On the eve of my return to Southeast Asia, I am looking forward to more conversation with my students and colleagues on the way of Jesus in a predominately Buddhist context.
Like Jesus, the Buddha is usually portrayed as a gentle and wise spiritual guide. By following his teachings and example, in pursuit of enlightenment and liberation from this world, Buddhists seek to detach themselves from all those desires that produce suffering. Along the way, they seek to live peacefully and to become more compassionate toward others. Buddhists don’t expect these changes to happen overnight, to say the least. In fact, according to common Buddhist teaching, full enlightenment will probably require thousands of (re-) incarnations, if it ever happens at all.
As Buddhists look to the Buddha for a better way to live and for hope for their lives, so Christians look to Jesus. Yet, Jesus’ way is different.
Rather than starting with the individual, or even the community, Jesus started with God. He taught us to put the Creator and giver of life at the center of our lives, and to seek to know, love, and serve God with all of ourselves. His Gospel was an invitation to increasingly experience God’s love filling us and flowing through us in ways that truly make a difference in the lives of those around us. In this way, God would be glorified in his creation, and we would experience life as God intends.
Jesus expected that those who follow him would make every effort to realize God’s vision for their lives, but he never imagined that we would try to do this in our own strength. At core, his message was not, “Try harder!” No, his good news was more radical than that. Jesus’ Gospel was a call to surrender our own will and self-reliance, so that God could do in us what we simply cannot do on our own.
Followers of Buddha—or any religion or religious figure that teaches that we must somehow earn or achieve or own salvation—must forever operate under a different system from what Jesus’ taught. They hold a different basis for hope, and live out their days in an endless pursuit of something that is always out of reach.
Followers of Jesus, on the other hand, start by capitulating. They give up the vain aspiration to reach the top of the spiritual ladder in their own strength—no matter how well-intentioned or noble the path. Instead, they gratefully rely on the mercy of God, submit to the yoke of Christ, and learn how to live by the leading of the Spirit of God.
Jesus said, “Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28).
An obscure image for most of us, perhaps: a young, untrained ox paired with an experienced, disciplined partner. Once yoked together, the younger one follows the lead of the older, and stops resisting the farmer and exhausting itself. Suddenly there is less stress and distress than when it was fighting against the farmer’s will. And the field gets ploughed.
Jesus is giving us a picture of a relationship with God that is very different from one that requires our striving to some how pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Jesus is offering to gently lead us into the true life God intends for us, both by what he does for us and by what he shows us to do.
The way of Jesus makes him stand out from other great religious leaders, and his teaching from other spiritual paths. The key difference is not so much the intended goals of a becoming a better person, of creating a better society, or of attaining a better after-life. Most religions agree on much of this. No, the critical difference between Jesus’ way and all the others is how one gets there.
By being a follower of Christ, I don’t think I am better than others. On the contrary, I am keenly aware of how limited I am in my own power to become the person I would like to be. I accept this reality, and look instead to God’s love and acceptance for my sense of worth. I rely on God’s mercy and grace for forgiveness and redemption. And my spiritual journey is fairly simple—I’m seeking to learn what it means to live under the yoke of Jesus and live by the Spirit day-by-day, moment-by-moment. I take credit for nothing in my relationship with God, and am only grateful that I was given the grace to recognize the truth that would finally set me free.
A Suggested Prayer (for those tired of trying to advance spiritually on their own): “Jesus, I am so tired of trying to make my life work. I’m weary of trying to be a better person. I give up. Thank you for your gentle and loving invitation to give my life to you completely. I accept! Please teach me how to walk with you, side by side, under your yoke, under your leadership, by your Spirit, to serve God’s good purposes for my life. Please do in me and for me what I cannot seem to do on my own. Thank you.”
 Matthew 22:37-40; Luke 15:11-32. See, too, how John further develops this Gospel message, 1 John 4:7-19.