Legalism is the worst feeling in the world. I know from experience.
Sadly, the pain of legalism doesn’t keep more people from embracing it.
A Quick(ish) Story:
One of the great oddities of my life is that I can’t remember anything before I turned five. I’m pretty sure that means I need therapy. My memories start at five. I have memories from church when I was five. I started playing Jr. Tee-ball when I was five. I remember going to my best friend, Kendrick’s, birthday party when I was five; but I don’t remember anything before then.
What I remember most about five was my kindergarten. I remember arriving early each day. My dad would drop me off on his way to work. I was usually the 1st student there. Everyday, I’d hop out of his 1974 yellow Ford Pinto (that car was ballin’!), and I would sit in the corner of the large playroom. As other kids arrived they would get out toys and play together, but I just sat in the corner, wedged between a large, worn, brown, particleboard bookshelf and an even larger counter.
I would sit there and sing songs to myself. Most songs I had learned in church: “Softly and Tenderly,” “Oh, Why Not Tonight,” “Just as I Am”, etc….I suppose I had a thing for “invitation songs”. But I never really engaged the other kids at school. I kept to myself and hardly ever played with anybody. Why? The kindergarten I went to was a “Baptist” kindergarten.
I had been taught – by the time I was five – that only the people who went to my church were real Christians. I knew at five that those “evil Baptists,” with their instrumental music, choir robes, and “pastors” – not preachers – weren’t the kind of people I was supposed to be around.
In fact, before my parents enrolled me in school, I overheard them “discussing” it, so I knew I ought to be concerned and prepared to not let the Baptists co-opt the purity of my faith. That Christmas as the kindergarten was preparing for the Christmas pageant, I was vehemently opposed – I said that too: “I’m vehemently opposed” (I had an advanced vocabulary for five). I didn’t want to participate in this unbiblical, man-made tradition. It was something “the denominations” did.
My parents forced me into it – obviously because they were not as devoted as I was.
By the time I was five, I had become a hard-core, dyed-in-the-wool sectarian. At five, I was a Jr. theologian. I had figured out how it all should work. As a child, there was no way for me to know how childish that was.
What Happened To Me
Along my religious path, someone convinced me that my religious performance determined my position before God. Looking back at the years I wrapped legalism around me, I can now see why I was so personally mean-spirited and sour. Legalism makes you that way.
Once you’ve chosen the path of deciding the propriety of everyone’s Christian practice, you only know two kinds of people, friends and enemies. Your friends are those who hold to the same, precise understanding you hold and your enemies are everyone else. People with lots of enemies are always mean!
You know legalistic people. To the legalist, everything is a “purity test.” And though they’d never say so, they secretly need you to pass their test before they will free their hearts to love you. When you can’t or you don’t, they’ll either sit in the corner or lodge a vehement protest.
What I didn’t know at five and what many of my legalist friends don’t know is legalism never draws people nearer to God! It pushes them away. Whether it’s Church of Christ legalism (my roots), Calvinists legalism, Neo-Reformed legalism, or the legalisms of liberal theology, it’s all a pitiful attempt to control God.
We think we can control how God feels about us by doing or not doing something written on a made up list we carry in our hearts. God will love us more or love us better or grant us particular blessings because we’ve untwisted the mysteries of God like some eternal Rubick’s Cube.
Legalism is the David Blaine of spiritual experience. It appears as if something mystical is occurring, but down deep we know the levitation is optical illusion. If, like me at five, we believe that certain acts and particular orthodoxies and doctrines can help us earn God’s favor, we might as well carry a lucky rabbit’s foot.
Legalists, you are free to protest everything by standing in a busy college quad or from behind the pulpit of a macho-mega-church and scream about your fixed, determined, pre-ordained doctrine, but please know that most of us who have traveled your path realize your religion is the Siegfried & Roy of spirituality…only with more sequins.
Rest assured in this: God’s love for you (and me) is as locked and certain as anything ever has been or could be – whether we get the acts, orthodoxies, and doctrine right or not. Jesus will love us when we are good and when we aren’t; when we are right and when we are wrong.
There’s nothing we can do about that, praise God.
If you’re living in a narrative that tells you God’s love for you is contingent on your performance, you’ve been told a lie. There is not a scripture in the Bible where Jesus tells us that God only loves us when we get it all right.
God loves you, just as you are, not as you might be some day.
Sean Palmer is Lead Minister at The Vine Church in Temple, TX. Read more from Sean at The Palmer Perpsective (www.thepalmerperspective.com) and follow him on Twitter: @seanpalmer.