Tag Archives: Legalism

Freedom, Indulgence, Hard Knocks, and Wisdom

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Galatians 5:13-14 (NIV)

Among most of Wendy’s and my circle of close friends we happen to be the furthest down the path of life experience. As we enjoy being grandparents for the first time and watch our adult children embarking on their own adult journeys, most of our friends are somewhere between the stages of young children taxi service and sending children off to college for the first time. Just yesterday I was speaking with my friend who is experiencing the latter.

For young people who have lived in a secure home with engaged parents, going off to college is the first opportunity to experience real freedom. No one is looking over your shoulder. No one is reminding you of what you need to do. Plus, opportunities to experience the appetites of life in all their excesses tend to present themselves in abundance.

For many of us, the years of college and young adulthood are when we learn some crucial lessons on life’s road. Chief among them is answering the simple question: “What am I going to do with my freedom?” 

I don’t know a single individual who didn’t, at some point, use freedom to engage and indulge unhealthy appetites in one way or another during these years. Perhaps there are a few true saints out there. Most parents I know, however, like to conveniently white-wash their own young adult excesses as they place all sorts of appetite controls and lofty expectations on their children.

Along the journey I’ve come to the conclusion that each one of us must learn the hard lessons of how we’re going to use our freedom. It’s part of the journey. We all need to have our own wake-up moments like the Prodigal Son finding himself up to his knees in pig slop. We all need our personally induced wake-up calls when we find ourselves saying: “My own choices led me to this awful place. I think I need to make some changes.”

In today’s chapter of his letter to the believers of Galatia, Paul is addressing this same principle. Legalism is great for creating compulsory obedience to a defined set of rules, but it does nothing for helping us learn the crucial, spiritual maturity lessons of appetite control. It’s no coincidence that Paul’s list of behaviors that mark spiritual maturity include “self-control.”

This morning I find myself praying for our own adult children and our grandchild. The truth I’ve discovered is that the lessons of managing our appetites and developing mature self-control are ongoing throughout our life journeys. So, I’m praying for them in their own respective waypoints on this life journey.

I’m also saying prayers for our friends who are in the stages of raising willful children, teenagers testing their boundaries, and young adults experiencing freedom for the first time. I’m praying wisdom for all those parental decisions about rules, consequences, clamping down, and letting go. I’m also praying for the grace and wisdom of the Prodigal’s father, who knew that his Prodigal had to learn his own crucial lessons and experience the awful places we find ourselves when we use our freedom to indulge our appetites. The father didn’t track his son down. He didn’t send a rescue party. He didn’t deny his son life’s required coursework from the school of hard-knocks. The father sat patiently on the front-porch, said his prayers, kept his eye on the road out front, and waited for a much wiser son to come home.

The Boulevard and the Gate

So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.
Galatians 4:7 (NIV)

In the early stages of my spiritual journey I wandered down the path of legalism. I was never particularly comfortable with it’s straight-and-narrow streets and the authoritarian, self-appointed traffic cops on every block wearing their spit-polished Junior Holy Spirit badges. Nevertheless, I came to an understanding of why so many people find their way to that huge boulevard.

There’s a certain ease to the path of legalism. It requires little in the way of thought, meditation, grace, wisdom, or knowledge. Everything is prescribed for you in black-and-white terms and simple rules of obedience. There’s strict accountability to keep you on the straight-and-narrow. Your fellow wayfarers will, of course, watch you like a hawk, but then there are the self-appointed traffic cops to watch your every move, remind you of the rules, and threaten you with any number of heinous punishments (i.e. alienation, condemnation, damnation) should you stray from their prescribed path.

Along that stretch of the journey I met a number of individuals who had been walking the path of legalism for many years. They had given themselves over. So comfortable had they become with their enslavement to the rules that the simplest notion of grace or freedom became a fright. They reminded me of the Hebrews in the wilderness begging to return to slavery in Egypt. “At least we knew the rules. Life was so much easier to understand. It wasn’t so hard or so complicated.”

In Paul’s letter to the believers in Galatia, he finds them in a similar spot. Having received the Message of Jesus by faith when Paul was with them, they are now being told by some self-appointed traffic cops from the path of Legalism to get themselves back on the straight-and-narrow. These Officers of Legalism are demanding obedience to their list of religious rules.

In his letter Paul calls on a powerful word picture. He argues that Jesus came to make us children of God and co-heirs with Christ. We are, therefore, no longer slaves to be herded down the path of legalism constantly threatened with alienation, condemnation and damnation should we fail to march lock-step in accordance with the self-appointed traffic cops.

Paul argues that we are free to walk down a very different path as heirs of grace freely given, of forgiveness poured out in excess, of extravagant acceptance, and of unalterable love. Why, Paul asks, would you ever want to go back to Legalism Boulevard?

Along my journey I’ve observed that some people find the path of legalism to be easier than the path of love. Having walked that Legalism Boulevard for a block or two, a piece of me gets why people spend their entire lives on its pristine concrete between its high curbs. I found obedience to a set of well defined rules less painful than dying to myself. I found that condemning rule breakers was easier (and even felt self-righteously satisfying) than forgiving them as I have been forgiven. And, I found that following the straight-and-narrow of Legalism Boulevard was guaranteed not to twist, turn, or lead me to uncomfortable neighborhoods where people look different than me, act different than me, think differently than me, or speak differently than me. There’s a comfort in that.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that Jesus said that the path of Life lies behind a narrow gate that’s not particularly well-marked. It’s narrow and not necessarily easy to make out because, like Frost’s poem, it’s less traveled than Legalism Boulevard. But those who ask directions will find their way there. Those who seek it out will find their way there. Those who knock on the narrow gate will find it open to them.

I’ve found it a messy and slippery path with some steep inclines and deep valleys. There have been lonely stretches where faith was required. There were some stretches I shared with companions that required humility, trust, forgiveness, teamwork, and grace to get through some of the terrain. I’ve also found myself in some foreign places that forced me to get past my fears. It hasn’t always been easy, but the further I travel on the path the more Life I’ve experienced.

I’ve never regretted leaving Legalism Boulevard. In fact, I’d encourage anyone who’s walking lock-step down that street to make their way down the alley. Ask about a narrow gate. Seek it out. You’ll be glad you did.

Just don’t let the Traffic Cops see you 😉

Afscheiden

Therefore,
“Come out from them

    and be separate,
says the Lord.

Touch no unclean thing,
    and I will receive you.”
2 Corinthians 6:17 (NIV)

I have lived much of my life  in and around communities with strong Dutch heritage. The Dutch communities in Iowa were settled, for the most part, by tight-knit groups of Dutch believers who came to America for religious freedom. Over 150 years later most of these communities maintain a strong connection to their heritage. It’s fascinating to experience life here and, over time, observe how we function and interact.

On one hand I have an insider’s understanding, receiving my paternal DNA from a father with Dutch genes who came from this heritage. On the other hand, mine is an outsider’s perspective as I grew up in a city away from these Dutch communities and only experienced them when visiting my grandparents. It is as an adult have I found myself living within them.

There is a Dutch word, afscheiden, which you still hear on occasion in conversation. It means “to separate.” I have come to observe that it is a thread in the fabric of our community in multiple ways. Our ancestors were those who separated from their home to come to America. Within the community there are strong religious subgroups who have historically separated themselves within the community based on adherence to certain church doctrines and religious practices. Visitors to our communities often comment on the large number of churches. It is, in part, due to our habit of separating whenever there is disagreement.

Afscheiden in our communities typically has strong religious connotation to it. One group of Christians claims to have a better (usually more strictly conservative) hold on God’s truth, so they separate and disassociate themselves from their wayward, liberal brethren. The scriptural defense they use comes from today’s chapter in which Paul quotes the prophet Isaiah (pasted at the top of this post).

I always think a little historical context is in order.

Competing religions in the prophet Isaiah’s day were often centered around fertility and nature. There was a wide variety of communal sexual activity cloaked as religious practice and even the human sacrifice of babies and children to please the gods. It was nasty stuff. In Paul’s day, the Greek and Roman temples in cities like Corinth continued to be religious prostitution rackets that propagated a lot of typically unhealthy practices. For both Isaiah and Paul, the call to separate was less about religious dogma and more about foundational moral code.

Along life’s journey I’ve observed that legalistic religion loves afscheiden. Black and white appears on the surface to be much simpler than struggling with gray. For certain groups life must be strictly categorized in terms of clean and unclean, acceptable and unacceptable, good and bad, godly and evil so that I always know what to do, think, say, and who I can associate with. After a while, however, you have all these small, insular groups who have afscheidened themselves to death.

This morning I’m looking back on my own journey and the ways that the concept of “come out and be separate” have affected my life, my choices, my relationships, and my actions. I made the observation to Wendy the other day that Christians like to be prescriptive with our religion, prescribing the things you must do to be a follower of Jesus (and if you don’t toe the line we afscheiden ourselves from you!). Jesus, however, was more descriptive about the Kingdom of God. He always said, “the kingdom of God is like…” and then would describe it.

I’m realizing that I prefer a description to reach for rather than a prescription to swallow.

 

 

Silly and Sad Places

I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name….”
Nehemiah 13:25a (NIV)

Along my journey I have, on occasion, found myself amidst those who are legalists as in their faith. In my youth there was a time when I embraced a narrow, legalistic view of faith and life. I learned a lot of valuable life lessons from the experience.

I spent one semester attending a legalistic Bible college. Everything was controlled and dictated by the administration. There were rules about how to could and couldn’t dress. There were rules about how you could and couldn’t wear your hair. There were rules about what you could and couldn’t and drink. There were rules about words, rules about relationships, rules about beliefs, rules about time, rules and there were rules about rules. Behind all there rules were ominous administrators and faculty members constantly and vigilantly on the lookout for rule breakers who would be swiftly punished and branded. As an off-campus commuting student I was immediately branded as suspect as I spent so much time out of the school’s strict control. I found it a silly and sad place.

Life for a legalist exists inside a black and white world defined by a list of religious “dos” and moral “don’ts.” It’s a maddening existence in which the things which are strictly forbidden become even more tempting. The stakes on controlling behavior continually rise. Eventually the rules become more perverse than the behaviors they’re trying to avoid.

That’s what I observe in today’s chapter. Nehemiah tackled a huge project in the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem and the restoration of the temple. Bricks and mortar are one thing. Now he’s tackling a much messier task of trying to modify and control human behavior. He’s trying to make people tow the line with regard to Judaic religious laws. When you get to the point that you’re cursing people, beating people, pulling out their hair, and forcing them to take oaths then you’ve definitely joined the legalistic elite. Nehemiah even has a perverse sense of earning some kind of spiritual merit badge for being God’s behavior police. Four times he repeats his mantra of “Remember me God.”

This morning I find myself thinking about Paul, who came out of the same legalistic Jewish tradition as Nehemiah. In fact, Paul at one time acted much like Nehemiah. When Paul encountered Jesus he had been on his way to the city of Damascus. It was there he desired to arrest, convict, imprison and (he hoped) sentence to death those rule breaking Jews who were following Jesus. He’d already successfully put one of Jesus’ rule breaking followers to death. Jesus changed all that, and within a few years Paul was leading the charge in embracing non-Jewish Gentiles and directing followers of Jesus away from strict Jewish tradition.

I am so glad that my days of legalism are behind me. I’m thankful that, somewhat like Paul,  my path led away from silly and sad places where legalism reigns and sucks the Life out of you. This morning I’m grateful to have journeyed to a place where freedom and grace give rise to Life-giving good things.

Love Trumps Freedom

No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.
1 Corinthians 10:24 (NIV)

Wendy and I have friends and family members who represent a broad spectrum of generations, backgrounds, beliefs and social customs. When we get together with people we are aware that others have very different thoughts and feelings about all sorts of human rituals and behaviors. From saying a prayer of thanks before a meal to whether it’s acceptable to consume alcohol to choice of appropriate words/topics to the appropriateness of a cigar after a great meal, there are many different considerations.

That’s the crucial word: consideration. When it comes social settings with others of very different beliefs, my behavior is determined largely by whether I consider my beliefs or others beliefs more important to me in that moment.

Paul was dealing with exactly the same situation among the followers of Jesus in the first century town of Corinth. Some of the community felt passionately that it was inappropriate to buy or consume meat that had been sacrificed to one of the many pagan temples there before it ended up in the market.  Others felt just as passionately that it was silly to worry about such things. The result was one of many conflicts that had come to full boil among the diverse community of believers.

For the past three chapters Paul has been addressing this controversy. Yes, he agreed, there is nothing wrong with eating the meat. Those who felt such freedom of conscience were not be convinced otherwise. At the same time, Paul urged those who experienced such freedom to be considerate of those who held different beliefs on the matter. In other words: relatively insignificant dietary rules or beliefs of religious/social propriety are subordinate to the great commandment Jesus gave: Love those who think differently than you do. When you are with them, Paul urged, consider their conscience more important than your freedom. Freedom of conscience is subordinate to the law of love.

As I ponder this principle, I am aware that at times I am admittedly guilty of putting my pride and freedom ahead of others whom I make uncomfortable. I am reminded this morning: Love trumps freedom. Consideration of others trumps the freedom of my conscience. A good thing for me to embrace and apply as I press on with my journey today.

A Spirit of the Law Kinda Guy

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.”
John 9:16a (NRSV)

In the creation poem at the beginning of the Great Story lies an interesting detail. The universe is created in six days, and then the Artist takes a day off and rests. The ancient Hebrew word for this day of rest, transliterated into English, is “Sabbath.” When God eventually hands down the Top Ten Rules for society to Moses, this day of rest makes its way on the list.

The spirit of the law is easy to understand. We all need rest. A margin in life that roughly measures .143. Take a break. Stop the labor. Take a deep breath. Take a nap. Recharge. Refresh your mind and spirit by doing something different than you’ve done all week. Connect with God. Connect with loved ones. Laugh. Love. Converse. Feast. Worship. Ponder. Re-Create the Creator’s example.

Along this life journey I have observed that it is part of the human condition to take a rule of Spirit and strain it into human legal code, interpreted into volumes of contractual minutiae. And, that’s exactly  what happened over time with God’s rule of rest. A rule designed to foster Life and health became a religious quagmire of black and white thinking. Life-giving rest gave way to Life-sucking religious rules.

I find it fascinating that the more the religious leaders complained about Jesus healing people on the Sabbath day, the more He seemed to do it. It had been one of the sticking points that they had with Jesus since the beginning of His ministry. Jesus continued to “break the law” by healing people on the Sabbath which went against Volume 3, Chapter 9, Paragraph 2, Section (B), Sub-section (c), Line 4 of their multi-volume legal code on keeping the Sabbath. And so, Jesus kept sticking it in their eye by healing people on the Sabbath again and again. I offer you the blind man in today’s chapter as exhibit A.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. I live in a community that was founded on, and is steeped in, religious Christianity. For generations our community had its own multi-volume set of legal code on Sabbath keeping. In our local fellowship of Jesus’ followers it was referenced just this past Sunday. As I said, it seems to be part of the human condition.

As a follower of Jesus, I find myself increasingly inclined to follow Jesus’ example. I once was more of a letter of the law kind of guy. Maybe, with age, my eyes are tired of trying to read all the fine print and keep it straight. Or, maybe I’m actually still growing in Spirit. I like to think it’s the latter. I’ve become more of a Spirit of the law kind of guy with regard to rules of Spirit. (Plus, I kinda like occasionally sticking it in the eye of religious legalists)

 

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featured image by mrtindc via Flickr

 

“I Do Not Think That Means What You Think It Means”

 

You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.
Galatians 5:4 (NIV)

I’ve always been a movie lover. There are movies that I can watch over and over and over again and each time I do I seem to catch little things I’d never seen or heard before.  Lines from the film seem to enter conversation. For Wendy and me, one of those movies is Princess Bride. A favorite line of our is when Inigo Montoya tells Vizzini, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.’

Among the community of Jesus’ followers the phrase “fallen from grace” is often used to refer to those who at one time were followers, but seemed to leave the path of faith to follow after sinful appetites. Other believers will say that this person has “fallen from grace.” In fact, these are the only circumstances in which I hear this phrase used. To quote Inigo Montoya, “You keep using those words. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Paul does not use “fallen from grace” to describe those who have left the faith to pursue sinful appetites! He uses the phrase to describe those who have left the path of simple faith and have pursued legalistic religiosity. In Galatia, those whom Paul described who had “fallen from grace” were those who were telling non-Jewish believers that they had to follow all the Jewish legal, religious rules.

This is a huge distinction. Walking the journey of faith is a balancing act from which you can stumble and fall in either way. Certainly you can stumble and pursue unhealthy appetites. That’s why Paul says a a few lines later: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.” But you can also stumble and “fall from grace” by pursuing a path of rigid, religious rules in which you judge a person’s faith by how they measure up to your religious yard stick.

To quote another famous movie line that creeps into my conversation on a regular basis: “Daniel-san. Must learn balance.