Why God's Commandments Are Not Burdensome1
I’ve always been both intrigued and encouraged by something John the Apostle wrote in the fifth chapter of his first epistle: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). Jesus said something almost identical in Matthew 11. In making his appeal for people to follow him, he gave this reason: “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:30). Continue reading . . .
I’ve always been both intrigued and encouraged by something John the Apostle wrote in the fifth chapter of his first epistle: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). Jesus said something almost identical in Matthew 11. In making his appeal for people to follow him, he gave this reason: “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:30).
The reason why these two statements are so important for us to understand is that we can easily be overwhelmed by the many commands and exhortations and ethical imperatives in the Bible. Do this, don’t do that; go here, but stay away from there; say this, but don’t say that; avoid these, but pursue those; etc., etc., etc. In fact, these many commands in the Bible are often cited as one of the primary reasons why people who don’t know Christ stay away from him. When you ask them about Christianity, their conception is that it’s just a collection of rules, a long list of prohibitions and taboos and “thou-shalt-not’s” all of which serve only to rob us of happiness and to make life miserable.
But what do you think would happen if we explained the Christian life to people in the terms of 1 John 5:3 and Matthew 11:30. Do you think it would make a significant difference if people were told that the commandments God gives us in the Bible are “not burdensome” and that the “yoke” or “burden” of obedience for which Jesus calls is “easy” and “light”? Yes, I think it would make a huge difference!
And what difference would it make to you who are already Christians to know that when you read a string of exhortations and imperatives in the NT that God wants you first to understand that these are “not burdensome,” but in fact are “easy” and “light”? Would that infuse a bit more excitement into your relationship with Christ? Would it increase your joy in reading the Bible and your confidence that perhaps following Christ is not the dry, lifeless drudgery that so many think it is? The obvious and only answer is, Yes!
So what is it about being exhorted or commanded or encouraged to do something that we find so unappealing? Why do we tend to bristle at being told what to do or what not to do? I think there are three reasons for this.
The first is that often times we simply don’t want to do it. Or we want very much to do something that we are told is off limits or out of bounds. So, for example, when some NT author exhorts us not to be “sexually immoral” some people recoil. They say, “But I want to be sexually immoral. I enjoy it. It feels good.” In other words, when you want to engage in sexual immorality and God says, “Don’t do it,” suddenly his command feels burdensome, hard, and heavy.
The second reason why we so often react this way is that we lack the power or strength to do what we are told to do, or we are told not to do something and find ourselves overwhelmed by the urge to do it anyway. So, in the first case, the problem is that there is something in our nature as men and women that causes us to desire things that God forbids. In the second case, the problem is that we lack the power or strength of will to do what we know we ought to do, or we lack the power to resist doing what we know we shouldn’t do.
The third reason why we might find God’s commandments burdensome, hard, and heavy, is when we doubt the motivation of God himself. In other words, we are skeptical of God’s intentions. We begin to think that he doesn’t genuinely care for us and our welfare, that he’s out to rob us of what little happiness we might find in life, that he is a stern and mean-spirited ogre who loves nothing more than to make his people miserable by declaring off-limits all the things that otherwise might make life worth living.
What we must remember is that for those who’ve been born again by the Spirit of God and have put their faith in Christ as Lord and Savior, none of those three factors need ever again play a role in our lives. Let me explain.
Let’s start with the first reason why some people find God’s commandments, hard, heavy, and burdensome: the fact that our nature is such that we don’t want to obey; we enjoy the things God forbids. But for the person who is born again, the Holy Spirit has re-created you! You are not the same person you used to be. You do not have the same desires you used to have. Your heart and mind and spirit and soul have been renewed and you are gradually being changed internally so that what you like and dislike, what you enjoy or despise, is becoming more and more like what Jesus himself experienced.
So, when God forbids some activity, like sexual immorality, you find yourself increasingly saying: “You’re right, God. The appeal of sexual immorality is losing its grip on my heart. I know it offers me an immediate physical sensation, but I have come to discover that the pleasures of obedience and fellowship with you are far, far greater and more satisfying.”
The second reason was our lack of strength or power. When God commands or prohibits something, feeling weak and inadequate to respond makes those commandments feel hard, heavy, and burdensome. Bu for the born-again believer in Jesus, the Holy Spirit lives within us to supply us with whatever energy or power or incentive is needed to do what God has called us to do. This is what the Apostle Paul was talking about in Philippians 2:12-13 when he said,
“work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).
If all he had said was, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” I suspect that most of us would say, “Good-bye, God; that sounds horribly burdensome and impossibly difficult.” But with the command to obey comes the promise of all the power we need. God is already at work in and through us to supply us with the will and energy to do what he has said. We see this same truth again in Hebrews 13:20-21. There the author prays this remarkable prayer:
“Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Heb. 13:20-21).
Could anything be clearer than that? Whatever God requires from us, he provides for us. We will never lack for the power or strength to obey any of God’s commands because God himself has promised to work and to will and to equip us so that we will have the spiritual energy to do what he requires.
Finally, the third reason God’s commands sometimes seem burdensome and overwhelming is that we question God’s character. We doubt whether he has our best interests at heart. We think of him as unloving and overly strict and as something of a cosmic killjoy. And how do we know this isn’t true? We know it, among countless other reasons, from what we see repeatedly in both the OT and NT, namely, that God’s love and affection for us is limitless and that whatever he commands he does so in order to enhance our happiness, not diminish it.
The biblical authors consistently remind us that the struggles we face, whether physical pain or relational frustrations or financial strain or opposition from non-believers are not due to God’s anger or to his neglect of us. They are the tools he uses to chisel away anything in our lives that doesn’t look like Jesus. Such adversity, which the Bible calls discipline (see Heb. 12:3-11), is the expression of God’s fatherly love and care and concern.
In other words, whatever struggles we encounter, whatever pain we endure, whatever discipline may come our way, we can rest assured that it is motivated by God’s passionate love for us as his children. It’s not because he’s disappointed and irritated but because he’s overwhelmingly in love with and devoted to the welfare of his children. As Hebrews 12:6 says, God “loves” those whom he disciplines. That is to say, if God commands you to do something or forbids you from participating, it’s his way of showing his love. He’s training you. He’s disciplining you. He’s educating you to live in such a way that your joy and happiness and satisfaction will grow and expand and intensify. He “receives” (Heb. 12:6) those whom he chastises. He’s treating you as his beloved sons and daughters.
Everything God says to you and me in his Word is not burdensome. The multitude of imperatives and moral exhortations are not heavy, but light. They are not hard, but easy. And the reason I can say that with confidence is because God has re-created you through the new birth and given you a new nature, new dispositions, and new desires. And together with making you his child, he has supplied you with the indwelling Holy Spirit to give you whatever power and incentive you need. And all this is because he loves you with a love everlasting, a love that will never let you go, a love that wouldn’t dream of asking you to do anything that would diminish one iota the joy and satisfaction that he has created you to experience.
Let me tell you when you can know you are making good progress in the Christian life. Let me tell you when you can know that you are growing in your understanding and appreciation of the love of God. It’s when you read a passage that contains some ethical exhortation and your immediate response is: “Yes! I love it! This is really good news! More God! Give me more! These exhortations aren’t burdensome. These commands aren’t heavy, but light. They aren’t hard, but easy. Wow! I never realized how much God really loves me until I heard him tell me what to do.”