Years ago, when I was going to school and leading a small church in Fort Worth, I started a prayer ministry in our church. It was called the Swollen Knees Prayer Ministry. A buddy of mine had visited our church and preached about how prayer warriors should have swollen knees. I thought it was cool and stole the name for our new ministry.
The Swollen Knees Prayer Ministry—pretty warm and fuzzy, huh? The goal of the ministry was to cover all 168 hours of the week in prayer, with each participant taking at least one hour. Given that we barely had 168 adults in the church, that was a pretty ambitious goal.
Being the godly, sacrificial pastor that I was (and as a legalist, believing that if prayer didn’t hurt it didn’t count), I took Saturday mornings from 2-3 AM. I used to set my alarm for 1:50 AM, take the relay call from the 1-2 AM person, and then try to pray from 2-3.
We had a prayer script for people to follow, and I would sleepily work my way through that. Then I’d call the 3-4 AM person and fall back into bed. It was a really tough hour to pray. But because it was so hard, I knew it had to be effective. I also knew that I was a very spiritual person because I prayed from 2-3 AM. Right?
My wife Susie wasn’t quite so spiritual. She took the 8-9 PM Saturday night shift. I mean, what gives? Where’s the sacrifice? Where’s the commitment? Anyone can pray at eight in the evening. And to make matters worse, she had fun doing it.
I remember walking in to our back room one Saturday night during Susie’s allotted prayer time. She was riding our Scwhinn exercise bike with her headphones on. She was singing and waving her hands in the air and smiling. Smiling? Are you serious? You can’t smile during prayer. She had her prayer script nearby, but it was obvious she wasn’t using it.
I couldn’t believe it. My own wife was cheating at prayer. I pointed a mean, accusatory finger at Susie and yelled, “That doesn’t count!”
We’re still paying that counseling bill.
That’s just one example of the extreme legalism that dominated my adult spiritual life for over a decade. And as the story reveals, legalism doesn’t just steal your joy, it crushes the joy of others as you try to impose your own impossible standards on them.
This is why Paul exhorted Timothy to “be strong in grace,” 2 Tim 2:1. Because if we don’t fight for grace, the ever-present pull of rule-keeping and external measurements will eventually rule the day.
The happy ending to this story is that God used the school of hard knocks and my own failures to show me just how futile my legalism really was. And while it was a hard lesson for me to learn, I’m really grateful to have learned it.
I’ve never felt freer in my relationship with Jesus.
Don’t let rules and regulations define your relationship with God. Remember what Paul said, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1