Becoming a Christian and starting a relationship with Jesus is amazing. Experiencing freedom from shame and forgiveness for the ways we’ve disregarded God– it’s a beautiful life. Jesus himself says in Matthew 11: 28-30, following him is like carrying “a burden that’s easy and light.”  

However, when I think about my journey as a Christian, “freedom” isn’t the word that first comes to mind. In the culture of Christians around me; the social media posts I interact with, the articles I read, I don’t see many Christians celebrating the freedom we have in Christ either.

If the early Christian writings of Paul and the Apostles are full of proclamations of freedom, why is it that we tend to hear sermons, listen to podcasts, and read articles focused on all the ways we’re living life the wrong way? Why does becoming a Christian so often feel like exchanging the burden of our sin for the burden of trying to meet the church’s expectations? Expectations either explicitly stated by our church community, or expectations that are implied, often carry the weight of God’s supposed expectations for us, too.

This is a problem Christians have battled throughout history. John Bunyan, a seventeenth-century English author and preacher, had much to say about the Christian journey. He wrote a book called The Pilgrim’s Progress, and in that book, John has a dream that turns into a beautiful and extensive allegory for the Christian life. I believe a key scene from John’s dream tale can remind us of the freedom we have in Christ and encourage us to repent of the burdens we place on each other in Christian communities, however well-intentioned.  

 The hero of the story, Christian, lives in the City of Destruction (yes, the allegory can be pretty on the nose). Christian is distressed because he has a large “burden” on his back and has been reading a book that’s convinced him he needs to be saved. Fortunately, he meets a man called Evangelist and is directed to go on a journey to the Wicket Gate. Despite the pleadings of his wife, kids, and neighbors to stay and not bother with the journey, Christian sprints from the city with his fingers in his ears crying, “Life, life, eternal life!” 

The Wicket Gate in Christian’s journey represents the narrow gate that Jesus talks about in Matthew 7:13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”  

On his journey toward the Wicket Gate, Christian meets several people, and the most dangerous of all is Mr. Worldly-Wiseman (again, aptly named). Mr. Worldly-Wiseman convinces Christian there’s an easier way to remove his burden and directs him instead to the village of Morality. Mr. Legality and Mr. Civility live there, both of whom are very experienced in removing burdens like the one Christian has on his back.  

Worldly-Wiseman turns Christian aside on his journey towards freedom, tempting him with the pitfalls of legalism, morality, and civility. Many of us have been similarly invited towards Morality—(“right“ living motivated more by selfishness rather than the pursuit of holiness)—sometimes even by Christian leaders, and many of us have also experienced the false expertise of legalism (relying too heavily on strict rules) and civility (niceness without real kindness) in church settings. When we’ve become trapped in legalism, saturated with civility, or focused solely on morality, our Christian faith feels like a burden to answer to rather than an expression of the freedom Christ offers. 

In addressing legalism, Paul writes in Galatians: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (5:1). 

Paul’s words above are one of many places where freedom in Christ is mentioned in the New Testament. The early Christian writings of Paul and the Apostles are full of proclamations of freedom in Christ (2 Corinthians 3:17, Ephesians 3:12, etc.), yet living as a Christian can often feel as though we’ve exchanged the burden of our sin for the burden of trying to meet the expectations of other Christians. 

For example, like many kids who grew up in Christian homes and churches in the wake of the late 90s and early 2000s purity culture movement, I felt a disproportionate emphasis in my faith education on “saving myself” for sex rather than on the One who saves me. After my husband and I got married, we realized our churches had spent so much time making sure we didn’t have sex as young people, that we had no idea how to have a healthy sexual relationship as part of our marriage. We’ve spent many years unlearning and relearning everything we were taught (and mostly not taught) about sex and seeking healing from this burden that negatively impacted both our dating relationship and our early marriage. A good gift from God, sexuality, turned into a burden for young people to bear, by the very people who should be offering compassionate support as free siblings in Christ. For there isn’t one of us who doesn’t experience some kind of sexual brokenness, challenge, or confusion as we strive to righteously express our sexuality. 

Expectations like this can ride around on our shoulders like the proverbial devil and angel; how to dress, how to vote, how to spend our money, how to spend our time, how to raise our children, etc. And when these expectations come from our experiences in church settings and Christian leaders, they’re often presented as the expectations Jesus has of us too. We are then left with a church that feels far from the wonder, beauty, and grace that first attracted us to living a life with Jesus.  

 And we’re left without a true understanding of who Jesus is and what he has done for us, which, circling back to The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian is about to learn for the first time. 

It turns out, Legality and Civility are trapped in the village of Morality, but Evangelist reappears just in time to save Christian from meeting the same fate. As Evangelist points out, if Legality and Civility are trapped, how can Christian expect to become free by joining them?  

Christian gets back on the path and finds the Wicket Gate a short while later. As he passes through the Wicket Gate to continue on his journey, Christian finally finds relief from his burden:  

Now I saw in my dream (writes Bunyan) that the highway up which Christian was to go was fenced on either side by a wall, and that wall is called Salvation. Up this way, Christian ran despite the heavy burden still on his back. He ran until he came to a place somewhat ascending, and on that place stood a Cross, and a little below the Cross, an open grave. I saw in my dream that just as Christian came up to the Cross, his burden loosened from his shoulders and fell off his back, and tumbled down into the open grave.  

Then Christian was glad and felt lighter and said with a merry heart, “He has given me rest, by his sorrow, by his life, and by his death.” Then he stood a little while to look and wonder, for it was very surprising to him that the sight of the Cross should remove his burden. He continued looking and gazing until tears rolled down his cheeks (p. 69-70). 

 Christian is confronted with the wonder of the Cross, and it is the Cross and nothing else that finally grants him relief and rest from his burden.   

As much time as I’ve spent navigating the expectations of other Christians, there have also been many times of wonder at the Cross in my own faith journey. In addition to my purity-culture problems referenced earlier, another square on my metaphorical church-kid-bingo-card was church camp. I loved going to camp. One year, we had a large wooden cross down by the lake. During a campfire by the cross, we sang songs, and the speaker gave a message. I don’t remember the content, but I do have a visceral memory of my bare knees on the cold grass and a deep sense of awe at the meaning of the Cross. I was struck with wonder at God’s sacrifice for me and by his overwhelming, incomprehensible love. 

I think about that moment and wonder— why is it so easy for me to forget that my burdens have been removed? Just as Christian’s burden fell from his back and disappeared at the sight of the cross, nothing I can do will change or improve the work Jesus already finished. The burden of sin is in the grave. Whether or not I’m meeting the expectations of others, and even when I do make mistakes and am led astray, our Savior still stands with an open invitation to wonder and freedom.  

There is freedom in Christ, there is freedom in the Gospel, and I desire to spend more of my time gazing in wonder and awe at the cross than bent over by burdens that Christ never meant for me to carry. May we repent of the ways we gatekeep the gospel, and instead, open the doors to anyone running with their fingers in their ears, crying, like Christian, “Life, life, eternal life!” 

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The Pilgrim’s Progress was written by John Bunyan in 1678 and is one of the most widely-read books of all time. The quotations have been updated by the author of the article into modern English, referencing the Penguin English Library edition, 1965.