Come Unto Me
Elder Gerald N. Lund
Brigham Young University–Idaho Devotional
September 23, 2008
Good afternoon, brothers and sisters. It is a great pleasure for my wife and I to be here with you today. It has been my privilege to speak at several devotionals over the years, both when it was Ricks College, and then as BYU–Idaho. In fact, it has been long enough since we were last here that I could say, if you were here the last time we were, unless you are faculty or staff, it is time to choose a major, get your degree and get on with your life.
I express appreciation to the choir for that beautiful rendition of the text of Matthew 11:28-30. I consider it to be one of the most beautiful and profound passages in all of scripture. Since this scripture is the basis for my talk this afternoon, I should like to read it to you again.
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).
The more I study and ponder these words, the more significance I find in them. There are wonderful insights to be found in every phrase. Let us analyze it together, to see if we can come to a greater understanding of this remarkable invitation.
The first thing we note from the opening phrase, “Come unto me,” is that this passage is written in the first person. It is Jesus Himself speaking.
The second thing to note is the very first word, “come.” Though this is put in the imperative form, it feels much more like an entreaty or an appeal than a command. The tone is gentle and inviting, not demanding. It is not like, “Come here, Bill!,” but more like a supplication, “Come. I invite you to join me.”
The next phrase answers an important question. To whom is the Savior speaking? The answer is clear: Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden.
Note His use of the word, “all.” That is a sweeping inclusion, and worthy of further examination.
I suppose that for most of you wonderful young adults here in Rexburg, life is good. You're young and healthy. Your parents are paying most, if not of all your expenses. You have comfortable housing and plenty to eat. (If you happen to be cooking your own food, well, that may be another matter.) Rexburg and its surrounding communities provide a wonderful place to live. There is very little crime. There is a new temple next door. And, of course, there are always the brisk, invigorating winters.
But I am very sure there are some in this audience today–and not just us older ones–who found yourself nodding when I read the words of the Savior. I thought I heard a chorus of inner voices saying something like, “Yes, that's me. Life is a labor. The load I carry is almost more than I can bear.”
Years ago, when I was serving as a new bishop in Bountiful, Utah, I received some wonderful advice from a good friend and experienced priesthood leader. I shall quote him as best as I remember it.
“When I was a new bishop,” he said, “I used to sit on the stand in sacrament meeting and look out over my congregation. I would notice a new family sitting near the back and think to myself, ‘Oh, that must be the Jones family who just moved in by the Browns. I wonder what we could call them to do.’ But after I had been a bishop for a year or so,” he went on, “I would sit on the stand and look out and see a new family, and say to myself, ‘Oh, a new family. I wonder what problems they have?”
At first I thought his statement was a bit of an exaggeration. When he said that everyone had “problems,” I thought he was talking about “spiritual problems.” But as my service as a bishop continued, I quickly learned something. I could drive through my ward and point to virtually any house and name a problem that family, or individuals in that family, were facing. Aging parents; wayward children; some kind of health crisis; depression or anxiety; mental health challenges; a crumbling marriage; family members struggling with addiction; loss of employment and the resulting financial crisis; The list of possibilities is virtually endless.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to sound grim. I love life. I find it to be a wonderful gift. Like many of you, my wife and I can also say, “Life is good.” But we have also learned why the Lord told Adam and Eve that outside the Garden it was a “lone and dreary world.” Paradise was all fruits and flowers growing spontaneously. No mosquitoes, cockroaches, bedbugs, or other such telestial creatures. (That last is an assumption on my part of course.) There was no death, no cancer, no briars or noxious weeds, no war, no terrorists, no drug cartels.
We were born into a fallen world where all of the things I have just described are not only realities but seem to be closing in more and more around us. Such a world is necessary for our progression, but sometimes this educational experience “just ain't much fun,” is it. As a good friend of mine put it, “The thing I have noticed about life is that it is so. . . relentless.”
To whom was Jesus speaking when He said, “Come unto me?” He was speaking to you and me; to our neighbors across the street or in the upstairs apartment; to kings and paupers, beggars and tycoons. “Come unto me, ALL ye that labour and are heavy laden.”
Next comes a promise. To those who are burdened and labor much, He says: “I will give you rest.”
Rest from what? That is not a simple question to answer. When we have worked hard, there is great satisfaction in putting down the pick and shovel, turning off the computer, or stripping off the surgical gloves and mask, and just quitting our labor. Could that be what Jesus meant? That if we come unto Him, He will take away the burdens? Fruits and flowers will start spontaneously bursting out all over lives? I don't think so. We'll speak more on this later.
The next phrase is our scriptural passage contains another directive–actually two more directives. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me.
Yoke is a most fascinating choice of words here, and is worthy of further exploration. Webster defines a yoke in two ways: It is first, “a wooden bar or frame by which two draft animals (such as oxen) are joined together for working purposes.” Here is a yoke, or span, of oxen. You can see how they are joined together by the yoke, which fits around their neck.
The second definition is similar, but refers to people and not animals. A yoke is “a frame fitted to a person's shoulders to help them carry a load in two equal portions.” Here is a woman using a yoke to carry water. Notice that it too fits around her neck and distributes the weight to her shoulders.
Did you notice that both definitions have something in common. A yoke is a device used to help people or animals carry or pull their burdens more easily. So to put the scripture in more modern terms, the Savior is saying, “Come unto me, all ye who labor under a heavy load, and let me provide the help you need to carry it.”
Here is another thing about yokes that I find interesting. Jesus doesn't ask us to take just any yoke upon us. He says, “Take my yoke upon you.” Many of us already feel yoked to our problems, to our addictions, to our weaknesses, to our adversities. Our first reaction may be, “The last thing I need is another yoke of any kind.” But My yoke? That is another matter indeed.
In our modern, industrialized countries, we don't see many yokes any more. Did you know that each yoke has to be fit to the person using it or the animals that will wear it. Here again is the picture of the woman wearing a yoke. See how it is carved exactly to fit her shoulders and neck. Compare that to this yoke a man is Asia uses to carry goods to and from market. They are very different because the loads are different and the individuals wearing the yokes are different.
Look more carefully at this span of span of oxen yoked together. They are not a perfectly matched pair. Aside from the coloration, the near ox is maybe half a hand span shorter than the other. If you look closely, you can see how the yoke has been carved to accommodate that difference. Why? If the yoke is not adjusted to the difference between them, when they pull the load, the larger ox will tend to drag the smaller one to some extent. As with people, the yoke has to be tailored to each specific animal.
I love that concept. When I come to the Savior with my burdens, my problems, my challenges, He doesn't hand me an off-the-shelf, one size-fits-all yoke. He knows me intimately. He loves me infinitely. Therefore, the help that He offers me will be perfectly fitted to my needs, my abilities, and my circumstances. How profound are those words. “Take my yoke upon you.”
The injunction to take His yoke upon us is coupled with another. And learn of me. What does that mean? It is very simple. To learn of Jesus we must be taught by Him. We must receive what He wants us to know. He tells how to do it. First, Come unto me. Second, Take my yoke upon you. Third. Learn of me. Come. Take. Learn. Here is an interesting related concept.
In the scriptures, pride is often described as being stiffnecked. Think about that. If we are stiffnecked, we refuse to bow our heads, as we do in prayer, which is a sign of submission. And where does the yoke fit, in both animals and humans. On the neck. As you saw in the picture, to receive the yoke, the oxen have to bow their necks so the yoke can be fitted over their heads.
A condition closely related to stiffneckedness is hardheartedness. Why? Because if we are too proud to bow our heads in submission to God, it is because our hearts are hardened against Him. And when we are stiffnecked and hardhearted, we cannot be taught by the Lord. In the Book of Mormon, one prophet directly tied being stiffnecked to learning by the Spirit. “And there are many among us who have many revelations, for they are not all stiffnecked. And as many as are not stiffnecked and have faith, have communion with the Holy Spirit (Jarom 1:4).
And another prophet tied revelation directly to the condition of our hearts. “Because of meekness and lowliness of heart cometh the visitation of the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 8:26)
Before we can learn of Him, we have to humble ourselves, come unto Him, and be willing to take His yoke upon us. Come, take, and learn. It is simple enough, what He asks.
Let us move on to our next phrase. For I am meek and lowly of heart.
As I was reading this again the other day, one word there suddenly struck me as it never had before. It is the word for. For is a preposition that is used in many different ways. One of those ways is in the same sense as because. Here is a sentence that uses for in the sense of because. “I felt I had to pay my debt to her, for [or because] it was the right thing to do.”
I think that is how the Savior used for in this scripture. Look what happens when we substitute because here: “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me because I am meek and lowly of heart.”
But what does His being meek and lowly of heart have to do with us taking His yoke upon us so we can learn of Him? Let me use a scriptural chain to try and explain what I think He is trying to teach us.
First scripture. In the spring of 1839, Joseph Smith was languishing under the most deplorable of conditions in Liberty Jail. Talk about being heavy laden. His people had just gone through the horrors of Haun's Mill and the fall of Far West. They were driven out of Missouri in the dead of winter, leaving footprints in the snow from bare, bleeding and cracked feet. His own family was among the fleeing refugees. Emma had to cross the Mississippi River on ice, with two children in her arms and two more clinging to her skirts. And all the while Joseph sits helplessly in jail. Is it any wonder that this cry was torn from his lips: “O God, where art thou?”
It is in the Lord's answer to that cry that we gain a marvelous insight about the Savior and His meekness and lowliness of heart. After telling Joseph that even if he should be cast into the hands of murderers and have a sentence of death passed upon him; even if the heavens were to gather blackness and the very jaws of hell should gape open its mouth at him, he should know that “all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.” Then followed a question that has stunning implications for each of us: “The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?”
Few of us will ever carry a burden equal to what Joseph Smith did, but even Joseph couldn't say to the Lord. “You don't understand what I am facing. You don't know how hard this is. If You did, You would take this burden from me.” What a humbling concept. There is nothing that we can bring to Christ that He has not personally experienced. There is no sickness, no suffering, no adversity but what He has descended below them.
Let me return to my experience as a bishop to help you understand what the Lord is suggesting. My wife and I had been in the ward only about a year, so while we knew who people were, we didn't know them that well. One day I got a call from one of the families in the ward asking if I would come up to the University Hospital and give a blessing to their daughter, Christy. I, of course, said I would be happy to do so, though I had not heard of there being a problem.
When I arrived, I was directed to a room on the third floor. As I got off the elevator, I saw a sign indicating this was the center for Cystic Fibrosis. I didn't give it much thought. I had no idea what cystic fibrosis was, nor did I make the connection to Christy. When I walked into the room, however, a shock awaited me. Christy, who was eighteen at the time, was sitting up in her bed. Her mother was standing over her and pounding up and down her back with her fists. Christy held a cup and was coughing up bloody mucus into it. On the hospital tray beside her there were three more cups, all filled with the same bloody mucus.
I learned later that cystic fibrosis is a hereditary disease that causes a fibrous mucus to form in the lungs. Regular thumping on the back helps break up the congestion so the individual can breathe. That was my beginning experience with Christy. Over the next three years I was privileged to come to know her very well. We spent many hours talking together and many blessings were given. She was amazing. She was always cheerful and happy. There was not one iota of resentment in her about this “burden” which had been laid upon her, or the “labor” it took for her to stay alive.
She desperately wanted to serve a mission. It was not to be. She desperately wanted to be a wife and mother. That was not to be either. One day, she asked if it would be possible for her to be endowed in the temple, even though she was single. Happily, the stake president concurred with my recommendation, and I was privileged to be with her and her family when she received that sacred ordinance. And less than a year later, I was honored and deeply humbled when she requested that I speak at her funeral. She died not long after her twenty-first birthday.
As I thought about her and her life, I felt guilty. My health has always been good. Why was she given such a handicap? Her life seemed so much purer and more righteous than mine. Yet I got to go on a mission. I got to marry and have a family. I got to run and walk and play without even thinking of the gift of breathing.
I can remember thinking one day that if I were Christy, when I got up to the judgment bar, I would be strongly tempted to step forward and say, “It isn't fair. What did I do that I should have been denied these righteous blessings? What did I do that earned me a life of handicap and pain?”
And then one day I found the answer. It comes from Alma, and helps explain what the Savior meant when He said that He had descended below all things.
Alma begins by saying, “And behold, he shall be born of Mary” (Alma 7:10). That is a quick reminder of an important point. Jesus was the Son of God, but He was also the son of Mary. He was born a mortal. He too came into a fallen world. As a baby He was totally dependent on others for His care. He had to eat and drink each day. Even though He had once been a God, now He had to sleep at night. If He hit his thumb in the carpenter shop, it hurt and His thumbnail turned black. In a word, He was one of us. With that established, here is what Alma says next. I have emphasized some key words.
And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities (Alma 7:11-12).
Here is what Elder Neal A. Maxwell had to say about this passage:
Jesus' daily mortal experiences and His ministry, to be sure, acquainted Him by observation with a sample of human sicknesses, grief, pains, sorrows, and infirmities. . . .But the agonies of the Atonement were infinite and first-hand! Since not all human sorrow and pain is connected to sin, the full intensiveness of the Atonement involved bearing our pains, infirmities, and sicknesses, as well as our sins” (Neal A. Maxwell, "Not My Will, But Thine", p. 51).
Think again of what Joseph was taught in Liberty Jail. “The Son of Man hath descended below them all.” Elder Maxwell again:
Can we, even in the depths of disease, tell Him anything at all about suffering? In ways we cannot comprehend, our sicknesses and infirmities were borne by Him even before they were borne by us. . . . .We have never been, nor will we be, in depths such as He has known. Thus His atonement made perfect His empathy and His mercy and His capacity to succor us” (Neal A. Maxwell, Even As I Am, pp. 116-17.)
That is an astonishing concept. Not only did He make infinite payment for all the wrongs and injustices on earth, but He also gained infinite empathy for each of us. Somehow, in a way that is unfathomable to us, He knows exactly what Christy endured. He knows what it is like to suffer with terminal cancer. He knows the loneliness of depression. He understands the feelings utter hopelessness that can come with some mental illnesses. There is no burden, no sorrow, no suffering that He doesn't fully understand. And because of that, there is nothing we can take to Him that brings a response of, “I'm sorry. I don't understand.”
Why would He willingly offer Himself as such an infinite sacrifice. It was because He was meek and lowly of heart. He was submissive to the Father. Even in the hour of His darkest need, pleading to escape from the bitter cup that lay ahead, He immediately added these words to His prayer. “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39). Thus, as Abinadi taught, His will was swallowed up in the will of the Father (see Mosiah 15:7).
I cannot picture Christy ever demanding to know why life wasn't fair, but if she did, I think I know the answer she would receive. I think the Savior would embrace her and tell her that not only did He understand what she had given up, but that He had paid for it all, that He had made it all right. The blood He shed in Gethsemane and on the cross had paid her debt as well.
My dear young brothers and sisters, I wish we had time to continue our examination of this profoundly beautiful passage of scripture, but we don't. So I should like to leave you with one other insight.
There is a wonderful story in the Book of Mormon about yokes, and burdens and blessings. Before I we talk about that, let me show you a special kind of yoke. This is what in Spanish is called a mecapal. It is a head band used to help an individual carry a heavy load on his or her back. Head bands, or head yokes, are used around the world. This mecapal comes from Gautemala. Here is a dramatic photo of a man in Guatemala using a mecapal to bring in wood. I once saw a man in the Old City of Jerusalem carrying a refrigerator on his back, using a woven head band.
Now to the story. Two groups of people fled from the tyranny of King Noah–Limhi's people, and the followers of Alma. In both cases they were discovered and placed into bondage by the Lamanites. The people of Limhi had “heavy burdens [put] upon their backs, and [they] did drive them as they would a dumb ass” (Mosiah 21:3). Knowing how old the traditions are in Central America, it is very likely that they used some kind of head band, or mecapal, to carry those burdens.
In the case of Alma's people, we are told that after they were captured, the Lamanites “did put tasks upon them, and did put taskmasters over them” (Mosiah 24:9). Note that it doesn't say that they were given tasks to do, but that they had tasks put upon them. Again this could suggest they carried burdens on their backs and possibly used head bands to do so.
Now let me divert for just a moment to a modern story. Two of my colleagues in the Church Educational System were in the highlands of Guatemala training our seminary teachers. They happened upon a man very much like the one in the picture. He had a large bundle of firewood strapped on his back. They stopped and spoke with him for a time, then one asked if he would mind if they took his picture with the other. He was pleased to do so. As they stood for the photo, the photographer saw that the Guatemalan, who was quite a bit shorter than the America, had his face in shadow. “Ask him if he will raise his head a little,” he called.
What do you think happened next as this little man raised his head and smiled? That's right, he nearly fell over backwards. With a mecapal you always have to keep your head down, looking at the ground.
Back to Alma and his people. It must have been a terrible time. They were righteous. They had left the life of Noah's court, but as Mormon noted: “The Lord seeth fit to chasten his people; yea, he trieth their patience and their faith.” Then he added, “And none could deliver them but the Lord their God” (Mosiah 23:21, 23).
Under Alma's leadership, his people were totally submissive to the Lord's will and finally the time came for their deliverance. The Lord said to them: “Lift up your heads and be of good comfort. . . .I will covenant with my people and deliver them out of bondage. And I will also ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders, that even you cannot feel them upon your backs, even while you are in bondage, . .that you may know of a surety that I, the Lord God, do visit my people in their afflictions (Mosiah 24:13-14).
What happened when that Guatemalan laborer lifted up his head? To someone carrying a heavy burden on their back, lifting their head is counterintuitive. It is exactly the opposite of what nature requires. And to suggest to someone who carries a heavy burden in life that they lift their heads and look to Savior as a way to lighten their load seems counterintuitive too. But this is His message. “Lift up your heads. Look to me. Look up from the endless treadmill of life and see that I am here.”
Please don't misunderstand, I am not suggesting that those with physical or emotion disabilities turn away from competent medical or clinical care, and “just have faith.” In my work with the Missionary Department these last two years, I often felt like weeping when I learned of missionaries who stopped taking prescribed medications because they felt like this was how they could demonstrate greater faith. Instead, we had to bring them home until they could be stabilized again. It is important to remember that in this example, the Lord didn't remove their burdens or deliver them from bondage at first, He only eased them.
Which brings us to the closing promises of our theme scripture. If we who labor and are heavy laden come unto Him, and if we do so because we understand that His meekness and lowliness of heart brought about the atonement; and if we take His yoke upon us and learn of Him, then the promise is very clear: And you shall find rest unto your souls.
Here again is the promise of rest, but here we learn that this rest is not just for the body, not just for the mind, but for the soul. The soul is the whole man, the body and the spirit knit together. It is our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual dimensions all wrapped together. What a promise. “Ye shall find rest unto you souls.”
Brothers and Sisters, I testify that in the Savior Jesus Christ we can find rest to our souls. We can have our burdens lifted.
I testify of the Master who suffered in both body and spirit until He cried out from the cross, “It is finished.” I testify that He understands our needs, our sorrows, our pain, and our weaknesses. In all of that, and in spite of all of that, He extends the arms of His love and says to us:
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. we come unto Him we shall find rest unto our souls (Matthew 11:28-3).
Of that I testify in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
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