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. Matt. 11:28-30
But in numerous other places Jesus tells his followers that they will have tribulations and troubles in this world, that they will suffer, that they will be persecuted. (John 16:33; John 16:2; Matt. 5:11-12) And a central Christian teaching is that if we suffer with Christ we shall reign with Christ. (2 Tim. 2:12)
We have all known people who never seem to get much rest, people who are grievously wearied by the chances and changes of this mortal life. Perhaps a mother has a child with an illness that requires constant monitoring. Perhaps a husband has a wife with dementia who needs constant care. Perhaps a person suffers from a painful illness and gets little sleep.
And we all have our own times in life when we don't feel at all rested, when we feel bone-tired and don't see the end of some tunnel or other. It might be a tunnel of overwork, of some grief that seems to have no end in sight, of an uncongenial work situation, of a physical ailment. Even if we tell ourselves that things could be a lot worse, we still may wonder where the rest is.
It's easy enough to say that Jesus was promising his followers spiritual rest, but what exactly does that mean? Is it, perhaps, a promise only for the afterlife, or does it have an application in this life?
Well, I'm sorry to disappoint, but I don't have answers to all of these questions. I do have, however, a thought that came to me today when part of the "come unto me" verse was read at the "comfortable words" in the liturgy: I often find that the thought of good people, specific good people, is a kind of mental resting place and refreshment. There are such people in the world. Think of someone you know who is a light for others--someone loving, honest, loyal, and just plain good.
As Christians we are committed to the view that all of that goodness comes from God. We give thanks to God for his great glory, but it's sometimes a little hard to grasp that glory, for the Father dwells in light unapproachable. Hence the Son came, incarnate, to reveal the Father. So to begin with, the very thought of Jesus is a rest for the soul, a rest for the mind. Here is a sinless One who will never fail us, never turn out to be wicked, who has shown his love for us in giving his life. Here at last is someone we can count on.
But even Our Lord is somewhat removed from our daily life, if only because we never knew him personally. And say what one will, a theanthropic, sinless person never seems quite as graspable as a sinful, but good, non-theanthropic person. I believe the current jargon term is "relatable." But here, too, God caters to our weakness, for He gives us the Communion of Saints, which takes us back to those people whom you know and justifiably trust. Those people are prisms reflecting the immortal light of God. Resting in the thought of a lovable man of good character or a crusty saint who has fought the good fight, you are in fact thanking God (indirectly) for His great glory.
So while I don't know all the things that Jesus had in mind when he said, "Come unto me, and I will give you rest," I do know that there is one thing that can give the Christian spiritual rest: Contemplating the goodness of God as reflected in the saints, and not only the officially canonized ones, either. If you are a Christian, you are part of their company, the "blessed company of all faithful people," and you can humbly enjoy the thought that there is goodness in this world, amidst all the sadness, pain, restlessness, fatigue, faithlessness, and evil. Remembering that gives one a small, temporary window into the God's-eye view. For God knows, and we can know, too, that the game is worth the candle, and that all the evil in the world will ultimately be entirely swamped by the goodness and joy of the redeemed.