Rest for the Soul

This is the text of a message delivered at the Wesleyan Church of Hamburg, January 30, 2011.

“Our heart is restless until it rests in You.”

St. Augustine, Confessions (400 A.D.)

This message is framed by the stories of two college students: one named Tom, and one named John.

Let me tell you first about Tom. Like most other college students in the 1980s he freely indulged in every form of vice and depravity available on modern college campuses. Alcohol, drugs, pornography, illicit relationships – Tom did all of that without a qualm. What makes Tom’s story is different is what comes before. Because Tom, at the age of twelve or thirteen, had gone forward at an evangelistic service and had committed his life to Christ. Tom still believed himself to be a Christian, forever saved.

You see, Tom happened to be my roommate when I was a brand-new Christian. So I asked him, “How can you claim to be a Christian and yet live your life this way?”

He looked at me with sad eyes, shook his head, and said, “It’s just too much work.” It’s too hard, he explained, to be good all the time, to watch what you say and how you behave. He was fed up with the constant battle. So, after a few years of being an outwardly committed Christian, he simply gave up.

He was burned out. And his unspoken implication to me was that, one day, I too would throw up my hands and quit.

As we begin, I would like to consider the following 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

Rest for our souls. Come to ME, Jesus says, and you will find rest for your souls.

Jesus looked out at the multitudes with compassion. They were weary, burdened, burned out. The religious system had failed them; it had cast them out as sinners because they had given up trying to obey the rules.

You may disagree, but I think that many Christians today probably have those same feelings. In my own life I have known many of them. Some have never come back.

An old hymn begins with the words, “Jesus I am resting, resting.” When I first heard this hymn, maybe twenty years ago, I nearly laughed out loud. My life then was anything but rest. It was running from one Christian activity to another, a frenzy of activity, of doing things for God. My soul had no rest. I didn’t realize it, but I was heading straight for a disaster. Just like Tom. Maybe his unspoken prediction was about to come true.

Have you ever felt like this? Does your Christian life sometimes feel like a hamster wheel – an endless circle of activity with no real motion?

Where is peace? Where is victory? Where is ‘rest for our souls’?

It’s not as if God has failed us. He has provided everything we need to live above that level:

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.  2 Peter 1:3

There should be no excuse, no place for saying “it’s just too hard.” We are fully equipped. Anti-Burnout Principle No. 1 is “WE HAVE ALL WE NEED.” How is it, then, that some Christians manage to find that “rest for the soul,” while others burn out in frustration and failure?

Jesus gives us an illustrative real-life example of a man ready for burn-out. Our text is found in Mark chapter 10.

From an early age he has learned to obey the rules, to be virtuous and honest and wise. He knows the Bible inside out. Now a full-grown man, he is at the height of his powers. He is strong. He is wealthy. He is true to his religion, as true as anyone he knows. He is respected and admired by his peers, a true man of character.

But he is not at peace. Something gnaws at his soul. Somehow all the hard work and perseverance has failed to bring him satisfaction. There is no joy in his life. Instead of finding peace, he finds only more work, more labor, more toil.

His professors shrug him off. “You’re chasing a phantom,” they say. “Stop thinking about this vague notion of ‘rest for your soul’. The whole duty of man is to keep the Commandments.”

This answer, as one might expect, fails to bring him any solace. He has already kept the Commandments. What he wants is assurance. He wants peace.

Then, one day, as he reads the morning paper, an advertisement catches his eye. A famous traveling preacher is on tour in the area. In fact, he is coming to his town in a few days. We pick up the story here:

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Mark 10:17

The Rich Young Man and Jesus

Three things strike us already:

  1. He asks an audacious question. This is no question that a well-trained Jewish man should be asking. The way to inherit eternal life is through adherence to the Commandments. There is no other answer. Merely by asking such a question, he is testifying to his doubt, and possibly jeopardizing his standing in the synagogue.
  2. He asks it of a controversial person. This itinerant preacher, this Jesus of Nazareth, is a peasant, a poor Galilean with questionable credentials. In the eyes of his community, the young man is debasing himself by looking for answers from such a man.
  3. He degrades himself in order to ask it. This wealthy, distinguished, educated, well-dressed man is seen in public “running” and “falling on his knees” before the Nazarene preacher. How humiliating! How degrading! Surely his friends, his associates, his servants, try to prevent him from embarrassing himself in this way.

This is a desperate man. He is on the verge of burnout. His soul is restless. His religious life is all but dead. He is willing to gamble away everything on one question. In breathless silence now, he waits for the word that may change his life.

And then, Jesus gives him a surprising answer:

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good — except God alone. You know the commandments…”  Mark 10:18-19

“You know the commandments,” he says. Really? That’s it? “You know the commandments”? This is what he degraded himself for? This is what he risked his reputation over? He is shocked. He is disappointed. This answer mocks his earnestness. Jesus appears be to asking of the man more of the exact thing that he has been dutifully bringing all along.

Even to our ears, his answer falls short. Presented with the clearest imaginable opening to express the gospel – “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” – Jesus steers this poor fellow right back to the Law. This answer stands opposed to the whole thrust of the New Testament: the theme of grace, that one cannot earn eternal life through one’s works.

What kind of answer is this? Why does Jesus give him this shocking, counter-intuitive reply?

The young man surely knows the Commandments by heart, yet, to his dismay, Jesus continues to enumerate them:

‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother…’”  Mark 10:19

The young man waves his hands at Jesus and, with a grave, pained expression on his face, rudely interrupts him:

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”  Mark 10:20

This is his declaration: Perfect obedience “since he was a boy.” As a Jewish man, he is saying “since my bar mitzvah,” the ceremony in which a boy becomes morally responsible for his own actions. He is claiming that nothing could be held against him. He considers himself blameless. He has perfectly obeyed the Law. And yet it hasn’t brought him peace.

Not only does Jesus disappoint him by steering him back to the Law, he now throws a new requirement at him:

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”  Mark 10:21

The young man says “Look! I’ve been carrying this burden for years, and I’ve got nothing to show for it!” He’s frustrated, confused, upset. Jesus responds not by taking his burden away – but by giving him an even bigger burden! What sort of message is this? This is surely no way to win converts.

How does the man react?

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad…  Mark 10:21-22

Well, of course. Did we expect any other outcome?

We know that Jesus’ “yoke is easy” and his “burden is light.” Why does he give this man a heavy yoke? Because he hasn’t perceived his need. He thinks of himself as able and competent. What does he want? He wants eternal life. But between him and his goal lies a painful experience: He must drop his self-sufficiency. He must abandon his fleshly pride.

This has practical meaning for us:

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him.  Colossians 2:6

How did you receive Christ Jesus? By faith! You acknowledged your inability to save yourself and you entrusted yourself to his grace and mercy. Paul says that we should continue to live in him in that same way: by faith, understanding our own inability and relying on his grace.

Jesus doesn’t want us to try to impress him with how much we can do for him. He wants to show us our need for grace. His teaching hurts our pride. It paints us as weak and helpless. Because, that’s exactly what we are. Weak and helpless. You will remember Paul’s anguish as he struggled with all his might to overcome sin:

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Romans 7:21-24

Anti-Burnout Principle No. 2 is this: GET LOW. The Christian life is not a high-jump competition, vying to see who can perform better. It’s more like a limbo competition. The lower we go, the less we think of our own fleshly ability, the closer we come to victory.

Paul’s journey brought him to a crisis. The great Chinese pastor Watchman Nee described it this way:

“O wretched man that I am!” cried Paul, “who shall deliver me out of the body of this death?” and it is good when anyone cries out as he did. There is nothing more musical in the ears of the Lord. This cry is the most spiritual and the most scriptural cry a man can utter. He only utters it when he knows he can do nothing, and gives up making any further resolutions.”

Watchman Nee, The Normal Christian Life

Watchman Nee (1903-1972), Pastor and Martyr

 

Paul’s question is not “How can I save myself?” or “What do I have to do?” He instead looks to a Person – “Who will rescue me?” And the answer is this:

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.  Romans 8:1-2

He has stopped condemning himself over his sinfulness. He has given up on self-effort. Here at last is rest. Not the rest of inactivity and sloth, but the rest our souls have been seeking, of trusting God. It is Christ’s energy working through us. It’s not my strength, my intelligence, my determination. All that is my soul at work. We don’t want our souls to be at work. We want our souls to be at rest.

As Paul wrote concerning his own ministry:

To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.  Colossians 1:29

This is Anti-Burnout Principle No. 3: PLUG IN. The power source is Christ. Abide in him.

We have talked about “rest for our souls.” Many of us have very active souls – our powers of intelligence, will, and decision. But this is not supposed to be the mainspring of our Christian life. Our brother Watchman Nee put it this way:

“The power, the energy of the soul is present with us all. Those who have been taught by the Lord repudiate that principle as a life principle; they refuse to live by it; they will not let it reign, nor allow it to be the power-spring of the work of God. But those who have not been taught of God rely upon it; they utilize it; they think it is the power.”

Watchman Nee, The Normal Christian Life

This is why we must be brought low: to appreciate our inability, and seek out the true source of power that God has provided for us. “No branch can bear fruit by itself,” Jesus taught in John chapter 15, “it must remain in the vine.” That’s where ths life is.

I said there was another college student. Do you remember his name?

John was a zealous Christian during his college days. He and his brother attended the same school. Together they started a well-known campus ministry of devoted, pious students. After college, John traveled overseas to do missionary work. He was by all accounts a strong, active Christian with great potential.

But his soul had not found rest. The missionary work fizzled. He returned home. By the age of thirty-four John had become a prime candidate for Christian burn-out. He was by this time an ordained preacher, yet he had nothing to show for all his efforts. He lamented his own sinfulness. He doubted his own salvation. He was exhausted, ready to throw in the towel.

Up to this point he had lived entirely in the power of his soul. He found himself at the end of Romans Seven, a wretched man.

Then something unusual happened to John Wesley:

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

For the next fifty years, until well into his eighties, John Wesley was the most effective, tireless preacher of the Gospel the world has ever seen. This happened not because of his personal ambition to be a holy man. It was only when he saw – by God’s grace, with the eyes of faith – that he himself was indeed in Christ and forever free from the frustrating “law of sin and death,” that he became the vibrant, life-filled evangelist that God sent all throughout England to bring thousands of people into His Kingdom.

John Wesley, Evangelist

It’s not what we do for Jesus. It’s what he does in us that counts. There we find rest. Not the rest of complete idleness, but that of allowing God to do work through us:

…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.  Philippians 2:12-13

We work out while God works in us. The desire comes from His work, his purpose. I don’t need to drum it up on my own. This brings freedom and peace and rest.

Sometimes I think about my old friend Tom. If I could talk to him today, I would tell them that he was right. Living the Christian life is too hard. In fact, it’s impossible. Only Jesus can live it. The intention is that he would live it through us. That was the intention all along.

Now at last we return to Jesus’ invitation (Matthew 11:28-30). Jesus’ yoke is easy when we trust him to produce the Christian life in us. We cannot do it ourselves.

Are you yoked together with Jesus? Have you found this rest? Is your Christian life characterized by serene confidence in the power of God living within you? Or do you see yourself as a lonely hero, engaged in a long cosmic struggle against sin? If it is the latter, I warn you: Your soul has not found rest. You are in danger of burning out. God has given you, in Christ, everything you need. Do not look to your own strength.

Let your soul be at rest.

Rely on him.

Allow him to live through you.

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