“For this is the love of God, that we might keep his commandments, and His commandments are not burdensome.” — 1 John 5:3
The final clause feels almost like an aside by John, yet it is a refreshing one. It is a moment preparing us for the final word of the epistle, the reminder that we are ‘little children’ whose task is to keep ourselves from idols. The commandments of God are not heavy upon us: He directs us, we might say, with a light touch. As Karl Barth writes, direction “is not a loud and stern and foreign thing, but the quiet and gentle and intimate awakening of children in the Father’s house to life in that house. That is how God exercises authority.”
It is natural that we would think of Jesus’s claim in Matthew 11:30 that his “yoke is easy and [his] burden is light.” The phrase has some consonance with John’s claim, though it is His judgment of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:4 that is nearer to John etymologically: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” Note that in Matthew 23 the critique is twofold: it is a heavy burden that the Pharisees put upon the people, yes, but it is also one they are not themselves willing to bear.
There is a real yoke that Christ places us under; there are real obligations. It is a mistake to think that the Christian life is one which is free from duty, or in some sense antithetical to it. It is instead a life in which duties take on a new character, where obligations feel—light. (Though what hangs on the difference between ‘light’ and ’not burdensome’?) This is one parameter for the proclamation of the Gospel in its ethical form: in articulating the shape of the moral field, in trying to find the path which lies before us, does one give the lightness and levity of Christian obligations their due?
It is a curious question, of course, considering the extraordinary scope of the demands that Christ places upon His followers, in both 1 John and in Matthew. “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect,” we are told by Christ. “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.” These are stringent statements, of the sort that demand nothing less than the total eradication of sin from the Christian life. They are the kinds of statements that introduce more than a hint of rigor, that make it seem as though the commandments of God are in fact not so easy or light as He promises. Even in John, the moment of levity seems to come as an aside, and not as the main note.
The difficulty of integrating these two dimensions raises, it seems to me, a second criterion for a thoroughgoing ‘Christian’ ethic: we cannot hesitate to speak of the expansive demands that God makes upon the creature’s life, demands that include our perfection and sanctity. Mediocrity has a real place in Christian moral reasoning: we ought not expect, I think, everyone to be saints of the sort that certain individuals have striven for. And yet, the recognition that mediocrity is a feature of our Christian communities is commensurate with an exhortation to perfection: it is precisely on the basis of the perfect that we recognize the mediocre as such. However “light” God’s commands might be, they cannot introduce anything like imperfection or mediocrity into their structure.
But return to the Pharisees and their hypocrisy. It seems that their willingness to lay heavy burdens upon people and to not accept them oneself highlights a fundamental principle for moral reasoning which has often been neglected: in articulating the form of God’s commands for others, we ought be willing to place ourselves wholly beneath the same ourselves. We ought not be hypocrites, in other words. (Novel, that.)
But I think the principle goes beyond that: in announcing the shape of moral norms, we ought look for ways in which we can carry the yoke with those who will fall beneath them. The yoke that we place on others must be ‘easy,’ which is not to say that we ought be lax with one another, but that we ought be eager to give ourselves within our judgment in ways that make obedience by others more easy. We ought see the ways in which our moral proclamation about other people’s lives, licit as it might be, commits us to extending care and support to those subject to our pronouncements. God’s commands are not burdensome upon us: and neither should our exposition of them be burdensome upon others.