And his commandments are not burdensome. 1 John 5:3
According to the Apostle John, God's commands are no longer burdensome. That may be a clear cut theological reality, but I don't think most of us relate to it as a consistent biographical reality. I'm tempted to just gloss over this sentence and ignore it, but it's too incongruent with my personal and pastoral experience, to not wrestle with it.
As we study God's word for ourselves, and flesh that out in community, we start with the assumption that His word is true. And if we take the Scriptures seriously and take people seriously, we have to give some time and attention to such an overt statement that seems so obviously out of step with real life.
The Weight of God's Commandments
God's Law is not a little heavy. It's weighty and cumbersome. It relentlessly accuses us, exposes us, and humiliates us. We cannot measure up to the standard set by God's law. I can't. You can't. Your spouse can't. Your parents can't. Your kids can't. Your neighbors can't.
You don't even have to the know the precise content of the law to know your failure to keep the law. This law is written on our hearts. Something in us inherently knows that things are not as they should be. We are not as we should be. I am not as I should be. Whether it's the summary of the whole law - To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and the love your neighbor as yourself; or the 10 commandments given to Israel; or the whole OT Law with it's painstaking detail; or our own self-constructed versions of the Law we feel beholden to; we all fall short and fail to some degree. No attempt to mask that fact externally, can acquit us on the charges of fraud that are levied internally.
We are guilty. We are sinful. The Law parades our guilt and sin out in public. God's commandments are not burdensome? God's commandments are, in fact, crushing. So, what do we do with 1 John 5:3?
Lifting the Weight
What I described above is the Law flexing it's muscle and imposing it's will. The Law is supposed to bear down on us this way. That's the first use of law. To reveal sin, weakness, rebellion and helplessness, in order to drive us to our knees in need. We'll never embrace or fully appreciate a Savior if we maintain we're in no need of saving. We'll never cry out for mercy if we do not count ourselves among the guilty. We'll never bask in the grace of God, if we're disillusioned by our sense of deserving more from God. The first use of the law is to squeeze us like a vice grip until we tap out of any self-salvation project we've undertaken.
Weakness, need, brokenness, shame, guilt, and desperation, create the necessary conditions for our redemption and rescue. The Law is what drives us there. And it's in that state that the Gospel is not just good news, but the greatest news in the history of the universe. We will not taste and see the goodness of the Lord until we have drunk our fill from polluted streams. Grace is always sweetened by the bitter taste of life on our own terms. So, God in his kindness, lets us bear the weight of the law for a time, so we can appreciate the relief of our freedom, which comes through Jesus.
The Law functions in this first sense as an enormous boulder which we must bear up under. But Jesus comes to free us of the burden of God's commandments, by keeping them on our behalf. Here we exerted all our strength just trying to keep our chests from caving in, and Jesus comes along and lifts the boulder of God's Law to set it aside. We can breathe. We can rest. We no longer labor under it's massive force. The love and grace of God, through Jesus and his finished work, has freed us from what was crushing us. The Law no longer accuses us, because by faith we're united to Christ, on whose merits we are acquitted. The commandments of God no longer condemn us, because belief in Jesus has made his obedience our obedience. The gospel sets C-4 to the Law in it's first use.
So, why do we still feel the burden? There are two ways we unwittingly sweep up the detonated fragments of the law and bury ourselves our under them.
Tiptoeing on Grace
You feel the weight of the law because you're not putting your full weight down on Jesus. You may be leaning toward him and into him, but you're still not trusting in the firm foundation of his grace. Rather than a suspension bridge paved with concrete that you use to cross from death to life, the gospel is more like a suspension bridge with rope and wooden slabs you fear are rotting. You may be reaching your foot out to test it's strength with your toes, cautiously putting small amounts of pressure on it, but your trust is in the perceived safety of your familiar surroundings.
The problem with that approach is that you can't experience the refreshing of the gospel until you've distanced yourself from the bondage of self-reliance.
You may believe Jesus got you an invite to the party, but you're worried if you don't wear the right clothes, you won't be let in. Brothers and sisters, if you are in Christ at all, you are in Christ all the way. The righteousness of Christ is not an accessory you put on to adorn your righteousness. His righteousness covers you head to toe. Christian, you need not prove anything or finish anything. Jesus has already provided everything and fulfilled everything. His grace is all you need. And all that's required to receive his grace is your need.
Trampling on Grace
The other way we find ourselves burdened by the Law is when we have no regard for it. We are free from relating to God as a righteous Judge, given the status of sons and daughters of a redemptive Father, but our reonciliation with Him cannot also reconcile us to our sin. If we go on sinning, our consciences call out to us and the Holy Spirit convicts us. Whether we are forced into slavery by the power of sin apart from Christ, or volunteer for slavery by our preference for sin despite identifying with Christ, the oppressiveness of slavery burdens our souls.
God has not lavished his grace on us so we could chase life on our terms without fear of consequences. He lavishes his grace on us so we can chase after life on his terms without fear of failure.
The Way of God Commandments
This is the second use of the law. Where the first use of the law is to open my eyes to my sin and my heart to a Savior, the second use of the law illuminates the path to life to which I have been saved.
God's approval of me in Jesus has not erased God's authority over me through Jesus. That's John's whole point through this passage. The lifting of the burden is not so I can ignore him, but so that I will trust him and follow him anywhere His commands may take me. While the heaviness of God's commands has been removed, the helpfulness of God's commands remain. His commands are no longer a crushing weight on me, but they do point the way forward for me.
For the Christian, our greatest hope is our union to Christ and intimacy with Christ. But life distracts us and we lose sight of Jesus. Sometimes, we're too disoriented to know where we are and how to reconnect to him. God's commands are pointing the way back to Jesus. Obedience will not always be easy, but neither will it be burdensome, because it will always land you with the one who can strengthen your feeble hands and weak knees and who can make level paths for your feet (Heb. 12:12).