Friday, August 3, 2007

The Ligatures of Legalism

I took a class in college called "Discipleship." It might just as well have been titled "Legalism" since, at least for me, it was an exercise in rigidity. In this class we were required to keep a Spiritual Journal and turn it in for a grade. We had to memorize a certain number of scripture verses, and, as I recall, most of the lecture notes involved steps to achieve some spiritual goal: "Ten Steps to a Better Prayer Life," "Fifteen Ways to Convert the Lost," etc.

What I learned from this class (and from much of the church-based education I have received through the years) is that discipleship is about "achieving" something, and if you fail to reach goals, you are a poor Christian (if, indeed, a Christian at all).

For me the Spiritual Journal (along with the requisite "Quiet Time") became a source of extreme frustration. The journal we were required to use listed the five steps in prayer, and you were expected to pray them in a certain order. You were supposed to begin with praise, then thanksgiving, then confession, then intercession, and finally, if you had been very, very good, you could ask some things for yourself. Prayer was all about the business of telling God how divinely good God is and selflessly telling God how to take care of others. And when it was all done, the implication was that you would "feel" refreshed and fulfilled. But I always felt defeated because I was so busy talking to God I never thought to listen.

The Spiritual Journal also specified a certain way to read the Bible. In fact, from every reading you were expected to hear God speaking a personal word to you. If you didn't glean some super amazing insight, it must be because there was some unconfessed sin in your life. Personally, I find it really hard to find warm fuzzies in the scriptures, especially when reading about lobes of livers in Leviticus (as much as I love Leviticus, I think there is something wrong with trying to force some personal spiritual revelation out of every passage of scripture). But try I did, and I'm certain that I did damage not only to the interpretation of scripture in my efforts but also demeaned my own soul in the process. Deep down, I knew that I was being false to the intent of scripture and I was denying my own intellect.

There's something to be said in favor of legalism: it puts you in control. Spirituality becomes a list of "dos" and "don'ts" by which you measure your own progress. Relationship with God is irrelevant, really, because with legalism you never really have to worry about the unexpected. Trembling in the presence of a holy God who is unpredictable and unwilling to be manipulated isn't necessary with legalism because you never sit still long enough to let God be God. Legalism is about controlling God, manipulating God by your good actions and expecting God to bless you for your efforts.

It's amazing to me that in spite of all of Jesus' teachings against legalism that Christians have spent so much of their history promoting it.

For years I have avoided prayer, fearing the silence, fearing the feelings of failure because I couldn't hear God speak. I felt like Saul who approached God all the "right" ways but never received an answer because God had rejected him (1 Samuel 28). I was certain that the sound of divine silence was the mark of God's rejection of me.

Legalism taught me that relationship with God was about getting somewhere, pursuing goals, and reaching benchmarks. And legalism suffocated me spiritually—its ligatures encircled me, choking the breath of God from my midst.

Recently I've been learning something new and amazing: time with God does not have to be goal-oriented. Prayer can simply be a time of existing, being with God. I don't have to go into it expecting God to do my bidding; I don't have to come away from it with any wonderful insights. I am discovering that in silence one can listen. And even if I hear nothing, I can rejoice simply in being in God's presence.

I am learning to breathe again.


D. P. said...

Nicely said. It's amazing, for how much some Christians talk about Christianity as a "relationship," they try to over-schedule and over-manipulate things in ways that are nothing at all like a healthy relationship.

Singing Owl said...

Sad, and wonderful post!

Bezner said...

I think you've hit on a big issue in the contemporary American church...fear of discipleship as fear of failure. I can't help but wonder if we've often turned the Baptist Jesus into a "don't smoke, drink, cuss, or chew" sort of Jesus and totally ignored the liberating freedom Paul celebrates in the New Testament.

I also think we misread the Bible when we go to it looking for "principles" instead of reading the narrative. Reminds me of Eugene Peterson's great book, "Eat This Book"...