I don’t want to admit that I turn to food for comfort. That I do, however, has been made apparent from the most recent fast I engaged following my conversation with friends around the fire, which turned on Matthew 11:28-30: “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.”
Together, we had mused about the paradox of spiritual transformation, that though the way of Christ is a way of grace, it is also a way of the yoke. There were constraints to be fitted around ourselves, constraints against which we would inevitably chafe.
It had been many months that the still, small voice had tried making his persistent way with me regarding some of my unhealthy patterns of eating. I had tried confessing those patterns to God. I had said sorry. I had promised to do better. I wasn’t guilty of binging on gallons of ice cream, maybe, but I did reward long hours of work with small indulgences. It was easier to tell myself that this wasn’t really a sin problem, that I could quit anytime. I continued living the law of exceptions, forgetting how quickly exceptions become rules. We are made slaves more easily than we think.
I needed a bodily practice for a disordered, bodily appetite. I needed a spiritual discipline for greater physical freedom. I needed grace, and paradoxically, it was going to take some work.
AN UNREQUESTED GIFT
Grace came to me unbidden, which is why I call it grace. And this is the consistent testimony of grace in the Scriptures—that it arrives like an expensive package we haven’t ordered. We don’t lift a finger to take hold of saving grace, only stand under its rain shower with open mouths, trying to gulp down its goodness.
But to say all of this might seem to suggest that human passivity is the stuff of grace—that we are an inert receptacle and God, giver and gift. Truthfully, in terms of the grace that rescues us from our lostness and blindness and death, I am given to describing it exactly like that. (I am a Presbyterian after all.)
But in terms of the grace that resurrects us to new life in Christ, I want to fumble for better words, words that convey our responsibility in God’s project. Human agency is not sufficient for justification, but human agency is critical for sanctification. And this is just a fancy way of saying that we must work in a life saved by grace.
The only kind of faith that the Bible mentions is obedient faith (Rom 1:5). On the other side of saving grace, we are meant to put ourselves, by whatever means possible, in the path of transformation. And this is what the spiritual disciplines are: not the rain shower of God’s grace but the effort to get outside.
The late Dallas Willard wrote brilliantly about spiritual formation as it paradoxically depends on both grace and effort. When he described the process of discipleship that we each must undertake, he says unequivocally, “This is an active, not passive, process, one that requires our clear-headed and relentless participation. It will not be done for us.”
This is to clear up a great misunderstanding about grace. Grace does work we cannot do, but it does not relieve us of the responsibility to work. In other words, grace provides all that we need in terms of the tools for growing a life deep in Christ, but it will not spare us the effort of picking them up.
“Grace is opposed to earning, but not to effort.”
STIRRING THE WATERS
We see this principle demonstrated in Jesus’ interaction with the crippled man at the pool of Bethesda. It is rumored that the pool, periodically stirred up by angels, has miraculous healing powers. When the blind, the lame, and the paralyzed lower themselves into the water, they can expect to see and to walk and to dance.
On the day that Jesus walks by the pool, he meets a man who has been an invalid for thirty-eight years. Thirty-eight years this man has spent under those five roofed colonnades, waiting for the beginning of the rest of his life. We might imagine him, years earlier, hopeful and young, a man willing to suffer whatever necessary injury in his crawl toward the waters. But on the day that he meets Jesus, he is remarkably older and noticeably more lethargic. Jesus’ first question to him is a strange one: “Do you want to be healed?” (Jn 5:6).
Jesus had never needed to ask blind Bartimaeus if he wanted to see. Jesus had never needed to ask the bleeding woman, after she’d touched his robe, if she wanted to be made well. But here he is asking a man, lying on a mat with a pair of raisin legs, if he wants to walk. The man’s answer, of course, reveals why the question needed asking: “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” What’s clear from the passage is not just this man’s failure to get into the pool but his unwillingness to take responsibility for that failure.
Eighteenth-century Bible commentator Matthew Henry makes this observation: “The angel stirred the water, but left the diseased themselves to get in.” This man wanted grace to stir the pool—and grace to do his walking. But Jesus would not abide that kind of soul paralysis: “Get up, take up your bed, and walk. And at once the man was healed ” (Jn 5:8-9).
Spiritual response, said Jesus, is an easy yoke and a light burden, which is to say something lightweight and yet something to be carried nonetheless. Perhaps we could think of the work of the Levites during the forty years of wilderness wandering. By God’s initiative of grace, he had declared his intent to dwell in the midst of his people, giving them instructions for building his “house.”
WILL WE ENTER THE WATERS?
Worship is always God’s gracious invitation to his people. But to really imagine the tabernacle, though, is to acknowledge the laborious work required for transporting this mobile house of worship. The cloud would stop, the Israelites would camp, and the Levites would be tasked with arranging all the furniture of God’s house according to specification.
Then three days or three months or three years later, the cloud would lift, the Israelites would pack bags, and the Levites would be left to dismantle the crossbars and frames, the goatskin coverings, the embroidered curtains, the altar, the table of incense, the lampstand, the ark.
While the rest of the Israelites had backpacks and roller bags, the Levites had heavy trunks to carry—and the trembling fear of doing it right. The tabernacle was, in a metaphorical way, the Levite’s easy yoke and light burden.
We too have things to carry even if we have no trembling fear. Do you want to be healed? The gospel invites us to “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16). The pool has indeed been stirred by Christ, and with his gracious help, we will walk toward it.
Taken from Surprised by Paradox by Jen Pollock Michel. Copyright (c) 2019 by Jen Pollock Michel. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com.
Jen Pollock Michel is the author of Teach Us to Want and Keeping Place, both published by InterVarsity Press with video curriculum available from RightNow Media. She is a regular contributor for Christianity Today and Moody Bible Institute's Today in the Word. A wife and mother of five, Jen lives in Toronto, Canada.