Happy fall, readers! I am so excited for autumn to be here and everything that comes with it. Pumpkin spice lattes, brilliant colors, cool crisp temperatures, warm sweaters and scarves. It’s gotta be my favorite season of all.
Meanwhile, I’m feeling really bad about my failure of late to post regularly on my blog, so I’m making up for it with a super long post that has actually been a long time in the draft box being written and rewritten.
This is a topic near to my heart in which I share some of my personal experiences and thoughts that comprised my journey from legalism to love. If you’ve been in a similar place spiritually, then you’ll probably relate to a lot of things in my post.
Like I said, this post is really lengthy, so just be aware of that. But I do hope you take the time to read through it. I’m so appreciative of your time and support.
I used to think that in order to be friends with someone, I had to agree with them on every point of interest. Especially as related to religion or theology. Worse, if I didn’t agree with that person, I would not only not be their friend, I would look down on them for their differences.
You didn’t have the same exact beliefs as I did on end times or the Holy Spirit or sin and grace, or maybe you were too “contemporary” for me? Well, sorry, I just couldn’t be friends with you. You go see a movie that is just a little too out there for my standards? Whoops, you just got demoted from my circle of friends. You wear something that looks too worldly or immodest? I’m sorry, but I couldn’t be around you lest you taint me or make me backslide with your worldly ways.
Okay, so I wasn’t necessarily the most vocal legalist around. Since I’m naturally a less expressive person, my method was more subtle. I wouldn’t blatantly shun you or condemn you to your face, but I would essentially refrain from letting you into my life, at least beyond the occasional wave hello if our paths crossed.
I might have had a bad opinion of people who would come fresh from the world into my life with their ungodly ways, but I sort of gave those people a little slack, because, after all, they didn’t know better. What else can you expect of someone raised in a worldly environment? They just needed to be taught the right way, and then they would repent of their sinful lifestyle and join our little band of picture-perfect Christians.
However, what was a hundred times worse in my mind was when someone who knew the truth, had been taught the truth all their lives–then rebelled and broke away from our godly lifestyle and defected to the “world.”
I remember several monumental times in my life growing up when people I knew in our church or close friends of my family unexpectedly either changed their beliefs on certain lifestyle standards that I considered to be non-negotiable, or they left our church and completely “fell off the deep end.”
This was incomprehensible to me. I didn’t get it. How could people who had grown up knowing the truth and being taught exactly how to please God just reject it and turn their backs on it? God was surely so angry with them. I knew they would be disciplined and experience sad, depressed, defeated lives and lose out on any blessings they could have had. I mean, sometimes it was even doubtful that they were ever true Christians.
Maybe this sounds like pretty extreme and unreasonable behavior. But for all that, it wasn’t as if I was ever intentionally contemptuous or condescending about my beliefs. I was so caught up in the rigid spiritual structure that I didn’t even realize what I was doing–it was just who I was, and it was all I knew. This was my life, and I believed it was the only right path.
I was simply the good Christian girl who stayed in her place, within her accepted role and norms. I was doing the right thing to stay away from the less-spiritual people out there. The world was a dangerous place, and I was just following the principle of separation from the world. God was pleased with me and my attempts to stay righteous, and people who didn’t see things my way were lost, blind, and out of favor with God.
What I didn’t realize then is that my worldview stemmed from a faulty understanding of who I am, and who everyone else is. I couldn’t see the world from the proper perspective because I didn’t know who I truly was in God’s eyes. You might say it was a simple case of identity confusion, but in reality it’s not so simple to understand and break free from.
What I realize clearly now is that I was caught in the subtle trap of legalism.
Legalism: the prison masquerading as an elite retreat center
It’s funny that often you can only see that you’ve been in a cage once you’ve been freed from the cage. Legalism was that invisible cage for me and it still is for so many people. They say that hindsight is 20/20, and they’d be right.
We often vehemently reject the notion that we might be mentally or spiritually imprisoned because it offends our rationality and self-perception. We naturally want to believe that we are as self-enlightened and well-informed as possible, that our common sense and convictions have been based on the highest plane of truth. To have that self-assurance threatened is a jab at the deepest part of our identity and we instinctively react in the “fight or flight” defensive.
That is why the journey of complete personal development often takes place over an extended period of time, usually years. Yes, sometimes we experience sudden epiphanies that dramatically shift our perspectives, but normally the process is gradual.
It took me years to see the faults in my personal ideology. I mean, granted, some of that process was the typical self-discovery of a teenager growing up and “finding herself,” if you want to call it that. But much of it was a different journey of discovering, reading, reassessing, studying, experiencing, and basically living–culminating in a significant paradigm shift.
What happens when you let Jesus change your life
In living my particular journey, I experienced a radical change when I allowed the life and love of Jesus to permeate my life. By that I don’t mean letting Him into my heart for salvation; I mean, truly seeing and understanding His life of love and compassion, how He illustrated the heart of God in every word and action, and allowing that love and compassion to have free rein in my life.
I’m going to get a little detailed and technical for a minute, so don’t get distracted yet.
When an expert in the law asked Jesus what the most important commandment was in Matthew 22:35-40, Jesus didn’t just reiterate any of the 613 ceremonial laws listed in the Jewish Torah. Instead, He introduced a completely new concept and boiled down the entire religious law into two statements: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And, love your neighbor as yourself.
This was a radical shift from the religious norms of the past thousand years, yet the Jewish prophets had predicted that the Messiah would usher in a new way of life.
Jesus’ coming to earth fulfilled these prophecies and the obligations of the law. He expressed the spirit of the law instead of the letter of the law, demolishing the bondage and restrictions of the Old Testament laws and bringing freedom and grace to the world. He didn’t do away with the law; rather, He completed the picture that the law had previously only partially revealed. The mystery of God’s plan of the ages was disclosed fully to us through Christ (Colossians 1:26-27).
The principle of justification behind the Old Testament law system was that by keeping the law, we were made holy and righteous. Conversely, the new covenant under grace says that because we are holy and righteous, we keep God’s commandments; specifically, loving God and loving others. Our new position and identity in Christ motivates our hearts and minds to live as the new creations that we are.
Jesus was the visible image of the invisible God. He revealed God to the world, and His entire life on earth was one of constantly showing the heart of the Father and His new manner of relating directly to humanity without barriers of the law or religious mediators–person-to-person, face-to-face.
A new way of relating to God
Instead of being restricted to hearing God only through the priests, human beings could now have a personal connection with the Father; rather than relying on pure willpower and effort to gain favor with God, people would be made righteous freely and without condemnation. Rather than being judged by one’s lifestyle and good or bad deeds, all who asked would have God’s love and mercy abundantly bestowed on them.
Jesus demonstrated the personal relationship that God desires to have with us. He spent time with people regardless of their social standing, lifestyles, or personal beliefs. He lavished love and mercy and healing on everyone who wanted and needed it, regardless of who they were. His love and compassion is boundless and unconditional.
True, He did condemn and criticize the Pharisees and spiritual leaders of the day, but because they were willfully leading their followers in the paths of falsehood and legalism.
His heart’s desire was for every single person to experience His love, healing, and compassion. In every situation He encountered, Jesus showed His humility, selflessness, and patience. He loved the unlovable, showed mercy to the unjust, imparted grace to the undeserving.
Having the mind of Christ
Knowing the heart of Jesus has huge implications for how I live my own life.
Truly understanding how God sees me, and how He wants to relate to me and every other human being, alters how I see myself and everyone around me.
Having this personal relationship with God means that I begin to see the world through His eyes–I view other people from His perspective, with the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:1-11).
Jesus didn’t judge people based on their good works or law-abiding abilities, so why should I? Jesus didn’t think twice before hanging out with the outcasts or less-reputable people in society, so why should I avoid people I perceive to be in that category in my own life?
I mean, hey, Jesus sought out me–I’m far from perfect, far from being a top tier member of society, far from worthy or popular in the world’s eyes, yet He wants me. If He chose me to be pure, perfect, righteous, and holy, how is any other person less valuable and treasured in His eyes?
So maybe your skirt is shorter than mine; or maybe your theology doesn’t line up with my theology perfectly; maybe you have a different way of living out your faith. No matter what the discrepancy, those matters are not the real issue. What matters is that I take a mental step back, maybe switch out those human-tinted glasses for some God-tinted ones, and focus on God’s eternal goal: bringing people into a personal relationship with Him.
To that end, Jesus sought out the less-fortunate, the down-and-outers, the shunned, the forgotten, the unpopular; He didn’t only seek out the hub of spotless law-keepers and act as if they were the only ones worth His time and effort. He had no hint of partiality toward the ones He ministered to; instead, He received all who came to Him equally. His life revealed a completely different side of God that the world had not clearly seen before then.
Having this divine outlook on the world changes my life radically. It frees me from the desire to place judgment or criticism on the people around me; it helps me see past the superficial layer and look beyond, into the heart, the part of a person that truly matters. It allows me to appreciate the unique aspects and expressions of individual personalities rather than picking them apart and comparing them to my perceived “ideal.”
This doesn’t change my understanding that sin does exist. When a situation clearly involves something sinful, that’s something that needs to be dealt with graciously. And that’s why each Christian has the Holy Spirit in them, to teach them and convict them of sin in their lives. I’m more talking about the “gray” areas, or those areas that seem to be black and white to some people but not to others. But no matter what area–black, white, or gray–it’s still wrong to judge someone.
It’s important to understand that every relationship with God is different and expresses itself in a unique way. We are all on separate paths of spiritual growth and discovery. There may be some issues in which God has directed me in a certain way but that doesn’t mean that every other person is on that same path.
I don’t have to agree with someone in order to show them Christ-like love and compassion. That’s where I went wrong years ago, believing that disagreeing with someone and loving them were mutually exclusive. They’re not.
I’m never going to agree with someone else completely. Never gonna happen. If I only picked friends that I agreed with on every single issue, I would be searching unsuccessfully for them my whole life.
God’s view is completely different from the human tendency to look at the outward appearances and indications of people. He looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).
God sees you where you are, in your particular stage of growth and learning, and He doesn’t judge you for not being further along in your spiritual abilities and disciplines; He doesn’t pressure you and guilt you to be better than you can be. He showers you with grace to acknowledge where you are, realize your mistakes, and still take one step forward at a time. That’s what Jesus did, and that’s what He asks of me.
I don’t have to agree with everyone, but I can still love and accept them for who they are.
If I do that, I’m truly living out the heart of God.
If you’ve actually gotten to the end of this post, thank you so much! I really hope you got something positive from everything I’ve said, and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Quick ending note: This is how I’ve come to understand God and how He sees me. But I know I’m not perfect. I realize I still have a long way to go and that I’m probably in error on more than one point I’ve made in this post. But like I said above, I’m on a personal journey with God–everyone is–I’m not in the same place you are, and maybe you are in a place where you can see things from a clearer perspective and I’m just not there yet. Regardless, I’m just acknowledging that I’m an imperfect human being, and I hope that you can take what I’ve written for what it is.