The Legalist Within
I didn’t know what a U-turn was until I illegally executed one with my banana seat bike, directly into the path of a green Chevy Nova. The driver must have seen it coming, because I never heard brakes squeal, only the sickening sound of a skinny bike tire rub against the front fender meant to withstand more serious impacts. In a deer-in-the-headlights moment, I stared straight into the terror-filled eyes of the driver, looked down to see that I and my second-hand bike were still in one piece, expertly balanced my foot on one pedal, and took off in the opposite direction.
I am eight years old and now, I am a fugitive.
It wasn’t the first time I flew past The United Church of Christ, an unwritten boundary for my bike-riding adventures, but it was probably the most criminally motivated. The quarter-mile slow-motion chase ended abruptly in the parking lot of a ramshackle country bar. The kind-looking driver approached me with all the caution and care of a firefighter rescuing a cat stuck in a tree. “You’re one of the Lewis kids,” he offered. In a flash of shame and regret, I burst into tears.
That day I violated a basic rule of the road that I didn’t think applied to me, flagrantly disobeyed my parents in a quest for freedom, and then spent two agonizing weeks stranded without my bike. Change the names, modify the circumstances, and we’ve all been there.
Rules by our parents, the government, and God were created to keep us safe from ourselves and each other. Additionally, God put Old Testament laws in place to help us keep our focus on Him. Consider the story of the Israelites when Moses came onto the scene. They were in slavery because of their sin, and yet God had compassion for His people and wanted to free them. Complaining the whole way through the Exodus and into Promised Land, God responded to their whining with a series of provisions, dramatically set up ten foundational rules, and punished them when they disobeyed. And this was all before cell phones or social media accounts were around to mess things up.
Living Water is blessed to be planted in an area where you can find Amish-oriented communities in any direction. While we don’t hold to their work-based philosophies and sometimes arbitrary rules that many sects practice, this recovering legalist still loves the black-and-whiteness of those clearly defined rules that require no footnotes or variances. I see beauty in the simplicity of their seemingly well-ordered society. And while some may scoff at their uniformity and lack of progression, there was a time when our society wasn’t that much different from theirs. It was based on a voluntary adherence to the laws and lovingly putting the community's needs above their own.
I grew up in a fundamentalist church where God’s laws were shaded with whiffs of extremism and were enforced by fear tactics and shame. The only time grace was spoken was before a meal or was sung in the famous hymn. Their oppressive methods had life-long, damaging effects, and perhaps even worse, chased them out of the church, leaving the next generation threadbare and unsupported.
Even as the Moral Majority of the 1980s was gaining political power and influencing civil law, my generation and those after continued to gravitate towards the path of least resistance. Then we decided we wanted to make life better for our children than the one we had for ourselves. Rules were not enforced and church attendance was secondary to sports and other school activities. Sadder still, perhaps in an attempt to fit in, we began to believe the lie that the Bible can only be taken as absolute truth in light of the historical context. Since Jesus came to fulfill the Mosaic law, that may be the case in certain areas, but too often we conveniently use that as a way out when something makes us uncomfortable.
I am a textbook example, to be sure. Maybe you are, too.
I would not have the intimate, life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ if not for two diametrically opposed ideas: God’s Law, and God’s lavish grace. God loved me enough to instill a relentless determination to find this beautifully imperfect body of Christ that practices grace as naturally as opening its church doors on Sunday morning. While the word legalism is often spat out like a swear word, being able to view some of those seemingly, heavy-handed laws through the filter of grace has helped me to be a more discerning and obedient Christian.
My exploding word count in this blog prevents me from digging into the finer points of God’s law and grace, and how we can peaceably live under both. So, someone just gave me permission to continue this in my next blog entry. I hope you’ll join me there. In the meantime, I leave you with this passage of scripture:
“For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” John 1:17 ESV
As you walk away from your computer or phone after reading this, ask yourself how you can practice truth and grace. If you’re mindful of it, it’s easier than you think. And it might bring someone back into the fold.
It doesn’t get much better than that.