Rigid Legalism Will Only Wear Us Out

Rigid Legalism Will Only Wear Us Out October 19, 2022

Anonymous: Silhouette Through Door / pxhere

Rigid legalism offers us an unbearable burden which can and will wear us out if we succumb to its temptation. If we heed its call, it will place more and more demands upon us, until, at last, we find it tries to obligate us to something which we cannot do. For, it is clear, its demands are never-ending, while our potential is limited. So long as we think we must obey its every whim, we will not be able to attain the peace and joy God desires for us, because we will never find ourselves in a position where we think we have done enough to receive it. Such rigidity is not a temptation everyone has, but for those who do, not only do they wear themselves out trying to appease it, they will make others suffer, placing the same (or possibly even greater) extreme demands upon them. It is important to keep in mind, contrary to such rigid thinking, the expectation God has for us is not meant to be such a burden: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 Jn. 5:3 RSV). When we turn those expectations into such a burden, we have lost sight of their purpose, for they are meant to help guide and direct us in our love instead of establishing legalistic obligations which destroy the spirit.

Many novices join ascetic communities with rigid tendencies and expectations. While, to be sure, those tendencies might help a novice begin their ascetical training, eventually, they will only get in the way and hinder the would-be ascetic from attaining the spiritual peace which they should experience from living a religious life. If they are not trained to reject such tendencies, they will eventually come to believe the discipline given to them by their community is not enough, and they will then begin to cause trouble as they try to change things to fit their rigid desires. However, most such communities, knowing this danger, have worked out a way to counter such disastrous inclinations: they give novices spiritual directors whom they told to obey. Good mentors will find a way to have them overcome their rigidity. Some novices will require something extreme, such as being placed in an impossible situation where their director tells them to do something which they believe is wrong. If they don’t obey their director, they will believe they have done wrong, but if they follow him, they will also believe they have done wrong. It is in such a situation their rigid legalism is exposed for what it is, and if they have wisdom, they will find a way to break through the trap and understand the lesson they are being given: they will see through the social and moral constructs which they established for themselves, and so come to realize they are not to follow it blindly or with such rigid adherence. Then they can embrace grace, engage the Spirit, and attain the holiness which they seek. If, on the other hand, they do not do see through those constructs, they will eventually wear themselves out trying to do the impossible, which then, hopefully will clue them in to the error which they believed. Understanding all of this should help us properly interpret various stories coming from monastic communities, such as one about Abba Saius in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers:

It was said that Abba Saius and Abba Moue lived together. Abba Saius was very obedient, but he was very rigid. To test him, the old man said to him, ‘Go and steal.’ Through obedience Abba Saius went to steal from the brethren, giving thanks to the Lord in everything. Abba Moue took the things and returned them secretly. Now once when they were on the road, Abba Saius was overcome with weakness and the old man left him there exhausted and went to say to the brethren, ‘Go and carry Saius, because he is lying there helpless.’ So they went and brough him in.[1]

Abba Saius wore himself out with his rigidity. He obeyed Abba Moue, and stole from his community, and in doing so, each time, he found himself torn between the rule which says not to steal and the rule which said he was to obey Abba Moue and do whatever Moue would have him to do. Abba Moue, of course, wanted Saius to move beyond his rigoristic legalism, to change the basis of his spiritual life, so that he could and would be free to receive grace instead of merely pushing himself to further and further extremes. But Saius did not comprehend what Moue was trying to teaching him, and so he broke down as a result of his own inner conflict between the rule of law as he understood it and obedience to Moue. Saius, in the end, became so worn out, he was helpless; he needed others to carry him back to his cell. Hopefully, he finally understood that help from others, including and especially from the grace of God, was needed if he wanted to properly follow his monastic profession.

We, too, must learn this lesson, but hopefully we can learn it without having to be put through the test which Saius went through. We need to learn not to be stiff-necked, not to deceive ourselves thinking we can make ourselves holy merely by following various rigid, legalistic expectations which we place upon ourselves.  We need to go beyond them and to the Spirit, to open ourselves up to the Spirit and the love which transcends such rigid legalism. Our obedience to authorities, when it is proper, is not to be legalistic or extreme, but for a purpose: “to be ready for any honest work” ( Tit. 3:1b RSV). Goodness spreads through kindness and love, not through such legalism. Thus, we find the incarnation was meant to help share the goodness and loving kindness of God throughout all the world, to make sure that people can receive holiness for themselves instead of trying (and so, failing) to produce it all by themselves:

but when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit,  which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.  (Titus 3:4-7 RSV)

God, becoming incarnate, appearing before us as our savior, shows us loving kindness is the way to salvation (and then deification). We are to be regenerated by grace, thanks to the goodness and kindness of God, so that through it we, can become spiritually rich in Jesus, in ways beyond any of the goodness we might otherwise establish through our deeds. So long as we try to do it all by ourselves, not only will we fail, we will eventually find ourselves in despair as we wear ourselves out doing that which we can’t do. God doesn’t want to burden us, but to lift us up, and this, then, must always be kept in mind when we try to engage God and God’s grace, to make sure we don’t place undue burdens upon ourselves and so end up suffering the pains and sorrows which such burdens generate when they are not fulfilled.

[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 229 [Saying of Abba Saius 1].


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