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To the Heavy Laden

Olivia Davis

The other day when I came home after work, I had to finish up a freelance project. Then, I needed to do a superfast grocery run (at rush hour!) because a friend was coming over the next day. Then, I had to give two piano lessons. After that—it was late at this point—I needed to edit an article for a friend, and I talked to my parents on the phone. When my head finally hit the pillow, it was racing with my responsibilities for the next day at work. I wasn’t able to fall asleep until late, and then, the next morning, everything seemed to repeat itself, just with a little bit less sleep to back me up.

I enjoy the vast majority of my responsibilities, but I often struggle to juggle them well. As a result, I sometimes find myself flustered, tired, and discouraged. Why is it that every rhythm of rest I try to establish is thwarted in three days by a sleepless night or an unexpected deadline? Moreover, what does it say about me spiritually if I am not able to rest? Am I not trying hard enough? Believing enough? What could I be doing wrong?

It is unfortunate that my response to struggling to rest is to work harder: to diagnose the issue, come up with a plan, to act on that plan. Indeed, my struggle with rest rarely leaves me simply sitting before God on my knees, asking for help. And perhaps this is where my mistake is.

Jesus offers you and me a better way. Instead of condemning us for not finding the elusive rhythm of a healthy work-family-friends-hobbies-errands-volunteering-rest balance, Jesus offers Himself as the solution. “Come to me,” He says, “all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Rest is found in Jesus alone, and He invites us—weary, heavy laden, overworked, frazzled as we are—to come to Him.

Reorienting our Focus

When we come to Jesus, He releases us from striving, proving ourselves, and attempting to be “enough.” His solution isn’t simply to take more vacation days or be a little less hard on ourselves; His solution is to totally reorient our lives so that we can see how He has always been working on our behalf and how He is continuing to do so today. When we look to Jesus, remembering His total sufficiency in everything, He gives us rest.

Perhaps ironically, the path to rest begins with realizing how someone else has been and continues to be working for us on our behalf. We see this in Jesus, who was willing to die on the cross so that we might have eternal life in Him (John 3:16). His willing sacrifice was not a response to our good works, our faithfulness, or even potential He saw in us—it was an act of love for a fully undeserving people. Our salvation comes only by God’s grace; we could never earn it (Ephesians 2:8-9).

We can rest because there is nothing else for us to do for our salvation, as Jesus declared on the cross, long before we were born, “It is finished” (John 19:30). It is impossible for us to finish something that is already finished. He has accomplished all things for us (Isaiah 26:12; Psalm 123:6); there is nothing else for us to do to be called “children of God.” We who are in Christ can simply rest in that reality.

Jesus cares about everything—not just the weight of our salvation—and knowing this changes the way that we respond to the responsibilities of our everyday lives. If He carried the burden of our salvation, how much more can He carry our families, our health, our friends, and our finances? As Jesus reminds us in the Sermon on the Mount, we should not be anxious for anything, because He knows exactly what we need and will provide it (Matthew 6:25-34). This means that regardless of our circumstances, Jesus frees us from fear and anxiety about having enough so we can rest in His sufficiency in everything.

Remembering that Jesus carries every burden requires faith, particularly when it seems like the circumstances we face are impossible. Perhaps this is why the writer of Hebrews says, “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest…” (Hebrews 11:1). Resting in Jesus requires striving—an intentional focus on Him above everything else. Our focus should not be our faith, our burdens, or anything else—but instead Jesus alone. As the missionary Hudson Taylor once wrote:

Not a striving to have faith, or to increase our faith, but a looking off to the Faithful One seems all we need; a resting in the Loved One entirely, for time and for eternity.[1]

In the book of Numbers, we see both how not focusing on God brings fear and how focusing on Him brings rest. God promises the Israelites that they would return to Canaan, the Promised Land, which is referred to as a place of rest (Joshua 1:13). When their spies incite fear about the impending conquest, the Israelites seek to elect a new leader to go back to Egypt (Numbers 14:3). Heavily burdened by the potential difficulty of entering into the Promised Land, they did not focus on God. Much to the contrary, they devised a plan out of fear and got to work.

Significantly, God’s response to them is not primarily focused on their disobedience, but their unbelief. He says, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me…?” (Numbers 14:11). He is grieved that they did not look to Him to lift their burdens, and it is this unbelief that prevents them from entering the Promised Land and experiencing rest (Hebrews 3:18-19; Psalm 95:11).

However, there were two spies, Caleb and Joshua, who had a different response that shows how belief brings rest. After the spies’ report, Caleb “quiets the people” and says, “Let us go up at once and occupy [the Promised Land], for we are well able to overcome it” (Numbers 13:30). Caleb and Joshua do not minimize the challenge of the task ahead; they know it will involve many battles. However, they tell the Israelites, “If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey…[T]he Lord is with us; do not fear them” (Numbers 14:8-9). They give the conquest over to God and look to Him to accomplish His promises. Forty years later, Caleb and Joshua entered the Promised Land from a place of rest. They believed and looked to God even when the task before them seemed impossible.

Eternal Rest

Like Joshua and Caleb, we can look at what is in front of us today and say, “We are well able.” We aren’t well able because we are smart enough, strong enough, and disciplined enough—we aren’t—but because Christ is sufficient. Jesus offers us rest from striving, from all our efforts, from all our inability to ever be enough. He does not want us to be weary or heavy laden. Each of our burdens—from our salvation to our to-do list—is in His hands.

The rest we find when we look to Jesus today is a foretaste of the ultimate, eternal rest to come. One day, our rest will no longer be intermittent, and we will no longer struggle with sin or face the temptation to turn our eyes from Christ. We will experience what Hebrew tradition calls “the day that is all Sabbath,”[2] and instead of thinking about our burdens with fear and angst, we will rejoice in the goodness of our God.

Until that day, let us do what He has asked us to do: come to Him. Let’s come to Him again and again, moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day. Let us say no to the temptation to try to work ourselves into rest and instead lay down everything before Him, just as Joshua and Caleb once did. And let us, sitting before Jesus, receive the promised rest that only He can give.

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[1] Howard Taylor, Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission: The Growth of a Work of God. (London: Morgan & Scott, 1919). 169.

[2] Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory on the Old and New Testaments, Volume II. (Hartford: S. S. Scranton & Co., 1878), 478.