The official study guide for this week’s lesson uses “yoke” in two different ways. The more concrete usage focuses on Jeremiah’s wearing of a wooden yoke to boldly illustrate his plea to the kingdom of Judah and to the surrounding nations to submit to the yoke of Babylon (Jer. 27).
The false prophet Hananiah, preaching the return of the temple vessels and the restoration of Jehoiachin to the throne of Judah, came up to Jeremiah and forcible broke the wooden yoke from his neck, declaring that within two years the yoke of Babylon would thus be broken. Jeremiah responded by speaking of a yoke of iron – the text is not clear whether he actually made another visual aid – but it does refer to a “yoke of iron” (Jer. 28:13).
Jeremiah had the last word, too, reminding Hananiah that true prophets usually predict disaster. But if a prophet is so bold as to predict peace, his ministry can only be confirmed with the fulfillment of the prophecy (Jer. 28:9). As for Hananiah himself, Jeremiah predicted that he would die within the year for rebelling against Yahweh. That’s exactly what happened. Hananiah died two months later (Jer. 28:15-17).
The study guide’s other use of “yoke” suggests a more contemporary – albeit troubling – application in our day because of the ever-present call to ascetic self-denial that haunts the lives of the devout. The starting point is God’s command to Jeremiah to lay aside every trace of happiness: no marriage or family (Jer. 16:2-4), no feasting, no sounds of joy and gladness (Jer. 16:8-9). Indeed, Jeremiah was forbidden to show emotion of any kind: no mourning for the dead, no participation in a memorial funeral meal (Jer. 16:5-7). From a New Testament point of view one thinks of Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow him (Luke 9:23). Somewhat related is his offer of rest in Matthew 11:28-30. Rest – but with a yoke, an easy yoke, to be sure, but still a yoke.
So how do we know if our life is burdened with too much self-denial or not enough? Admittedly, that question could perhaps be settled on the basis of temperament. It may be easier to introduce a streak of melancholy into the life of the joyous than to introduce joy into the life of the melancholy. But in Scripture we can find passages to reinforce both positions.
On the joyful side of the ledger, we can appeal to Jesus’ active participation at the wedding feast of Cana (John 2). Jeremiah had been forbidden such pleasure (Jer. 16:9). But not Jesus. In fact, he was such a party person that his enemies could call him a “glutton and a drunkard” (Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:34). Ecclesiastes 3:11-13 can also be cited in support of the cheerful life: “God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. So I concluded there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can. And people should eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of their labor, for these are gifts from God” (NLT).
By contrast, especially among grumpy non-Christians, the Christian way is often viewed as a life of joyless self-denial. Several years ago, for example, Nick Hornby wrote a novel entitled How to Be Good (Penguin, 2001) in which he describes the transformation of David Carr, “a bitter under-employed intellectual” who was converted by a faith healer, DJ GoodNews. Carr gives away money, works with the homeless, and even invites DJ to move in with him. But note the punch line: “He also becomes utterly humorless.”
Similarly, Mark Twain (1835-1910) reflected that “popular” view of the disciplined life, even when religion was not explicitly involved. My daughter once sent me a card with this line from Twain: “The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and do what you’d rather not.”
Interestingly enough, the card came from Borealis Press which noted on the back: “We print with soy inks, on acid-free, totally chlorine-free recycled paper, which produces no dioxins in the mill waste.” It is remarkable that such a “conscientious” press would feature a quote from Twain suggesting that the only way to prolong life is to live in unhappy self-denial.
In Adventism, the gloomy perspective on religion as a life of self-denial is rooted in the early experience of Ellen White. Many years ago, during my doctoral studies in Edinburgh, one conscientious church member asked me what he could do help him snap out of what he described as “spiritual depression.” I asked him what he had been reading. “Early Writings,” he replied. “I’ve read it dozens of times.”
“No wonder you’re depressed,” I exclaimed, “that’s when Ellen White was depressed. If you read from writers who were depressed, you’re likely to join them in their depression.”
What I find so intriguing and helpful are the resources which enable us to trace Ellen White’s growth from a perspective of haunting self-denial to one characterized by full joy in the Lord. That development is wonderfully illustrated by her successive descriptions of John the Baptist’s experience, 1858, 1878, 1897, and 1898. The key phrases are in bold type:
1858 Spiritual Gifts 1:29, 30-31: “John’s life was without pleasure. It was sorrowful and self-denying. . . . His life was lonely. He did not cling to his father’s family, to enjoy their society, but left them in order to fulfill his mission” (SG 1:29).
“I was pointed down to the last days, and saw that John was to represent those who should go forth in the [30/31] spirit and power of Elijah, to herald the day of wrath, and the second advent of Jesus” (SG 1:30-31).
Note:This early quote yields not a glimmer of joy. All is gloom and self-denial.
1877 Spirit of Prophecy 2:69: “John’s life, with the exception of the joy he experienced in witnessing the success of his mission, was without pleasure. It was one of sorrow and self-denial. . . . John’s voice was seldom heard, except in the wilderness. His life was lonely” (SP 2:69).
Note: Now, John at least had joy at work!
1897 Youth's Instructor, 7 Jan. 1897: “John enjoyed his life of simplicity and retirement.”
Note: The contrast with Spiritual Gifts (1858) is now complete. Ellen White actually states that John “enjoyed” his life of simplicity.
1898 The Desire of Ages, 150: “God had directed John the Baptist to dwell in the wilderness, that he might be shielded from the influence of the priests and rabbis, and be prepared for a special mission. But the austerity and isolation of his life were not an example for the people. John himself had not directed his hearers to forsake their former duties. He bade them give evidence of their repentance by faithfulness to God in the place where He had called them”
“Aside from the joy that John found in his mission, his life had been one of sorrow.His voice had been seldom heard except in the wilderness. His was a lonely lot. And he was not permitted to see the result of his own labors” (DA 220).
Note:Simply the deletion of the phrase “without pleasure” dramatically changes the tone of the whole narrative.
When I shared these comparisons with one of my classes, a student blurted out a marvelous one-liner: “You mean the more Ellen White enjoyed her walk with God the more John the Baptist enjoyed his!” Indeed.
I am convinced that we need to see all of Scripture more in the sense of illustrative authority, rather than absolute authority. That is particularly true of an austere book like Jeremiah. We retain all of Scripture as a book illustrating how God has worked with his messengers in various times and places. But application to any one of us is neither automatic nor absolute.
Often as a community of believers, we can be helpful in giving guidance to one another. Those who are inclined to be too flippant can be brought back to earth by their more serious-minded fellow believers, and those inclined to be too melancholy can be buoyed up by their more positive-thinking colleagues.
That approach could transform attitudes toward Ellen White’s writings. Many in the church find themselves oppressed by what she has written because they have been schooled to see her words in terms of absolute authority rather than illustrative authority.
The role of community is particularly important in the teaching of classes in religion. In that very connection, this paragraph from Ellen White’s counsel to “The Bible Teacher” is crucial: “It would greatly benefit our schools if regular meetings were held frequently in which all the teachers could unite in the study of the word of God. They should search the Scriptures as did the noble Bereans. They should subordinate all preconceived opinions, and taking the Bible as their lesson book, comparing scripture with scripture, they should learn what to teach their students, and how to train them for acceptable service” – Counsels to Parents and Teachers, 433 (1913).
Note the phrase, “subordinate all preconceived opinions.” We can’t rid ourselves immediately of our biases, but we can seek God’s help in subordinating them to the point where we can actually hear what others are saying.
If we could move toward such an approach in the church, the writings of Ellen White could be a great blessing – instead of a curse. And if we can learn that in connection with Ellen White, we might be able to come back to Jeremiah and read it productively instead of with dread.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7209