Tuesday, March 5, 2019

My Journey Out of Legalism: What God is Teaching Me About Love

As a young girl, I was raised in a very legalistic church. We were taught that when someone did wrong things, the best thing to do was to show "tough love" and disconnect from them until they realized how awful their choices were. It was an act of love, they said.

When I was in 8th grade, my family left that church and our best friends there were told by the Pastor that they had to disconnect from us because we were now "the sinners". He said they couldn't be "unequally yoked" with us. They came over, opened their Bibles, read some scripture out of context, prayed with us (actually prayed FOR us - because they were the holy ones and we were the sinners who left that church for another, healthier one) and broke our hearts by walking out the door, never to be seen again.

This really stuck with me. I had never felt so abandoned in my life and I felt unloved, judged and like I couldn't measure up. It was devastating, to say the least.

When you are raised in legalism, something strange happens. Either you get very judgmental yourself, or you get angry and try to help others understand how dangerous legalism is or worst of all, you completely run from God because you feel like you can never measure up to His perfect standards. I've done all of the above - at different seasons of my life.

Currently, I'm in the "help others understand" category. But I find I still have to fight the deeply ingrained temptation to be legalistic, myself. If you don't understand what legalism is, allow me to paint this picture for you:
God tells you not to play in the street. Not because He's angry or mean, but because He loves you and wants you to be safe. If you do play in the street, in spite of His direction, He will still love you, but you will put yourself in danger. But you don't realize this. You think that playing in the street will cut you off from His love and make Him angry.  So you do all you can to make sure you play anywhere but the street, in order to make God happy and to make Him love you. 
When you play in the side walk right beside the street, you begin to fear that you are going to accidentally go into the street, so you step into the yard beside the sidewalk. But the temptation to go into the street is so strong, that you go inside the house. You find yourself looking out the window, and there's a deep desire to play near the street, so you close the curtains. The temptation to open the curtains gets so strong that you actually lock yourself into a closet because you don't want to peek out the window and see the street. 
Then, you tell everyone you come across that they, too, must not play on the sidewalk, in the yard, or near the window - they have to go into the closet, too. And if they don't, you judge them. If they play in the street, you abandon them instead of fighting for them. The reason you do this is because you have a false idea of who God is. So you behave the way you think He would toward you.  It's all about keeping the rules, not loving the person. Love is not the goal. This is legalism. It's when humans put rules around rules to keep people from sinning as an act of control - and it leads to disconnection and devastation.
As I was saying, I still fight the temptation to be legalistic. I find myself judging others instead of dealing with my own sin. It's much easier to judge others than it is to deal with my own stuff. I've lost some friends I really connected with by believing I was better than them and judging their behavior. How this breaks my heart!

Legalism is what makes us feel better about ourselves, when we behave the correct way. However, it can backfire on us - big time. You see, when you do end up "in the street" and find yourself doing something wrong, you begin to think God doesn't love you anymore and all hell breaks loose in your life.

If this is a struggle for you - if you find yourself thinking God is mad, unloving or cranky about your decisions, I want to encourage you. If you find you like to judge others and you disconnect with them if they end up in the street, please know this is not God's way.

In Matthew 23, Jesus had some pretty harsh words for the Pharisees - the people who loved the law and followed it to the letter, but did not love people. In verse 23, He said, “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things." 

See, they were good at obeying the Laws, but they were neglecting what Jesus said was more important - justice, mercy and faith. Earlier in the book of Matthew, Jesus said the greatest and most important commandment was to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and soul and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself. Nowhere did He say, "The greatest law is not to play in the street." (or fill in the blank with a sin that you think is the worst of all).


Why would Jesus say this? Why would He say that the Law is summed up into one thing: to love? I believe it's because when we genuinely love others - no matter if they play in the street, the sidewalk, the yard, the house or the closet - that connection is so strong that it can break down even the coldest heart. When you love someone, despite their behavior, and you pursue connection with them no matter what - their heart can change. God knows that when people feel loved, they respond. But if we are always focused on their behavior, they will feel judged, unloved and misunderstood.


People change when hearts change. And hearts change when they are loved. But the goal cannot be to act like we love someone in order to change their heart - the goal must be to genuinely love them - unconditionally. When love is the goal, everyone wins. Our job is not to change people, that is the Holy Spirit's job. Our job is not to judge people, that is God's job. Our only job is to love people. I believe Billy Graham had a quote about this years ago. But it's just now sinking into my heart. 


And I like it.


How freeing is that?


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