One of the highest values today is freedom. We want to do what we want, when we want, where we want, and we don’t really want anyone to tell us we can’t. The American Declaration of Independence says that all people have the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Thus in the case of America, the government basically exists to give people the space and freedom to pursue their own aims while protecting us from each other when those aims come into conflict. Granted, many people would argue that the government is currently doing a poor job of this or is overstepping its bounds, but that is another issue for another day. Instead, I’d like to make the point that making personal freedom our highest value is actually in conflict with the Bible. That’s a hard thing to swallow, not only for Americans but for people all over the world who want to do what they want without interference.
Let’s go back to the most important story in the first half of the Bible – the story of the Exodus. God’s people, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, were slaves in Egypt for 400 years. The Lord saw their plight, heard their cries, and sent Moses to set them free. Through Moses, God did miracles and forced the leader of Egypt to let the Israelites go.
I wish we could say, “And the Israelites lived happily ever after,” but that’s not what happened. The Israelites were happy about their freedom for all of about three days before they started to complain. And that’s not the worst of it. They started worshipping other gods and getting into all sorts of sins.
Many generations later, the Lord told the Israelites, “For long ago I broke your yoke and burst your bonds; but you said, ‘I will not serve'” (Jeremiah 2:20a). God was reminding them that he set them free from slavery in Egypt with the goal that they would serve him. It wasn’t freedom for freedom’s sake, but freedom to serve the true God.
My kids are starting to memorize the ten commandments (see Exodus 20:1-17), which were given soon after the Israelites left Egypt. A few times a day I hear, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt where you were slaves. Do not worship any god except me…” It seems simple enough, but God was communicating several important truths:
1. God is loving. He saw the people’s suffering and heard their cries ,and out of mercy and love he chose to save them.
2. God is powerful. Slaves by definition do not have the freedom to leave their situation. They need an outside power to help them. The Lord showed his power to take his people out from a land that did not want to let them go.
3. God’s redemption isn’t free. He freed the people from slavery, but the Lord expected the Israelites to listen to him and obey him.
Many people would say they believe there is a God, but very few would say they serve God or obey him. The idea of serving someone really undercuts our ideal of “freedom.”
God broke the “yoke” off the people in Egypt; they no longer were slaves. But God expected them to take a new yoke, the yoke of serving him. Of course, the Lord is a loving, merciful master. But he also is holy, pure and has rules about right and wrong.
Jesus said in Matthew 11, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Many of us take comfort in those words because we like the idea of rest for our souls. But we need to recognize that the rest we are so desperately seeking doesn’t come through doing what we want, when we want, where we want. Instead, it comes through losing some of freedom. Willingly taking the yoke Jesus has to offer means that we are choosing to go in the direction he takes us. Learning from him means admitting that we do need someone to teach us. Rather than saying, “No one can tell me what to do,” we stop fighting with God and start listening and doing what he says.
Just like the Israelites who were freed from slavery in Egypt, some of us have at one time experienced Jesus setting us free from slavery to sin, fear, loneliness, shame, addiction and more. But most of those Israelites ultimately rejected the God who set them free. They said, “we will not serve.” And as a result, they lost everything God gave them. If you’ve said “No” to the Lord who set you free from your sins, you are on your way to losing everything he gave you. It’s time to repent and come back to his yoke.
Others of us may be considering a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Are you ready for a yoke? Are you ready to lose some of that freedom you are clinging to so tightly and say, “Yes, Lord, you can lead me”?