Are You a Legalist??

willywonkalegalistHave you ever met an anti-legalist? They’re like the legalistic sort of church folk, only they take things to the opposite extreme. The legalists like Christian movies? Great, let’s hate Christian movies! Legalists don’t read Twilight? Read all the vampire stories!

If you by some miracle haven’t encountered an anti-legalist, go read some random Christian blogs that rant about the dangers of purity rings, or find an online support group for kids whose parents didn’t let them watch PG-13 movies. That should give you the general idea.

So here’s my thesis: Legalism and anti-legalism are twin forms of idolatry. Why is that? Because both lifestyles are based on people’s opinions and our own desire to leave an impression, rather than on God’s will for us. And why is that? Well, that’s what the post is about.

We need to start by defining the terms. What are legalism and anti-legalism, and what’s wrong with each one?

The problem with legalism is that it is contrary to the Gospel. No one can (or should) question that. In essence, legalism takes good and beautiful choices, and uses them to become standards that all Christians should follow. It assumes that we and our perfect homeschool families and flawless courtships (complete with a first-kiss-wedding) can and must earn the approval of God. Anyone who doesn’t do worship services and potlucks exactly the way we do just isn’t as awesome as we are. Our way is the right way, and theirs is the wrong one. God forbid we should ever be associated with those people!

But guess what? Anti-legalism is also contrary to the Gospel. It operates under the premise that moral standards that are not specifically commanded in scripture are a threat to our freedom in Christ. It assumes that Josh Harris and God’s Not Dead 2 must be spurned and ridiculed; Harry Potter is the only way to prove that we are truly free in Christ. Anyone who even tolerates the idea that kids shouldn’t date until age 18 just isn’t as awesome as we are. We must fight legalism and the judgmental attitudes of others! Our way is the right way, and theirs is the wrong one. God forbid we should ever be associated with those people!

Do you see what’s so tragically laughable here? Legalism and anti-legalism are, at their root, exactly the same concept taken to two different extremes. In both cases, decisions are based less on what God is asking me to do, and more on how I see myself and how others will perceive me. It’s just like boys and girls throwing mud pies at each other on the playground because the opposite gender hypothetically has cooties- never mind the actual mud on your own clothes.

Now, to be clear: calling your relationship “courting” instead of “dating” does not make you a legalist, and reading a book by Suzanne Collins does not make you an anti-legalist. The problem is not the action itself, but the motivation behind the action. Both forms of legalism happen when we take the focus off of God and put ourselves and our works in the spotlight. The mindset in both cases is one of “people need to see what I’m doing for God, not what God is doing in me.” Legalism and anti-legalism are both idolatry because the ultimate standard is how I appear to others.

I have to look perfect at church. 

I dare not look too perfect at church. 

I have to save my children from a life of sin.

I have to save my parents from a life of judging lest they be judged. 

People, it’s time to wake up! We simply have to stop putting that pressure on ourselves. God didn’t assign us the responsibility of being perfect; who are we to assign it to ourselves? If gaining the approval of man through my own behavior is my motivation, then there’s no room for God. And a life without God is the most dangerous life I can live.

So what’s the point? Well, here’s a quote. I don’t care if you like Doctor Strange or not (based on what I’ve seen, you probably don’t), but the Ancient One aptly summed up the truth everyone is missing:

It’s not about you.

God is the center. People are not God, and we never will be. It’s not our job to live perfect lives in front of others, nor to prove to others that we have the truth about living perfect lives. If that was really the case, we of all people should be most pitied. It would mean that Jesus’ death doesn’t really matter after all, and God has forsaken us. It would mean that it’s up to humanity to save itself. That sounds blasphemous, yet it’s exactly what we proclaim when we live to create an impression on others. And we can do that just as easily when we’re reading Harry Potter as when we’re listening exclusively to Christian music.

Sure, it’s okay to hate Christian movies, just as it’s okay to skip the Divergent trilogy. But what’s your reason for disliking either? So often, we make decisions based on how we appear to others. If I refuse to spend money at Starbucks, will people think I’m legalistic? If I wear this, will people think I’m making myself cheap? Sure, we should have a care about how we treat others, but here’s the thing: people are always going to judge us. Remember the farmer, his son, and their donkey. If we build our lives based on other people’s perceptions, we will end up dissatisfied and depressed. It’s impossible to create the perfect impression forever, and God didn’t make us to live like that anyway.

The thing we need to change is our motivation. We should really be making our decisions based on what God asks us to do. That’s the life He created us to live. Where does God want me to spend my hard-earned money? Does my clothing reflect the honor that God has given me as His son or daughter? And yes, people will still judge us or think ill of us, and sometimes that will hurt, but it doesn’t matter as much when we know we’re doing what God would have us do. It’s truly amazing how the earth grows strangely dim in the light of God’s glory and grace.

It’s all about God, anyway. What right have we to add to His commandments?

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To Christians With “Overprotective” Parents

overprotectiveparents

Here are two things you should know.

1: This post is a letter written to Christian kids under age eighteen. If you’re not a Christian and/or child and you want to read this post, take it for what it is: not written for you.

2: This is an insanely-super-long post, so if you don’t have a lot of time and/or are highly distractable, don’t read this post right now. Bookmark it and come back later after you’ve taken care of your important to-do things.

What to do about overprotective parents?

Full confession: I’m eighteen now and make my own decisions. Before I turned eighteen, though, my parents were what they jokingly call “overprotective.” Meaning, I didn’t read Harry Potter until one year ago, the kids in our family couldn’t watch the Disney movies with ghosts until we were too old to appreciate the slapstick humor, and most of my siblings still don’t have Facebook. Basically, I’m saying I know what it’s like to have parents who say no.

Maybe you’ve said/heard people say things like this:

Dad shouldn’t try to control me so much!

I may not know everything, but neither do my parents, and I know myself a heck of a lot better than they do.

Harry Potter isn’t going to damage me; it actually teaches some really good lessons.

I know my parents are well-meaning, but they don’t understand me.

It just hurts that Mom doesn’t trust me with something as harmless as a children’s book series.

But are we looking at this all wrong? I’d posit that we might be, that maybe overprotective parents are not a curse, but rather a blessing. I thank God and my parents for most, if not all, of the decisions they made, even though I disagreed with them at the time.

To explain why, I need to start from square one:

Everyone is overprotective sometimes- and thank God that we are.

When people say “overprotective,” what do they really mean? No one knows the future, obviously, so there is no way to be just the right amount of “protective.” People have to be either under- or over-protective, and most folks like to err on the side of caution.

Let’s just take the most basic example: a seatbelt. Every time you get into your car and put on a seatbelt, you are necessarily being overprotective. Gee whiz, you’re probably not going to wreck every single time you’re in a motor vehicle. What’s the big deal? In fact, while we’re at it, we could probably do away with those giant concrete barriers in the middle of the highway and just use one yellow line instead of two. It would definitely save the government some money. Buckling up is a time waster.

Yet, if you’re smart, you buckle up. You know that if you don’t have a seatbelt on, you could get hurt– just like my friend. Last month, driving back from vacation, a distracted driver rear-ended her car at high speed, totaled the vehicle, and gave her whole family whiplash. If my friend hadn’t been wearing her seatbelt, she would have flown through the windshield and probably died. This is why the law requires people to buckle up.

If you don’t crash, a seatbelt is an inconvenience that wastes maybe five seconds on every drive; if you’re in a bad wreck, it’s that fine line between life and death. Next time you pull into the driveway safely after a road trip, thank God that He made people to be overprotective.

Of course, overprotection can be a good or bad thing. Where do overprotective parents fit in? Well, let’s get to the next point:

The keyword is not “overprotective.” It is “parent.”

Let’s say you’re a mom or dad who just brought home your first child. Congratulations, balloons, meal trains. Now what do you need to do? More than you think. Contrary to popular belief, your job as a parent is not just to clothe and feed that hypothetical child and make sure he/she doesn’t do bad stuff at parties until age eighteen; you as a parent are now responsible for an actual soul. When God creates a child, He doesn’t just make a body with a brain that sometimes functions with ample caffeine. He creates a person with a soul that will live forever. (C.S. Lewis wrote a good explanation.) God gives children to you, the parent, with the responsibility to make sure that you take care of their little souls, lead them to seek out and obey His plan, and teach them diligently in the hope that they will come to a saving relationship with Christ.

This is why we have Mother’s and Father’s Days. Because, all things considered, your parents are doing a pretty freaking awesome job.

I don’t know about you, but when I step back and realize the overwhelming responsibility of my parents to care for my soul, I find it really hard to be mad about not reading TwilightIn fact, I even have a little bit of gratitude that Mom and Dad made the best decision they could for my benefit. They probably didn’t enjoy some of those decisions any more than I did. (It can be hard to say no to people you love, especially if it makes them sad.) Some of those safeguards were probably unnecessary, but my parents didn’t put them there because they were monsters. They put them there because they cared.

If you understand all this, yet you still fundamentally disagree with your parents’ Hunger Games policiesthen here’s another bit of truth that might help:

You probably aren’t missing out on much.

If you really miss out on something good, you can catch up on it later. I don’t think it takes that long to read The Hunger GamesIn fact, you’ll probably enjoy it more if you take your parents’ advice and wait.

Now if your parents are starving you, then by all means argue, disobey, and do whatever it takes to eat and survive. That’s not overprotection; that’s abuse. (Metabolism is one of the four biological criteria for life.) If they aren’t letting you encounter opposing worldviews and you’re in your teens, maybe have a talk about that one- or else college is gonna be tough for you. But if your parents tell you not to do something you want but don’t need… then don’t do it. Face it, you don’t need Harry Potter in your life. Queen Victoria never read Harry Potter, and she ruled the British Empire for over sixty years. Tell yourself you’re being like Victoria. It will do wonders for your attitude.

And if you think that you should be able to make your own decisions because you know best, think again. Many times, when my parents told me not to do something, I later realized they were right. For example, a few years ago when I was probably fifteen, maybe younger, I wanted to watch Sherlock. Dad said no because it had a lot of swearing, it could be scary, and it would probably do me no good. I disagreed with him on that last bit quite strongly; but I decided to do the right thing and obey.

Now, as an adult (and Sherlockian), I can see at least two reasons why it was a good idea to skip the show at that age. One, Sherlock is in fact scary, and being my usual empathetic, prone-to-depression self, I would not have handled Moriarty’s psychopathic tendencies very well at all. It would have done me more emotional harm than good. Two, Sherlock has some particular themes in a particular episode (if you don’t know, don’t look it up) which my dad didn’t know about because he never finished the show. If I had stumbled upon that episode a few years ago, I would have been too disgusted to finish the show, and thus I would never have watched “The Sign of Three.”

There was no way for me to know all that at age fifteen. Good thing my parents were overprotective about a show they never finished.

And lastly, if you still disagree, I just have one more thing to tell you:

You should obey anyway.

Even if nothing else in this post has inspired you to obey, this should be enough to convince you. As a Christian, you have a responsibility to obey your parents in everything. Look at Colossians 3:20. In context, “children” means “people under the legal age of adulthood.” That means that if you’re a Christian under age eighteen, you have to obey your parents whether you like it or not. (Even adult Christians are still required to show honor to their parents.) Unless they command you to do something sinful, disobedience to parents is disobedience to God. Obey them, if for no other reason than your desire to obey God.

Ultimately, it helps to know that your parents do actually care about you.

They aren’t always right. Parents can be wrong sometimes; I know my parents make mistakes because I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my few years of life, and they’ve been around a lot longer than I have. But now that Mom and Dad have messed up a few times, they can help us avoid doing those things. They can protect us from things that just might be dangerous. When they say no to something, try asking why- I’m sure they’d love to explain it to you if you just ask them nicely. You can disagree and present your reasons for why they should change their mind; in fact, you may actually get them to agree with you. But in the end, it’s the job of Christian parents to make a wise decision, and it’s the job of a Christian son or daughter to accept it.

And it’s worth mentioning that the sooner you decide to trust your parents, the likelier they are to start trusting you with more of those things you want to do.

Thank You

So, yeah, inspiration is not a thing for me this week. I was thinking about this post from my old Christian blog lately, and I figured the rest of you might like to read (or re-read) it as well. And even if you’re not a Christian, you might still like to hear an “insider story” of why believers aren’t- or shouldn’t be- afraid to be joyful. 

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you probably know that embracing emotion doesn’t come naturally to me. For example, I don’t usually cry during movies, even when I feel like it. Yes, INTJs have feelings; we’re human, just like everyone else. But whenever those feelings try to insert themselves into our daily lives, we subconsciously try to suppress them. Call it a weird psychological trait, if you will.

Yet this lack of feelz can be a bit of a problem when it comes to the Christian life. We Christians are supposed to be intensely joyful people who don’t back down from emotions, and it’s admittedly difficult to be a joyful person if one suppresses emotion. It’s all throughout the Bible: make a joyful noise, the joy of the Lord is our strength, et cetera. Christians should have the joy of God in our hearts because the ruler of the entire universe loves us and has saved us- and cold robotic apathy, however comfy for us Thinker types, doesn’t line up with that calling.

But God is the ultimate problem-solver: he never leaves a problem without a solution. Over the last year, I took two of Jeff Myers’ courses on biblical leadership, and in one of those lessons, Dr Myers taught about the three foundations of leadership. The first is vision: knowing what you want to have accomplished at the end of your life. The second is mission: the practical steps that help you to achieve your vision. The third one is gratitude.

Crickets.

Gratitude. I know, it seems far-fetched. Of all the things that Dr Myers could have cited as a foundation for leadership… integrity, honesty, courage, ingenuity, flexibility, humanity… why would he say gratitude is the foundation? Is it really so important?

Yet I decided to give it a try. I revived an old habit of thanking God for three things- just three- every morning. Throughout the day, I would do my best to appreciate those three things, remembering how I am blessed in ways that others might not be. Peace, chocolate, the Bill of Rights… anything goes. It was a simple practice that I could do every morning after reading my Bible and every night before I fell asleep. And do you know what? The results surprised me.

Now you may have heard what psychological research says. Having a grateful attitude causes people to be more satisfied, optimistic, agreeable, spiritual, and neurologically healthy. And of course, all of those things did indeed happen, and I did get a lot more work done with much more fulfillment than before. But I wasn’t prepared for how much more gratefulness this little exercise gave me.

I remember one particular day on which one of my three blessings was “words.” I was thankful for words. I remembered how I had used words throughout the day: for encouragement and interpersonal enlightenment (okay, debate), as well as for hurting others. I prayed about all of these things, and then I realized that “words” were tied up into another blessing: God gave us the tool of language to help us accomplish His plan. On another occasion, when I thanked God for creating the trees and grass, I forgot about the terrible Texas allergies and was able to thank God for the sheer beauty of springtime.

Maybe I am inclined to overthink things, but in this case, it’s not a matter of overthinking, but of realizing just how good God’s plan is. The bottom line is that, on days when I make a prayerful effort to be grateful, God helps me to feel more gratitude. It really just puts the whole world back into perspective for me. 

I know it’s hard to feel grateful sometimes. Yet when I experience that feeling of thankfulness, I realize that it’s something I don’t want to miss anymore, and I don’t think anyone else would want to miss it, either. Try thanking God every day for just three things in your life, and continue to thank him throughout the day. See how it changes your perspective.

Peace

This is a post from my old blog, A Heart Devoted. I was going to repost this on Christmas, but I realized that as we look back on this year, we would do well to remember these promises for 2017. 

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14 ESV)

Doubtless you’ve heard those two lines before. If you only know one verse in the whole Bible, it’s probably the angels’ song on the night Jesus was born; we hear that one every Christmas thanks to Charles Schultz. If you search the book of Luke for the word “peace”, this is one of the top results.

Yet this shout, once so thrilling and overjoyed, hardly means anything to us anymore. We’ve become tempered to the joyful shouts of “Gloria in excelsis Deo” and “peace on earth”, much like the frog who was slowly boiled to death. O what a terrible comparison that was. Somehow the Christmas story has lost its luster.

Furthermore, when one thinks about the real meaning of the angels’ song, it seems disjointed from reality. Glory to God? Peace on earth? Have you watched the news for even two minutes lately? We live in reality, a dark world filled with war and hate and insanity. Shootings and bombings are old news. Word of threats and furious dissension fill newspapers and online magazines. And let’s not even get started on politics.

Yet the angels still sing, “Peace on earth!” It sounds like a fairytale to us, full of magic and beauty and sparkling joy, but it seems little more than just that- a fairytale by Perrault or Disney. The story of the real world sounds more like a grotesque horror tale by the brothers Grimm. We will never actually experience that happily-ever-after ending. Luke’s story is lovely, but it’s too good to be true.

Yet the story doesn’t end with that, for another search for “peace” in the book of Luke reveals a quote from Jesus (hence the red-letter) which is closer to reality:

Not Peace, but Division: “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” (Luke 12:49-51 ESV)

What to do? We all want to trust the angels’ happy song… but Jesus tends to be more reliable. Seemingly, we arrive at a contradiction.

I would argue that we don’t need to choose between them, that we can indeed trust both messages. They both come from God, who never lies. And before you write me off as a nutjob (the non-candied kind), allow me to explain: peace on earth is indeed coming, just not right now.

Jesus himself said that peace on earth was not yet coming, but division and trouble were. The nature of following Jesus on earth is necessarily not relaxing and peaceful, but rather painful and sacrificial. How can we have peace on earth?

One more verse will show us the answer.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27, ESV)

As Christians, we have hope. Hope is one small word with huge power, for it often means the difference between life and death, whether physical or spiritual. We get our hope from God’s promise in the Bible that he has a plan and is faithful and capable to fulfill it. He will return for us one day and put an end to all this trouble, wiping away tears and causing even lions and lambs to become friends.

We aren’t looking forward to tomorrow or next year, because we know that the world can offer no lasting hope. Just look at 2016- and read the book of Revelation if you think things can only get better from here. God gives us His peace and hope in His promises, which never fail. We are looking forward to the day when Jesus returns. 

And when we know that God is coming again with peace that will never end, our hearts will be at peace on earth.

Happy New Year.

Cut and Paste

This is my very first non-writing post on this blog, so I’ve decided to tackle a nice easy topic: the nature of faith in a postmodern age. And of course, by “easy,” I mean controversial and complex.

scissors-previewDid you know Thomas Jefferson rewrote the Bible?

Well… that isn’t the politically correct story. Jefferson, himself a Deist of sorts who admired some of Jesus’ teachings, said that he was only attempting to sketch the character and philosophy of Jesus Christ as he expected Jesus would have been- minus the exaggerations and biases of the apostles. Because, obviously, an eighteenth-century man like him knows better about a first-century man than the guy’s actual first-century friends.

Jefferson cut-and-pasted verses from the real Bible and rearranged them in his own dissertation. The result? A beauty-pageant version of Jesus: no miraculous healings, no claims to divinity, and of course no resurrection. But of course, as far as Christians are concerned, Jefferson pretty much rewrote the whole story. (Here is a pretty fair article on the subject.)

Now I would have loved to meet the ingenius Jefferson and talk to him on a number of issues, like slavery, democracy, and possibly abortion. What history nerd wouldn’t? But most of all, I would want to know how much he had actually learned about the Bible. Did he in fact read the whole Bible, including the part where his favorite authors said that “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16) and that His Word “will never pass away” (Luke 21:33)? That’s just echoing the basic rules of logic: you can’t pick and choose different parts of a book and ignore the rest.

Most of all, though, I would want to know if Thomas Jefferson had paid due attention to 1 Corinthians 15:12-19. Everybody knows that the central point of Christian faith, the one that sets it apart from every other belief system, is the resurrection of Jesus. In this passage, Paul comes right out and states every atheist’s big complaint about Christianity: if Christ did not resurrect, then we are believing lies, and we are the most pitiable of all people.

Therefore, in eliminating the Resurrection from his telling of the life and morals of Jesus, Jefferson undermines his own “Christian” belief. He takes out the quintessence of the Christian life. He believed that Jesus was just a good man who died, that God is impersonal, that people only need to follow these moral teachings to achieve any hope of salvation… and you know what? Jefferson was more Muslim than anything else.

Now here is the big question: Why does it matter?

First of all, if we consider changing anything about a book that doesn’t belong to us, we ought to remember who gets to decide in the first place. If I write a book, I get to decide who dies, who falls in love with whom, and who wins. My readers don’t get to cut out that one chapter where the ship blows up. Textbooks are the same way: if you’re supposed to use a particular history book for your research project, you report on all the pertinent facts from the book, even if you don’t like the stories about slavery.

It’s the same way with God’s nonfiction book. Either you believe in the whole Bible, or you don’t believe in any of it. There is no build-your-own salad bar, no picking and choosing, no cut-and-paste. God doesn’t leave that option open. Some religions like Hinduism and neo-paganism will let you borrow deities or ideas from this or that religion, but Christianity is immutable.

Now, all that being said, certainly there are things in the Bible that some folks don’t like. Let’s face it: if you read some particular verses by themselves, sans context, it sounds pretty confusing. When Paul says that a woman ought not to speak in church, that sounds pretty sexist. When Moses lays out the laws for slaves and servants, it looks as if God didn’t create all people equal. When Jesus said He came to bring division and “fire” to the earth, that doesn’t remind us of the Prince of Peace.

But, as confusing as these verses seem, God put each one them in the Bible for good reasons. (Reading these verses in context, we see that they usually mean quite the opposite of what New Atheists wish they meant.) As Matt Chandler says, would a rational person step into a movie theater, watch LotR for two minutes, and then step out claiming to know all the intricacies of the plot? Neither would a rational person pull a few verses out of context and build a whole worldview upon them.

Now, the point is not that theology will dispel your every doubt. Even after you become a Christian, you will still ask questions that may or may not be answered this side of eternity. And God is okay with that- He made us that way, and He can handle it. The truth is that God has reasons for everything, no matter how absurd or scary it seems now, and He has revealed just enough of those reasons for us to know that we can trust Him with the rest.

Let’s put it in context.

Think back to when you were five years old. At that age, did your parents tell you exactly why you couldn’t accept a ride home in a stranger’s car? No. At least I hope not. When you were five, your parents only told you about the concept of “bad people.” That was all they really could tell you, because at that age you hadn’t even had the talk yet. You’d never seen any of those bad men. You didn’t know why they were bad. Your parents had chosen to protect you emotionally as well as physically because you were too young to understand the nature of the threat. All you knew was, My parents love me and have never steered me wrong before, so you obeyed without knowing the reasons.

But, now that you are older and understand the world better, do you wish you had ignored that advice and gotten in a stranger’s car? No, I didn’t think so. The fact that you didn’t know every one of your parents’ reasons didn’t mean the danger was made-up or that your parents were crazy. Saying so would only prove you were the crazy one.

When it comes to big scary questions that seem to have no answers, we need to remember that answers don’t all come at once. It may sound nice to say that people can just be “religious,” believing the things they like and ignoring the things they don’t, but that’s not true Christianity. That is called perpetual adolescence. Just like the teenager who chooses to sneak out after curfew but is on time for dinner if there’s cake: “I’ll do it because I want to, not because you told me to.” Sound familiar?

The essence of religious faith is, simply, faith. Just as wise people don’t blindly trust authority, faith doesn’t mean we blindly believe everything we hear. God gave us minds as well as revelation, and He wants us to use both. Faith means that the mature son or daughter remembers their parents’ wisdom in the past and decides to trust them on this one. Faith means that once we have tested something against what we do know and come to a conclusion, we run with that conclusion as long as it sticks, even if we still have questions about the details.

My favorite president once challenged a stubbornly skeptical friend: “You are wrong. Take all of this book upon reason that you can and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier and better man.”