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