Tag Archives: Moral

Legalism’s Tragic Imitation of Faith

What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Romans 4:3 (NIV)

Legalism /ˈlēɡəˌlizəm/ noun  1. Excessive adherence to law or formula. 2. Dependence on moral law rather than personal faith.

I was a young man when I had the opportunity to pastor a relatively small, rural congregation. Taylor was just a newborn. I’ll never forget meeting informally with one of the church elders to get acquainted over a cup of coffee.

Where are you going to send your children?” he asked me early in the conversation. “Public school or Christian school?

What I didn’t know in that moment was that the question was a litmus test. The elder was raised in a denomination that practiced a form of legalism, and the education of children was part of the “moral law” for this particular denomination. You sent your children to Christian school, and there was no other acceptable option. If parents couldn’t afford it, then grandparents and other family members were expected to pitch in and foot the bill. If you failed this test then there would definitely be social repercussions.

By the way, I failed the test, but that is a different post for another day.

Along my faith journey I have encountered legalism in a number of different populations. I think it important to note that every brand of  denomination I’ve encountered, from Roman Catholic to Lutheran to Baptist to Reformed to Quaker has its own legalistic groups within. Both of the definitions pasted above fit hand-in-glove to what I’ve observed and experienced. What’s been fascinating to observe is how religious legalism seeps into every system with which it comes in contact. While living a among a group of legalistic Christians I found that the legalism was not confined to how the church operated, but it became how the connected family systems, social systems, educational systems, and business systems functioned. I certainly found individuals within these legalistic systems to be sincere and motivated by what they truly believed was “right.” So were many of the Pharisees for whom Jesus had such harsh words of rebuke.

In a legalistic group, observable public and social behavior becomes the standard by which a person’s spiritual standing is judged. Pressure is applied by the group as a whole to conform. Social acceptance or rejection is often the passive-aggressive form of reward or punishment. I’ve personally heard many tragic stories from individuals raised in these legalistic social groups. They’ve shared with me stories of being forced to stand publicly before the congregation in order to be shamed, and stories of church elders making weekly home visits to keep families toeing the line and under the church’s brand of social control.

Within the group I encountered as a young pastor the critical legalistic criteria of the denomination’s moral law not only included sending your kids to Christian school (controlled by the denomination, no doubt), but also strictly observing the sabbath (no work on Sunday), and attendance at two-a-day church services each Sunday (the “no work” law helped with this). Then there were all sorts of other unwritten, behavioral rules about the clothes you wore, the music you listened to, the businesses you supported, the people you dated and married, the acceptable colleges you sent your children to, and on and on and on.

It is written that the “fruit” of God’s Spirit in one’s life includes:

  • love
  • joy
  • peace
  • patience
  • kindness
  • gentleness
  • self-control

I’ve observed that the “fruit” of legalism in groups like the one I’ve described are:

  • obedience
  • guilt
  • fear
  • judgement
  • threats
  • shaming punishment
  • authoritative control

In his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome, Paul is addressing a different form of legalism. In his case, it was the Jewish believers who’d been raised under the legalistic moral Law of Moses. Their adherence to these laws, along with others that had been made up, and the physical sign of being circumcised were the critical criteria. These followers of Jesus who came out of this form of legalism now wanted to apply their legalistic code to all followers of Jesus.

In today’s chapter, Paul tackles the issue head on by asking these legalistic Jewish believers two questions from their own scriptural tradition. Abraham was the spiritual “father” of Judaism (btw, Abraham was the “father” of Islam as well), and their scriptures said “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Not only this, but this simple “believe and you’ll be credited with righteousness” paradigm came before circumcision was a thing and before the Law of Moses existed. So, Paul argues, when Jesus says “Whoever believes in me will not perish but have eternal life, ”  he is simply going back to the original paradigm given to “Father Abraham” at the very beginning.

In the quiet this morning I’m seeing the faces of those who’ve shared with me their stories about being raised in legalism. Some are absurd to the point of laughter, and others are heart-breaking to the point of tears. I get why legalism develops as a human system. There is a social order produced, and we humans love our social order. The problem I’ve found, and that Paul is arguing, goes back to the definition I pasted at the top of this post: “adherence to moral law rather than personal faith.” Legalism actually chokes Spirit and Life and replaces it with a cheap imitation which actually destroys faith and, insidiously, feeds the flesh.

More about that in the chapters ahead.

Children’s Stories, Powerball, and a Really Good Question

“Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people.”
2 Chronicles 1:10 (NIV)

Yesterday Wendy and I had the joy of hanging out with our niece, Lydia, who is three years old and our grandson, Milo who today marks six months on his fledgling earthly journey. Wendy’s family gathered at her folks house in Ankeny for dinner and an afternoon together.

One of the things I’m looking forward to in the years ahead is reading stories to my grandson. I’ve always loved story-time. When the girls were young it was my favorite parts of the day. Just this morning I was thinking about the theme of “ask whatever you wish” weaves its way through our stories, myths, legends and (perhaps most commonly) jokes. We have a friend who told us that when she buys a Powerball ticket she just considers that she’s spending two dollars for the fun of asking herself, “What would I do with all that money?” It’s an adult variation of the genie in the bottle who grants the bearer three wishes. They beg the question of us: “What would I wish for?”

This morning our chapter-a-day journey embarks through the book of 2 Chronicles. We pick up the story at the beginning of the reign of King Solomon. Solomon was heir to the throne of King David (of David and Goliath fame). David has united the twelve tribes of Israel under one throne (they could be an unruly and contentious lot) and created a strong, if small, regional empire. Solomon was the son of David and Bathsheba, the woman with whom David had a scandalous affair and eventually married.

At the beginning of Solomon’s reign he journeys to Gibeon where there was a huge tent, called the Tabernacle, which Moses and the people Israel used for their traveling worship center when they fled Egypt. The Tabernacle was a traveling temple and it’s where the sacrificial religious system was centered. If you wanted to make an inquiry of God, you went to the Tabernacle. So, Solomon goes there to worship God as he embarks on his reign. There, God asks of Solomon that familiar question of children’s storybooks: “Ask anything you wish!

Solomon, in this now famous story, asks for wisdom and knowledge to rule his people. God (who is used to Powerball wishes for wealth, power, and possessions) is so blown away by Solomon’s request that He grants the wisdom, but also the wealth, power, and pessessions.

And so children, what’s the moral of the story?

It is a simple question and seems the stuff of children’s books, but children’s stories often communicate the very questions I need to keep asking myself as an adult. Jesus said, “Unless you change and become like little children, you can never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (emphasis added).

What is it I truly want?
What is my heart’s desire?
What is it I would honestly desire of God above all else?

Not bad questions for a children’s story. Not bad questions to mull over at the beginning of my day, and my work week. Along my life journey I’ve discovered that (unlike Aladdin or Solomon) these are not one-and-done questions. They are questions I need to ask myself over, and over, and over, and over again. The answers to these questions clarify things, help set direction, establish priorities, and often motivate the changes to which Jesus referred.

So, I’m asking them again this morning.

Have a great week, my friends.

 

Jezebel’s Epic End

“Throw her down!” Jehu said. So they threw her down, and some of her blood spattered the wall and the horses as they trampled her underfoot.
2 Kings 9:33 (NIV)

I have long been a fan of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy for the epic story it tells across life and generations. Over the years, Wendy and I have enjoyed introducing friends to the original film over a feast of spaghetti and cannoli, complete with some good Italian red wine.

One of the things that makes a great story is when it is layered with truth and meaning. Epic stories are mines that yield new treasure each time you descend into them. With each telling they reveal something you hadn’t seen before. Yet, even with all of the layers of meaning the narratives of great stories are typically built on something quite simple.

The Godfather epic might be summed up with Jesus’ simple words to his disciple, Peter: “Put your sword back where it belongs. All who use swords are destroyed by swords.” It is a generational tale in which the characters give themselves to “the sword” with what they believe are the best of intentions to protect those they love dearest. Their course, however, only serves to destroy the very things they tried to protect.

This came to mind in the quiet this morning as I read today’s chapter in the handwritten text of The St. John’s Bible. The stories of the ancient kings of Israel and Judah are epic stories, though I find that I have to move beyond the scribe’s text and descend into the story before I begin to see the layers.

The story of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, belongs in the same genre of epic stories of those who live and die by the sword. Their tale is about lust for power, corruption, vengeance and blood.  Today’s chapter is the closing scene on their story. Ahab is dead and Jezebel feels her power slipping away as the leader of a coup d’état reaches her stronghold. Jezebel goes back to her tried and true playbook, putting on her make-up and doing her hair so as to seduce her way out of the corner where her own nefarious actions have placed her. But true to Jesus’ observation, the way of the sword ends badly for those who follow that path. The power of seduction fades and becomes impotent. Jezebel’s very own servants, no doubt weary of her wickedness, are only too willing to join the coup, chuck her out the window, and watch the dogs devour her dead flesh.

This morning I’m thinking about epic stories and the way they reveal truths about life and soul. This week at the lake Wendy and I enjoyed much conversation with our adult daughters. Along the meandering path of our discussions was the observation that we humans never seem content with “enough.” Vito Corleone and Jezebel followed the insatiable way of the sword, violently taking all they could for themselves believing that it would provide security of position and provision. They ignored the reality that when you violently take from others there will eventually be others who will violently take it from you.

Spiritual Self-Examination

Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.
2 Corinthians 13:5a (NIV)

I have basically gone to the same family doctor since I was twelve years old and he pulled a big chunk of a splintered, wooden skateboard out of my left thigh. He’s treated my grandparents, my parents, my siblings, and me for almost 40 years. He’s what I call an “old world doc.” He’s a great diagnostician, he takes the time to listen, and he’s a straight shooter to the point of being uncomfortably blunt.

As I grew up, Doc taught me a lot about self-examination relative to my own health. He taught me that a man’s periodic self-examination  for testicular cancer was every bit as important as women doing a self-examination for breast cancer. As I developed a number of moles on my body he took the time to teach me what to be wary of with the regard to skin cancer and encouraged me to pay attention to moles and spots as they appeared over the years. Based on my family history, he would grill me on warning signs for different things that run in the family. He told me of symptoms I didn’t have to worry about and the things I should definitely be worried about if I noticed them.

We all know that self-examination is important to our physical health. We want to catch small problems before they become big ones. In today’s chapter Paul reminds the followers of Jesus in Corinth that spiritual self-examination is critical, as well. I believe it has eternal consequences. Step Four of the Twelve Steps is that we “made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

Along life’s journey I’ve attended a host of Twelve Step groups and meetings, and I noticed that it is quite common to stall out after Step Three.  Self examination was a foreign spiritual (or moral) concept to me at first. It was scary, awkward, and uncomfortable. Searching myself fearlessly and making a thorough moral inventory felt like a lot of work and I wasn’t sure I wanted to admit to or deal with what I might find.

A self-examination of my skin might reveal a fast growing, oddly shaped growth than could indicate a more serious issue with cancer. Testing it, I might not like the blunt news from Doc, but addressing it quickly and early might stave off a premature death. In the same way, I found that a searching and fearless self-examination of the soul leads me to honest conversation, wise counsel, and to addressing relational and behavioral issues that just might stave off both spiritual and relational death.

This morning I did a search for “Step Four Questions” in my favorite browser and I quickly found a host of different lists of questions for adolescents, adults, and Twelve Step groups of different varieties. There is no one magic list. It’s relatively easy for me to pull one up and dive right in.

This morning I’m remembering starting down the path of Step Four for the first time. It was scary, awkward, and uncomfortable when I embarked on the process of writing my answers to the host of questions that had been given to me. What I discovered what that those questions led me to healthy, life-giving places. I’ve never regretted learning the process of self-examination.

Chapter-a-Day Psalm 15

from emanuele75 via Flickr

Who may worship in your sanctuary, Lord?    
     Who may enter your presence on your holy hill?
Those who lead blameless lives and do what is right,    

     speaking the truth from sincere hearts.
Psalm 115:1-2 (NLT)

In my daily vocation I help assess the quality of customer service being delivered on the phone by the individual sales and service agents of our clients. Our methodology is to drive our clients to be the absolute best that they can be. We don’t want them just to appease the customer, but to provide memorable, positive experiences. Therefore, our assessment scales tend to measure against a high standard. It is hard to get 100% on an assessment because it requires most agents to step out of their comfort zone, go the extra mile, break old habits, and develop new service skills that make them stand out in the customer’s mind.

I’ve been surprised over time how much push back we get, not so much from front-line agents who don’t want to change, but also from supervisors and managers who believe in low standards. Many managers start with the premise that everyone should score 100% on every assessment and build their assessments to make that happen.

As I read today’s chapter it read like a Quality Assessment form for life. Who is going to make it onto God’s Holy Hill and into heaven? At first reading it’s easy to think, “Oh yeah, I do that for the most part.” But, thinking back to my post yesterday I realize that you can find plenty of examples of me blowing it on every piece of criteria outlined on Psalm 15’s assessment form. God sets an impossibly high standard – moral perfection, in fact – for entrance to His Holy Hill.

Our customer service QA forms set a high customer service standard, but even we don’t expect perfection. How can I possibly measure up to God’s standard of perfection?

I can’t, and I never will.

That’s one of the biggest misconceptions about God’s Message. It’s not about what we do. It’s about what God did when He sent Jesus to bear the penalty for our shortcomings, to forgive us, and to pay the way for our entrance to God’s Holy Hill. My daily striving to live up to God’s standard continues, not because I’ve got to earn my entrance to heaven, but because I want to please the One who paid the ultimate price for my entry fee with His own blood.

Chapter-a-Day 1 Chronicles 21

Then David prayed, “I have sinned badly in what I have just done, substituting statistics for trust; forgive my sin—I’ve been really stupid.” 1 Chronicles 21:8 (MSG)

Chapters like today’s are difficult to understand in our present day experience. Our time, our culture, and the spiritual realities we experience 2,000 years this side of the cross on history’s timeline make it hard to grasp the circumstances of David’s day. What was the big deal with taking a census? Why was God so ticked off?

That’s when I step back and look for the big picture. What is the spiritual lesson communicated through these events? What’s the moral of the story?

I found it in David’s confession and repentent statement. By taking a census, David was “substituting statistics for trust.” No matter the times we live in, that’s a lesson we can all take to heart. Where in our current lives are we seeking assurance from jobs, bank statements, medical science, human relationships, education, or investments instead of fully placing our trust in God?

Today, I’m thinking about the places I seek assurance, and how that dilutes my trust and reliance on God for providing my every need.