“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” – Matthew 11:28
This famous verse offers a great Gospel comfort, but I wonder if it hasn’t sounded a little naïve to some of us lately; like maybe Jesus hadn’t just woken up to the third mass shooting in two weeks (and who knows how many in the last five years, most of us have lost count). While I do feel weary and burdened and in need of rest, Jesus’ invitation sounds sort of like a call to retreat, or to stick our heads in the sand – even if it is His sand. But when I turn on the morning news to discover twelve people were killed while line-dancing at a country bar on “college night,” I don’t want to retreat. Sticking my head in the sand seems irresponsible: as both a citizen and as a Christian. What I want is to wake up and find that all of these terrible murders have been an awful dream. I want to scream. I want to protest. I want to find a high-up suit to blame and then vote out of office. I want to do something. Anything! But I do not want to retreat.
And yet, even as it is my desire to do something, the reality is that I don’t know what to do. It’s hard to imagine that anything I do will actually make a difference. I can preach the Gospel, I can love my neighbor, and I can rightly expect that sometime in the next few weeks or months I will get yet another notice on my phone that there’s been a “senseless act of violence” in our country. And so I am left frustrated with the world and with myself, a little numb, and a little scared to leave my house.
The Psalmist cried out, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (11:3). In the midst of our culture of violence, in the midst of a feeling of powerlessness and resignation, are the faithful simply naïve to hold out hope? The Bible’s answer is a resounding, “NO.”
I think what is naïve, even cruel, is to shrug our shoulders and jump right to Romans 8:28 (“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him…”). That’s a smart place to land eventually, but to miss the mourning along the way, to miss the righteous, seething anger at present manifestations of actual evil is to miss the heart of God. In fact, to miss feeling the depth of our culture’s groaning from sin’s acidic weight is to miss the very reason why God himself put on flesh and came to die. God hates the kind of senseless violence we have been seeing. It transgresses his character and his law. But let us remember that the presence of violence does not mean the absence of God’s presence, or the absence of God’s work.
The Bible is replete with faithful characters who felt utterly alone in the midst of a violent culture. Noah, Job, Abraham, Moses, David, Deborah, Daniel, Esther, Elijah, Paul, John the Revelator, and of course Jesus himself (among many others). This suggests that perhaps part of what it means to be faithful to God is to hold onto faith during a dry season of God’s seeming absence, to be David crying out to God in agony in Psalm 22, to be the widow pounding on the door of the unfaithful judge until he relents (Luke 18:1-8). In each of the Biblical narratives mentioned above, God is busy at the work of salvation, though we often do not see him withhold earthly suffering, disease, persecution, violence or even death from the faithful, whom he loves.
We don’t know why God allows these terrible, evil things to happen; and yet we can look at the Cross and know that God didn’t even spare himself from such violence. He didn’t retreat from it or stick his head in the sand; with purpose, with love, and with eternity in mind, he stepped straight into a culture in which violence was far more commonplace than our own (and far easier to blame on the legislators). And even as he was nailed to the Cross, he cried out, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34).
When Jesus invites us who are weary to come to him and receive rest, he is doing so right on the heels of pronouncing woes against cities who have not repented from their evil works. This tells us that Jesus is not calling us to retreat, or to cloister ourselves from the evil of the world; he is calling us to have faith in the midst of it. He is calling us to take the yoke of his love upon us and shine the light of that love all around us. The truth is, there’s no way to tell how many acts of senseless violence would have happened but were stopped because someone chose to love a neighbor with the love of Jesus. In this Gospel verse, Jesus is calling us to live into the hope – which he calls ‘rest’ – that He is always Sovereign, always working, and always testing our faith, even in seasons where it feels a little naïve to hold on. The truth is, it’s naïve not to.