Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Joys (and dangers) of Legalism

"Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” Matthew 15:1-3

Being Right-eous
The Pharisees of Matthew 15:1-3 above were troubled because it seemed that their religious traditions were not being correctly followed.  As we discover from Jesus’ reaction to them, they had made their tradition more important than the very people they were supposed to be leading, loving, and serving!
The word we use for this today is Legalism.  The struggle against legalism is one we all engage in from time to time.  One of the greatest pitfalls of legalism is that it seems to fall hand in hand with the efforts we make in striving to become all that God wants us to be in Christ Jesus.  We WANT to be faithful to the Word of God.  We WANT to be accountable to the scriptures, and we WANT to help others not fall or fail as well. Those desires and goals become problematic however when pride begins to take root and self-righteousness becomes the product of our religious focus and fervor.

Good Times
Legalism can actually feel like the right way to go, and it certainly loves company.  A group of persons collectively holding one another accountable can be a very good thing.  But when that group becomes exclusive and elite in their own eyes and they begin to marginalize others who are not meeting the mark, then the collective has become a god unto itself and their mission has become idolatry.

Another way legalism can ensnare is that it feels good to be “right.”  Knowing what the rules are and adhering to them feels good.  But let pride enter into the picture and now we don’t simply feel good for doing right.  We are superior.  And because we think everyone should be like us, but aren’t; now we can be judgmental.  It is a slippery slope, isn’t it?

A friend of mine who was recently dealing with himself on this topic called me on the phone, laughing.  He said “I just came to realize what I’ve been doing! I’ve been so legalistic.  And there is no love in legalism.  There is no grace in legalism.  There is only the law, and self-righteousness, and condemnation.  I don’t know what I was thinking!”

Well, I know what he was thinking…he was trying to be the very best that he could be for the Lord, and he got caught in the trap…the law became his focus and he began to use it as the template – not only for himself, but for everyone else too.  And it only brought conflict, frustration, and failure.

Father God, you know our hearts…you know when we become dry and lifeless, and you know when we burst with zeal and enthusiasm. As we continue to press toward Christ-likeness, and as we strive to become more and more faithful and mature in our walk, please guard our hearts and minds, lest we become lost in legalism.  To the honor and glory of your name we live, and pray.  Amen.

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