Legalism as Pride

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.

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9 thoughts on “Legalism as Pride

  1. This is so on target.

    I continually get in the habit of worship, with a heart set on the Lord, but legalism creeps in with habit. It robs me of joy.

    But, Christianity is all about the journey, not the actual what.

    Sometimes the Lord calls me to change what I’m doing and obey in a totally different way.

  2. Thanks for the transparency. It is a battle that I struggle with as well. It is so easy to be too concerned with the endorsement of man, and miss out on finding God in the processes of life.

  3. P-diddy, you are an encouragement, brother. I appreciate your honesty in this post. I, as you are probably aware, struggle very much with this same issue. It is serious. It is sin.

    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.

    Great quote. So true.

  4. Great stuff here, Phillip. I cannot agree more with what you say, and the simple definition of legalism you give is easy for anyone to grasp.

    I can really identify with the sin of rejecting legalism out of pride. Coming out of a very legalistic community, it has been easy for me to rearrange my sin by scoffing at what I used to believe (therefore, necessarily also scoffing at those who still adhere to this legalism) instead of putting sin to death.

  5. Pingback: Believing Jesus » Phillip on Legalism

  6. Phillip,

    Let’s be honest, this issue plagues my life. What are some specific lies that you could point to that you believe have caused this in your own life?

  7. Byron, good question. Here are some thoughts on lies that lead to legalism:

    1. that spiritual intimacy is a measurable, quantifiable measurement that can easily be discerned in yourself and discovered in others.

    2. that externals take priority over internals.

    3. that I need to maintain an appearance of spirituality so that no one recognizes my weaknesses and faults.

    4. that image management with God is more important than intimacy with God

    the problem with these lies is that they elevate secondary issues above what is primary–knowing God. My problem is that these lies either fly under the radar & I don’t recognize them or I am deceived into thinking that these are a right view. Does that help at all? What lies deceive you?

  8. Phillip you’re reply here really has my head spinning.

    Especially number one – that is great insight that I could just look over if I didn’t park on it and think.

    The fact that spirituality is not quantifiable is so revolutionary if you unpack it. That means that I can watch TV, and hangout with brother X who doesn’t, and I am not any LESS spiritual than that person. How many times I have been on the other side of this and thought “well, they watch shady movies, I’m clearly more spiritual.” And, that…is gross.

    Good thoughts, as usual.

    -nick

  9. Pingback: Fill Up » Is Why We Do Something More Important than What We Do?

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