If obeying Jesus has never felt hard then you’re probably not doing it. The reality of following Christ is that it comes with a cost (Matt. 16:24). That cost is particularly pronounced in the moment of crisis, weakness, and sorrow. It’s in those moments that obedience is most difficult and often most joyless. There’s a reality that responding Biblically to trials can sometimes feel like a chore.
Ernest’s case proves the point. It’s only been a few days since this brother found out that his wife had an affair. She confessed it to him, broken-hearted, and desperate for his forgiveness. He was devastated by the news. Depending on who you ask he has Biblical grounds for divorce (Matt. 19:9), but it isn’t what Ernest wants. He is now faced with the difficult task of forgiving his wife and working towards reconciliation. It will not be easy and for the most part his heart is not in it. Repeatedly he tells himself that he must do what is right, he must obey Jesus, but often he simply doesn’t want to. In such moments responding Biblically to his trial becomes just another burdensome responsibility.
Matt Chandler and Michael Snetzer share a similar story in their book Recovering Redemption. They share the story of Nina, a single mom with four kids, whose husband shockingly abandoned them after ten years of marriage. She was trying her best to make her life match-up with her profession of faith, which, as the authors point out, made “Christianity just something else to add to [her] already overblown to-do list” (22).
We have all surely experienced this reality at some level. Maybe not as intense as Nina or Ernest have, but we understand the joyless duty that can sometimes accompany following Jesus in seasons of difficulty. So what do we make of this reality? How should we understand its existence in light of what Jesus tells us about following Him? He tells us clearly in Matthew 11 that we can “take His yoke” upon ourselves because it is “light,” and we will find “rest” for our souls (v.28-30). What do we do then, when the burden seems like too much to bear?
We must first understand that there is still a burden to bear. Following Christ doesn’t come without a cost. Yes, Jesus says He will give us rest, but he still has a yoke we must put on. We can’t escape this reality. Following Jesus is not always easy. Some of us have such unrealistic expectations of the Christian life that it has meant every difficulty, no matter size or shape, is hard. We can’t handle any hardship because we didn’t expect there to be any. Obedience can easily become a chore when we are not prepared to “take up our cross and follow” Him. Cross-bearing is simply a part of what it means to follow Jesus. We need to understand and accept this if we are going to respond rightly in trials without gravitating towards joyless duty.
We must also understand that joy goes much deeper than our experience of earthly suffering. Paul makes the clear contrast in Romans 8. He says:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (v. 18)
Paul states that this life’s sorrows, though real, can’t even compare to the glory that awaits the believer. There is a reality that runs deeper than our experience. This is also why he can urge upon us joy in the midst of trials (Rom. 5:3; Col. 1:24; see also James 1:2). Because joy is not contingent upon the experience of an easy life. Rest for our souls is not necessarily the same as comfort and ease. God can give us the one, even as He leads us through the Valley of the Shadow of Death (Ps. 23:4).
We must also believe that joy will come as we persist in obedience. It’s true that sometimes responding Biblically to trials can feel like a chore. There can be little joy in obedience in the moment. But if we are faithful God will grant the joy…eventually. Psalm 40:1-3 points us to hope, it states:
I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. 2 He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. 3 He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.
Notice the language of the author’s spiritual condition: “pit of destruction,” “miry bog.” This is a painful, joyless place to be. In Psalm 69 we read that “waters have come up to my neck,” and the author sinks “in deep mire, where there is no foothold,” “flood sweeps over” him. The language is that of a desperate situation. It is the kind of description of the emotional, psychological pain that those who experience depression use. Yet, notice what the Psalmist says, “I waited patiently for the Lord.” God will come to His aid, eventually He will experience the relief He seeks. There is not a song of praise on his lips yet, but one is coming. God will put it there. Jesus tells us “blessed are they that mourn” (Matt. 5:4). It is right to cry out in pain and sorrow. It is right to mourn and grieve, and if we do it with humility and in faithfulness to God we will experience blessing. Jesus models that well in His own cries in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26:36-46). And the Psalmist tells us that though weeping may last for the night, joy eventually comes in the morning (Psalm 30:5). God delights to give joy in the midst of hard obedience, eventually.
When we lack joy we are not absolved of our responsibility to obey. As we obey, however, we will find that joy begins to come. We ought to obey God with joy, but even when we lack it we may still obey Him and find that the more we do the better we do it. That’s how the Puritan Richard Baxter wrote to encourage those who experienced “spiritual melancholy.” He said:
Resolve to spend most of your time in thanksgiving and praising God. If you cannot do it with the joy that should, yet do it as you can. You have not the power of your comforts: but have you no power of your tongues? Say not, that you are unfit for thanks and praises unless you have a praising heart and were the children of god: for every man, good and bad, is bound to praise God, and to be thankful for all that he hath received, and to do it as well as he can, rather than leave it undone…Doing it as you can is the way to be able to do it better. Thanksgiving stirreth up thankfulness in the heart. (“The Cure for Melancholy”)
“Doing it as you can is the way to be able to do it better.” Start where you are at, and find that joy comes as you persist. Continue in obedience despite the lack of joy, and the joy will come.
There’s no point in pretending like obedience is always fun and always easy. It’s not and most of us know this truth, we’ve experienced it. But when responding Biblically in trials becomes a chore we must do what all faithful men and women have done throughout history: wait patiently on the Lord. Joy is God’s gift to those who seek Him in the hardships.