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Faith and Encouragement

Matthew 6:33

Month

December 2013

Legalism

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At certain points in my life, I have fallen into legalism. Legalism gives you a set of rules to live by, but it’s not only that; legalism is when you become confined and even trapped by those rules and seek to trap others too. Extreme legalists, like the Pharisees of the Bible, develop such a love for these rules and laws that they seek to destroy those who do not comply with them.

My own legalism was more subtle. I feared, for example, that if I did not get up early to pray then God would not bless me that day, as if such “tit-for-tat” with God were even possible… We need to be careful of not falling into the attitude of: “I’m doing fairly well spiritually; I managed to get up at 5am every day this week!” or “I tithe 10% of everything I own every month, so God is sure to bless me!”

We cannot force God’s hand in this way. The Scriptures tell us: “I want mercy, not sacrifice!” (Matthew 9:13,  Hosea 6:6)  The danger is that  the more we sacrifice, the less merciful we become.

The best antidote to legalism is the deep awareness that we are sinners. Not just the knowledge, but the consciousness in our hearts. We need to know that no matter how early we get up or how much we scrimp and save to be able to hand over that 10% every month, we have never “arrived”. That we are not “good/true Christians”, that we will always fall short.

The best example of legalism versus grace is found in the parable of the Pharisee and the repentant tax collector:

“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’  “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

The other danger is to look up to other Christians and consider that they have “got it”, or that they lead spotless, holy lives.  No! They’re just struggling on just as we all are, with their own faults, defects and pride.

Sadly, sometimes we can focus so much on exterior “holiness” that we become like the teachers of the law that we read about in Matthew 15:1-9:

“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?  For God commanded, ‘Honour your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honour his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

“‘This people honours me with their lips,
    but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”  

How often do we fall into the trap of following “commandments of men”?

In order to be free from legalism we need to strive to keep an open mind. Instead of following and believing everything our church leader tells us, we should ponder on it and consider if it is really so by seeking in the Bible and in prayer. Because every pastor and church leader is just as flawed and sinful as we are, and just as capable of believing or teaching “commandments of men”.

Why is this concept so important? The reason is that if we stop analysing and questioning the sermons we hear and the messages we read (yes, including this one!) we risk of letting go of our capacity for independent thought.

When we hear or read Christian messages, we should always consider: is this message in agreement with the greatest commandments of all?  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37)

And we need to be more self aware in analysing our own thoughts and actions too, through the lens of love.

However, Legalism prevents that. If we stop looking at others with eyes of love and mercy, and instead judge them according to our set beliefs and rules, then we have become legalistic.

Legalism is insidious; it’s very hard for any human being to admit that they may be acting or thinking legalistically. It has its roots in pride. It saps us of joy.

We all need to consider humbly that we probably have some legalistic attitudes and open ourself to God’s Spirit, praying honestly:  “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Psalm 139:23-24

Do you analyse the Bible?

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All too often, we analyse our actions, our hearts and minds, but not the traditions handed down to us by the church.  “Who am I to question the church leaders and centuries of theologians and tradition?” we could ask, humbly.  So, we decide to trust them.  We trust them because they have studied more than we have, because they seem to know all the answers whilst we’re still floundering with countless questions.

Perhaps we read the Bible to show us how to behave, how to become more holy, but we don’t often read it to learn more of the everlasting truths we profess to believe.  I was like that for many, many years.  Since I became a Christian at age 15 I developed a hunger for the Word and I would read it for many hours, honestly asking God to test my heart, to show me where I was sinning, and help me to become more like Christ.  Every time I would read a passage I would ask God to show me how to apply it practically in my life.

I think this kind of Bible reading is beautiful and very important.  However, there is also a place for more analytical Bible study, in which we read it to learn more about God’s character and scriptural doctrine.  Although the kind of Bible reading that I carried out was extremely important for my own personal growth as a Christian, I feel that I sometimes fell into “narcissistic reading”; i.e. I read and I found MYSELF in every passage!  Every blessing that God promised to the Israelites I took for myself.  Every criticism I read of the “fool” in Proverbs I took to be a comment on my own character.  I’m not saying that Christians can’t find encouragement or discipline in the Old Testament, but I think that all too often we read the Bible and our ego blinds us from analysing deeper truths.

I still read the Bible and ask God to use it to show me how I need to change and grow, but I also concentrate on learning more about HIM.  Of His character, rather than my own.  When I read of the Israelites and His never-ending patience and forgiveness towards them, I marvel at His mercy.  I now spend longer over the more difficult passages that speak of His divine plan, His nature and what that passage tells me of certain doctrines that I’ve come to believe or doubt.

My husband once told me: “Read the Bible without doctrinal prejudice: open your heart and let it teach you”.  I started to do that around eight years ago and I really feel that my analytical eyes have been opened.  I now read, not only to apply behavioural teachings to my life, but also to UNDERSTAND.

And, of course, that process leads to a myriad of questions.  “What does this passage really MEAN?” I frequently ask myself.  And not content to let the question pass, I spend time investigating in the Bible, in prayer and in conversation with other Christians to help me to shed light on this issue.  This is an active process and a very personal one.  I do not accept that one human being, leader or religion will be able to answer all my questions.  I am no longer willing to listen to an answer and accept it because it sounds nice or because I trust the person who is speaking to me.  I have to become convinced in my own heart and mind after listening to their opinions and searching for myself in the Bible and after much prayer.  And I try not to become “calcified” in my understanding of doctrine; my desire is to remain open-minded and reasonable.  In fact, that is the definition of the word “disciple”, which means “learner”.  How can I be a disciple if I have closed my mind to questioning and doubts and refuse to accept any other interpretation other than that which I have arrived at?

I encourage you to do the same: read, question, investigate.  Rather than leading you away from God this process will bring you to your knees before Him.

The Art of Evangelism

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I think that when many Christians consider evangelism, they start to break out in a cold sweat.  “What will I say?  What will they think of me? I don’t know what to say or how!”  Evangelism is akin to public speaking in many Christians’ minds: high up on the fear list.  I don’t say this to condemn or even criticise; I just think that it’s important to recognise that many people feel that way so that we can encourage them.

The most encouraging words, in my opinion, come from Jesus himself: “do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Matthew 10:19-20).

The Apostle Paul said this about his own evangelistic style: “And my message and my preaching were very plain.  Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 2:4)

When many people think of the Holy Spirit, they consider first the gifts and manifestations of the Spirit, which is all well and good, but I would like to bring to our attention Jesus’ parting words to the disciples about the role of the Holy Spirit: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

I’ve been reading through the book of Acts searching for clues about how to carry out our ministry and learn from the apostles. Time and time again I’ve been impressed and inspired about how the apostles’ lives were shaped by the power of the Spirit; the confused and unreliable disciples we read of in the four Gospels are now faith filled men of God, not because they suddenly “got it”, but because they had received the power of the Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised them.

In my opinion, the disciples didn’t receive that power because they got up really early in the morning every day to pray, or because they lived spectacular, holy lives, it was because they were open to it, painfully conscious of their own weaknesses.

That’s why I don’t think that it’s a bad thing or something to be ashamed of that we find evangelism scary.  We mustn’t hide that or put on a brave face and share the Gospel with secretly trembling hands.  We need to confess our fears and weaknesses to God and ask him humbly to fill us with his Holy Spirit, so that we can share the saving message of Christ with power.

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