Hi. My name is Will and I’m a legalist. Ok, a recovering legalist.
How about you? Are you a legalist? Do you feel most comfortable when the lines for spiritual success are clearly drawn?
What is legalism? It is the practice of establishing standards for spiritual performance, in addition to or instead of God’s, and expecting both you and others to adhere to them. It’s a works-oriented spirituality based on what a person does, not on who he or she is becoming in Christ. It put’s the responsibility for gauging someone’s spiritual progress or maturity in the hands of people, not in the hands of God.
A legalist is someone who majors on rule-keeping. The relationship with God is reduced to a series of rules and regulations that must be strictly enforced and applied to all believers.
Rule-keeping is convenient because it’s measurable and tangible. People who love lists and step-processes often fall prey to the snare of legalism because it looks so pragmatic on the surface.
The legalism mantra is just do this (A) and this (B) will happen. But the reality is that legalism sucks the life right out of faith. There is no love required in rule-keeping; and beyond that, it breeds the mindset that God somehow owes us a break because we’re trying so hard and because we’re so much better than so many other Christians. Can you relate?
If you’re still reading, how about taking this little Am I a Legalist test?
Here are a few common characteristics of legalists:
- They can’t celebrate other Christians’ success. A legalist can’t stand to see another believer prospering. He can’t believe that anyone could be trying harder than he is, and so no one deserves God’s favor more than he does. Legalists are typically envious of and even hateful toward other believers.
- They feel the need to defend themselves. A good legalist doesn’t understand grace, and so she can’t afford to have a bad day. When she does fail, she’s not able to really own up to it and confess it. A legalist has to make excuses and defend herself, otherwise she’d have to admit that her best efforts aren’t working.
- They feel entitled. Legalists believe that God owes them favor and blessing. Their rule-keeping and hard work have surely merited some special treatment from God.
- They want what God can do for them more than they want to be with him. True legalists don’t understand that Christianity is deeply rooted in love. For the true legalist, Christianity is not like a son or daughter relationship with a father. It’s more of an employer/employee or commander/soldier relationship. Legalists view God as someone to be appeased so they can get what they need or want from him. Their goal is God’s presents, not God’s presence.
- They can’t extend grace to others. Those who live by rule-keeping judge others by the same standard. A legalist can’t afford to extend grace to someone who fails. That violates the whole rule-keeping mindset. If someone fails, it’s simply because he wasn’t trying hard enough. He doesn’t deserve grace, but consequences. Because legalists live by the I can mindset, they aren’t quick to extend grace to those who can’t.
- Legalists typically struggle with secret sin. The spiritual bankruptcy of the rule-keeping life will inevitably lead to great deals of emotional and spiritual pain. The legalist won’t be able to live up to his own standards and will have to deal with the obvious duplicity of what he says on one hand and does on the other. Such ongoing shame and inner conflict will typically lead to some type of secret sin like binge eating, alcoholism or workaholism, prescription drug abuse or a pornography habit, as the struggling legalist will seek to medicate the pain that is flowing out of his failing and flawed religious system.
Do any of those tendencies sound familiar? Do you think that maybe you’ve got a little legalist in you? Most of us do. And as I’ve already told you, I’ve certainly battled with this one. But there is great news for all of us weary rule-keepers out there, especially if you’re worn out from carrying the yoke of trying to measure everyone else’s behavior.
Here’s your verse for the day: Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)
Rest is the polar opposite of legalism, and Jesus promised rest. Once you learn to experience rest, it will be much easier for you to extend it to others.
***I write much more about legalism and rest in my book, Ten Things Jesus Never Said, a former Wall Street Journal best-seller. You can check out the Ten Things Jesus Never Said book page here.