Legalism is a term that is tossed around in Christian circles. When I got serious about having a personal relationship with God, I began to hear about it and I began to practice it.
What is it? Dr. Willard says it is the idea that “overt action in conforming to rules for explicit behavior is what makes us right and pleasing to God and worthy of blessing.”
Let me stop before I launch into this topic that drives me crazy.
1.When I was a “baby” Christian, I practiced legalism because I knew no other way. Finding favor with God through devotional reading, daily Bible reading, daily prayer etc. seemed to be a great thing to do. Don’t get me wrong; all those things are wonderful but what is dumb is the finding favor part of my statement. How do I know whether God is going to favor me or not? Do I know the mind of God? Of course I don’t. What did I do? I set up a daily discipline, a set of rules and those rules were my way of feeling good about my faith.
2.”Let’s don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.” You may have heard that old expression. Are all rules, all disciplines bad? Of course they are not. Discipline can lead to extraordinary accomplishment in this world. How do outstanding musicians get outstanding? How do outstanding athletes break records? How do artists draw masterpieces? Some of it is natural talent but a lot of what they accomplish is through hard work, discipline and keeping their rules.
Back to the stuff that drives me crazy—legalism.
Why is it so prevalent in Christian circles?
1.It is world based. Our “world” is materialistic. Our world worships success. Our world loves great accomplishment through hard work. Naturally, Christians want to take a goal-centered approach to life and apply it to their faith. They want to have a list and they want to put check marks on their list and then they can show others what they have done. This is tangible evidence. This is the type of behavior that Jesus disliked in the Pharisees. They did their “righteous work” in a public manner and they wanted the world to see their efforts. They wanted credit.
2.It is based on control. No one wants to lose control. I am very close to people who center their whole life around the need for control. We all do to a certain extent. Who wants to live out of control all the time? No one. But who really has control in life…really? No one. God has control 24/7. We don’t. This flies in the face of how most people want to live life. Artificial control through legalism gives people the sense that they are able to accomplish things in their spiritual life; they can control their destiny. If they have a “good run” in their life, they will reach heaven. Four hundred sixty three thousand six hundred and fifty two straight days of reading the Bible will get you into heaven. That’s their way of thinking. That’s their effort to control God.
3.Life comes from law. I was with someone the other day and I could see that this person was struggling. She was unhappy with her life. Too many people were breaking the rules. She saw life as black or white, right or wrong and good or bad. Wouldn’t it be nice if life were like that? No mess. But life is not like that. Sure we want it to be neat but maybe God has other ideas. Maybe He wants us to struggle with people who are not capable of coloring “within the lines.” Are they wrong because of their inability to follow the rules? Maybe they are but how are we to help them? How are we to deal with them? How can we be who we are in a world with their behavior as it is? Maybe we need to learn the beauty of having fun. I have a musician friend who is very talented and I have listened to him play the piano for many years. He always messes up a measure or two in everything he plays but he always get to the end of the piece. He always plays. Stop for a second and think about that word PLAY. What does it mean to play? It means to act in a joyful manner, to have fun, to get a positive emotional lift from what you are doing. If he is having fun, and yet he messes up a measure or two, so what? The attitude that we have to be perfect and abide by the law can really be a killer.
I wonder if this is what Jesus meant when he said “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” Where is the letter? The letter means the letter of the law.
Where is life really?
It is in the heart and the soul. That is the real God connection. God does not relate to our efforts to accomplish a goal, our efforts to control Him or our judgements based on some interpretation of “the law.”
God wants us to bypass these artificial, human measuring sticks and follow Him.
When I follow Him, I find myself doing what He wants me to do.
As an added benefit…
I avoid going crazy.