Functional Legalism

Legalism is typically an easy sin for me to yield to. Being a person who has historically been concerned with what some people think of me I have found legalism to be functional, practical and easy to maintain, in a twisted kind of way of course. You see, in order to be a good legalist you need to be able to out-think other legalists. And if you can do that then you are typically well-thought of and/or respected by your peers for your spiritual practices.

In my past I have been unwittingly proud of my ability to make a longer list of “do’s and don’ts” than the average Christian. And many of my friends unwittingly equated my asceticism with spirituality. I carried the right bible, went to the right church, wore the right clothes, spoke the right words, sang the right songs, went to the right places and associated with the right people. And sadly to some, my arrogance was interpreted as “spirituality.” Being free from this proud thinking was difficult. It is difficult. I am a proud man. I do want people to think well of me. And in the world of Christianity it can be more about what you do than who you are.

As I began to branch out and make new friends who were not part of my ascetic world I found relationships difficult. I was socially awkward. My new friends in my new world would look at my quirks of spirituality and not be as impressed or inspired as my legalistic friends. They saw it for what it was: ignorance, immaturity, pride, Pharisaical standards, smoke and mirrors and, even worse, an insecure person posing as a spiritual person. I was a poser.

My new friends were more interested in other things; more humble, cross-centered things. Here’s a short list: For example, they were curious as to how I treated my wife…

  • Did I include her in the decisions we made?
  • Did I serve her by pitching-in to clean the home?
  • Was I leading her in rearing our children?
  • Was I aware of what she was doing or why she did what she did and what was going on in her life, the children’s lives?
  • Were we spending adequate time together?
  • Was God at the center of our life rather than the “ministry” or my “burden” or my vocation?
  • Was I living an authentic Christian life in the home and not just before those whom I desired a good opinion?
  • Was I regularly repenting of and confessing my sin?
  • Was I confessing my sin to my wife? …to my friends?
  • Did I ignore my sins toward her? Sins like neglect, harshness, impatience, not thinking the best, not walking her through various situations, not protecting her schedule, not actively planning our schedule, not leading the family in devotions, not having quiet times with her, not asking her opinion, not taking the time to ask her challenging questions, not surprising her with love, not taking a day off or an evening off, not having biblical fellowship, not pointing out the many evidences of grace in her life, not leading in encouragement, and much, much more.
  • Was I inviting the humble observations of my friends to help me change?
  • Was I reflecting the humility of Christ?
  • And there is more…much more…

Whew! Being a selfish, arrogant Pharisee, craving the opinion of others and living by a list was a heck of a lot easier. It was certainly safer. It left me in control. Being a Pharisee put my interest, my burden, my ministry, my hobby, my life first. It helped in bending people’s good opinion toward me.

It has taken me years to realize that loving God and neighbor the way Jesus meant in Matthew 22 is radically different than a list of rules. This new lifestyle has been difficult to say the least. It is challenging me every day, not with a list, but with a lifestyle that makes discernment, courage, intentionality, changing priorities, focusing on others a way of living.

Even though it is more work, the relationships are deeper, longer lasting, more meaningful and more rewarding. My wife is not just a sex object or slave for me and my children are not in the way. Life is full.

The rewards of serving are plentiful and immediate. It is the grandest way to live. I am truly free by being a slave to Christ rather than a slave to a code of ethics (lists). By the grace of God I don’t have to live by the list anymore.

By the grace of God I’m learning to live in the good of the gospel in my ordinary life.

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