I’ve often wondered how people initially get caught up in legalism. I guess I’d assumed that people just liked rules, or that they were sucked in because of pride and a desire to be “looked up to”, or that, like me, they were inadvertently taken there by their parents. The other day I had a really interesting conversation with my mom about why they got involved in this lifestyle, and what I heard surprised me.
Some people get involved with legalism by accident because they just want to follow God. Huh? This was not the answer I was expecting!
But as I thought about some other people I know who have gotten heavily involved in a legalistic group, I realized that it’s true for them too. So, how do you get from a good place like “I want to follow God” to a legalistic place where “I have to obey all of these rules” and then “You’re not godly because you do, or don’t do, x, y, z”? I think it starts with forgetting Who it’s all about.
When my parents first became Christians, they were in college. They got involved with a college ministry full of other Christians who were serious about their relationship with Jesus. The attitude was, “If the Bible says it, let’s do it!” After my parents left college, they had a hard time finding a church with a similar attitude and they missed having a community of believers who were actively following Christ. When they found our “crazy” church (as I call it), they were drawn in by the fact that these people were doing “what the Bible said” and were pursuing a “godly” lifestyle. My mom says that, at the time, she didn’t notice the legalism because she was so excited to have found people who were living for God. Living for God or living to impress God?
So what makes something legalistic? Did you know that two people can do the exact same thing but one is a legalist and the other is a genuine follower of Christ? It really has everything to do with heart motivation and nothing to do with outward actions. Legalism is often motivated by pride and/or fear.
You can do a lot of good things from legalistic motivations. For example: eating healthy, home schooling, reading your Bible, praying, going to church, memorizing Scripture, avoiding certain entertainment choices, dressing modestly, etc. These things can also be done without legalistic motivations. So, how do you know if something is legalism or not? Ask this question: Why am I doing this? Is it because I want to? Or is it because I think that I have to? Am I trying to make God happy? Am I trying to impress other people? Our motivations show our true hearts.
When I lived as a legalist, I had my morning devotions so that God would be pleased with me. I wanted to “get in his favor” and make sure I had his blessing. Now, I do my morning devos because I want to hear from God and start my morning with Him. Newsflash: Good things can be sin if they are done with the wrong motivation! All those mornings where I was trying to impress God with my “goodness” were unimpressive to Him.
Why does this matter to me?
Because, legalism takes the focus off of Jesus and puts it on me. Legalism says that I have to perform in order to make God happy…I have to perform. Legalism ignores the fact that there is nothing I can do in myself to please God. Legalism ignores the perfect performance of Jesus Christ. It encourages pride, or hopelessness, depending on my performance. Legalism turns the freedom we have in Christ into bondage. And it steals the glory of God.
The Pharisees were some of the greatest legalists who ever lived. They not only followed the rules, they made up more rules. They supposedly knew the Bible. And yet, when the promised Savior showed up on earth, when God walked among them, they missed him.
This Christian life, as we call it, cannot be about us. It has to be about Him, Jesus, the Savior of the world!
More about the Pharisees next time!