perpetual state of fear: afraid of himself and his own inability to live up to the image he has of himself; afraid of humiliation, afraid of loss, afraid of sickness, afraid above all of death. A heavy yoke indeed!
On the other hand, once you no longer belong to yourself but to the Lord, all these fears and inadequacies and jealousies disappear. If people misunderstand you, what does it matter? It does not touch you, because you are the Lord's. If they criticize you, you agree with them—they are probably right! You can no longer be hurt, because your pride is no longer swollen, red and "touchy". As for temptations to do foolish and wicked things, they no longer affect you, because Jesus is at your side. You just say, "Lord, please handle this situation for me," and the battle is won. And so you are at peace, with a peace the world can neither give nor take away. And with that peace comes joy.
Religion is a paradox; it works by opposites. Evil spirits offer you everything you could desire: freedom, pleasure, glamour, excitement, fun, a real good time; but, once you attend to them and accept their blandishments they rapidly reduce you to a condition of slavery. "He who commits sin is the bond-slave of sin." They are like the spider who invites and entices the fly into his parlour and then gobbles it up! Our Lord's way is the complete reverse of this. He offers us (or seems to offer us) nothing but hardship and renunciation, a total sacrifice, a yoke, a cross. But if you accept him on those terms you discover that in fact "his yoke is easy and his burden is light." And beyond the cross is—glorification! The Lord is not really the hard task-master he would appear to be. He is meek and lowly of heart, and, if you take his yoke upon you and learn of him, you will find rest unto your soul.
For years I have been trying to lighten the load of people's religious lives—and my own also. So many of us find religion a serious and heavy-going business, whereas it should be light as air. We find it solemn and gloomy, whereas it should be joyous and uplifting. I have wondered and worried over this. Where have we gone wrong? Well, here is the answer, right before us! We are failing to enjoy the full lightness and joyousness of the Christian life because we have not taken the first essential step of accepting Christ as our Master! We are not enjoying the easy yoke because we have not taken on Christ's yoke at all—fearing it might be too heavy! We shall never experience the joy of intimacy with our heavenly Father until we have first submitted ourselves to him as a Conqueror. We must empty ourselves out of self before we can be filled with the healthful spirit of his grace. He is standing here by our side, ready and waiting to fill the tank of our car with the highest grade of spirit, but unfortunately the tank is already full—full of dirty water!
WE must take the initial step, which will have to be a negative one—"Thou shalt not!" We must stop battling against the forces of heaven, which many of us have spent our lives doing in the past. Battling for what?—for the proud privilege and honour of being an evil spirit in hell! We must wave the white flag and give in to our masterful Lord. We must yield ourselves up in unconditional surrender and take his yoke upon us. Only then shall we experience wholeness and peace.
One point on which people seem to be in doubt. They realize there must be a full submission but do not see how this fits in with the continued exercise of their freewill and responsibility. They suppose that the only way to renounce self completely is to stop living in the world, to give up the rat race and go and live in a convent or a monastery. But no! To renounce the world means to live in the world but renounce its evils. Submission to the Lord does not mean laying down one's tools. The ox in the yoke pushes forward and does his Master's work; in fact, the very purpose of the yoke, as we saw at the beginning, is to channel his energy into useful labour. The captive and the slave are not expected to sit around idle. The sign of the yoke is that they must work harder than ever, but on their master's behalf and in his interests instead of their own. So with the son of the household; he works the hardest of all, as his father's representative and heir. We shall still have to go on exercising our free-will and sense of responsibility, but as the Lord's agents, his children, responsible to him.
The yoke is not only a symbol of submission but is also actually a help to more efficient and useful labour in the Lord's vineyard. The "rest" which Jesus offers us is not a cessation of activity, rather it is a rest from anxiety, tension, worry and fear, a rest from temptation and the itch of self-importance. "Come to me," says Jesus, "all you who labour and are heavy laden in that sense, and I will give you rest. Bend your necks to my yoke, and learn of me so that you can do the job better. For I am meek and lowly in heart, and you shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."