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?

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.”