I have a confession: I struggle with legalism. How do I define legalism? The best definition of legalism that I know is this: legalism is being more concerned with what you’re doing than why you’re doing it.
My tendency is to want to establish external measures of acceptability and judge myself and others by them. This is not just a spiritual issue for me. It is a danger in many aspects of my life.
I struggle with relational legalism with my wife. Tuesday nights are date nights for us. If I’m real honest with you, there are some Tuesday nights where I am more concerned with what I am doing (taking Cami out) than why I am doing it (to demonstrate love to her). Because she can’t see my heart motivation, it is hard for her to tell if I am taking her on a date out of legalism or love. When legalism permeates my approach to our relationship, it paralyzes intimacy with Cami.
I struggle with academic legalism with my schoolwork. I have this overwhelming temptation, even now at seminary, to desire to make good grades more than to grow in depth and intimacy of my knowledge of God. I’m more concerned sometimes with making an A than equipping myself for my ministry future. When legalism permeates my approach to school, it robs me of knowing God.
I struggle with spiritual legalism. Spiritual legalism occurs when we are more concerned with the what of Christianity than the why. Though I wouldn’t admit it, there are times in my life where personal spiritual disciplines are nothing more than a checklist for me. Bible reading. Check. Scripture memory. Check. Prayer. Check. And the list goes on and on. When legalism permeates my approach to God, it shortcircuits my intimacy with Christ.
At its root, legalism is an issue of pride. Legalism is pride masked in the costume of external excellence. When it comes to relational legalism, I am motivated to take Cami out so that it appears that I am a more romantic husband than others. When it comes to academic legalism, I am motivated to make good grades so that it appears that I am more theologically knowledgeable than others. When it comes to spiritual legalism, I am motivated to pursue the spiritual disciplines so that it appears that I am more connected to God in intimacy than others.
My problem is that there are times when I am more interested in appearances than I am in reality. In other words, there are times when I am more interested in appearing spiritually intimate than I am in being spiritually intimate. This is true evidence of legalism as pride.
Legalism as pride is comparative. We establish arbitrary, legalistic standards by which we measure everyone else. On what basis do I have the authority to establish the external measuring sticks by which spiritual intimacy in myself and others is gauged?
Legalism as pride is blinding. If legalism is a manifestation of pride, it must be one of the worst. Why? Because most of the time, the person engaging in the legalism has no idea that they are overflowing with pride. In fact, they’re more likely to view themselves with humility while seeing those who fall short of their standards with pride.
Legalism as pride is divisive. When I set the standards for spiritual credibility, I now establish an authority over my peers that can lead to separation and strife. If they don’t live to my standards, then I may pridefully shun them. If they reject my standards, then they may pridefully shun me.
The scary thing is that the one who rejects the legalism of others can be just as guilty of pride. Many times, their rejection of legalism is not a rejection of legalism in general but just that person’s type of legalism in particular.
God’s words to Samuel as he looked for Israel’s new king are instructive to us as we reflect on the issue of legalism:
1 Samuel 16:7, “But the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.’”
God is more concerned with why we do things than what we do. I firmly believe that legalism is a sign of a deeper heart issue—pride. As we allow God to transform our heart, it will free us from the bondage of legalism.