Hello! My name is Adam and I am a chronic legalist. Yes, I know, that was not a normal introduction. However, I am realising that it is quite helpful to be honest. But before I continue, let me define what I mean by “chronic legalist”. When I say “legalist”, I mean that I am someone who suffers from thinking that God will only accept me when I am good enough or have done good enough. When I say chronic, I mean that all of that “legalist” thinking has been in my head for a long time.
Now, I realise that you may already be thinking, “poor guy” ... and that I am, but, according to Jesus, so are you – welcome to the club. It is quite a full club, and all of us are suffering from damaged, corrupted, or just plain wrong perceptions of God and ourselves. So, as we sit in this circle of openness, and for this small amount of time, your attention is on me, I will try and be as plain and as real as possible.
I have three posts to get my point across and, though seemingly dark and negative, I thought to dedicate the whole of this first post to the challenges of a chronic legalist. It’s not that I want everything to be heavy and sad, it’s more that solutions are hard to appreciate when we don’t grasp the problem.
The funny thing about being a legalist (especially a chronic one) is that we have a hard time admitting it. People don’t usually go around saying, “hey, I am a legalist”. In fact, most of us, if confronted withthat idea, would say, “not me!” Are we lying? I don’t think so. We genuinely think that “legalism” is someone else’s problem, not our own. Jesus highlighted this way of thinking in Matthew 7:3:
“Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own?”
It is much easier to see someone else’s issues. So, with low chances of seeing the legalism in ourselves, God will have to reveal it to us in another way. The Bible is a powerful tool for this, as God’s word “discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrew 4:12). However, in my case, I think God had an extra tool to help me understand my own condition – “send in the girlfriend”.
Have you ever seen a nice, juicy looking fruit, and then, as you take the first bite into it, you realise it was basically only good for compost? Disappointing, right? When Jesus said, “you will recognise them by their fruits”, was He only speaking about how the fruit looked? Fruits generally aren’t there just tobe stared at; they are there to be eaten. So, God gave me a girlfriend. And I genuinely believe that one of His reasons was for someone to come close enough to me to not just look at the fruits of my“faith” but taste them and say, “yuck!” Here is how it happened.
Adam meets Kathe. Adam likes Kathe. Kathe likes Adam. Adam and Kathe believe that God is leading them together. Adam asks Kathe.
Kathe says yes. Adam and Kathe start a relationship. Adam starts to see Kathe’s faults. Adam confronts Kathe about them. Adam is happy that they could have the conversation. Adam sees another fault. Adam confronts Kathe about it. Adam is happy for the conversation.
Meanwhile, Kathe is feeling less and less accepted - less and less “good enough”.
In other words, Kathe started to taste the fruit of Adam’s faith. She was experiencing the natural consequence of one who feels that God cannot accept them unless they are perfect. I was copying the picture I had of God, and, until that point, I had no real idea of my fruit (behaviours), tree (heart), and how damaging they were to me, until I saw how it damaged someone else.
So that is how I discovered the problem. I have a picture of God where He will not accept me until I am good enough. The consequence of this, at least in my life, was a repetition of the same picture in my own relationships – and that hurts people.
The Broken Picture
The reason why I introduced myself as a “chronic legalist” was not just to grab your attention, it was also to let someone know that they are not alone in this – there are at least two of us. Now, for the rest of this post, I want to make one point clear:
Your legalism is doomed to fail.
Sorry, I told you this would be a bit dark and heavy. Let me explain.
Legalism is based on a picture. I have mentioned this picture before, but they say repetition deepens impression, so here it is again:
God will not accept me until I am good enough
Therefore, I need to be good enough
It’s a simple picture, but it is a picture which is doomed to fail – it’s broken. When I say, “good enough”, what do I, or we, mean? We are usually talking about our performance of the Ten Commandments. Now, I don’t want to entertain for one second that the Ten Commandments aren’t important – the truth is, they are vital. But, if you were to ask Paul what the whole law was about, do you know what he would say? Here’s his answer:
“For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:9, 10)
The essence of the law, the DNA of all God’s commandments, is... love. That is why the law is vital, it is because love is vital and all those who do away with the law, (most likely unknowingly) do away with love. Then the chronic legalist within me starts to rise up and say, “you see! You see how important the law is! That’s the truth!” Poor soul. If only we legalists realised the whole truth – we are doomed to fail.
“Why do you keep saying that, Adam?” you may be thinking. Here is why.
If you have read through the Bible a little bit and someone was to ask you, “what does the Bible say about love?” where would you send them to?
First ... Corinthi... Yes! 1 Corinthians 13. This chapter is, at least in my eyes, the clearest description of what love, or, the law (you see how we got there?) is. So, check out this small phrase in the middle of 1 Corinthians 13:
“Love... does not seek its own”
The life of love ultimately places itself in second place. It gives, not for its own sake, but for someone else’s. Jesus healed people, not because He wanted to be known as a healer, but because people were sick. Jesus helped people, not because He wanted to be known as a helper, but because people needed help. Jesus hung on the cross, not because He wanted to be known as the Saviour, but because He knew you needed saving. All these loving actions, all these loving works were done for someone else. And that is where the legalist will always fail. Though they keep the commandments, or at least try, though they do acts of “love”, at the end of it all, they ultimately do it for themselves. They complete their day, not in rejoicing the fact that someone was helped, but in wondering if they helped someone enough so that God can look positively at them. They point out others faults, not primarily to help the other person, but to be seen for doing what is right (think about it... how many people are really helped by hard criticism?). Though they try to copy the steps of Jesus, they sadly walk in the wrong direction. They run the race of life with all their might, only to find themselves on the treadmill of self-concern, and end up where they first began – hopeless.
Trying to love “enough” so that God will accept you will always end in failure, as, one day, you will realise that your picture is broken – it does not allow you to really love. The Bible gives many examples of judgment day, and how various people experience it. To end, I would like to compare two of them.
“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” (Matthew 7:21-23)
“When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
Please notice that both groups, the group in Matthew 7, and the group in Matthew 25, did good works. But notice also that the group which does not make it into eternity is the one which was more concerned about their good works. Legalism, doing good works ultimately for one’s own sake, will always fail.
So, I need a solution, and, after reading this, maybe you feel like you do too. That is what part two and three is all about. However, for now, I want to invite you to pray a prayer that I have started to pray. It is scary, very scary, but totally worth it.
“God, save me from my legalism.”
I can testify that that is a prayer which God will answer.
About the Author
Adam Hazel, here! Haven't figured everything out in life, and I gave up pretending to a while ago. My mission is to support people forward with hope and encouragement.
If you're into discussing big ideas in the Bible, with Jesus at the centre, hook me up ... I like that kind of stuff.