Legalism vs. Love

My small group spent the last few months going over a series of books that we have, for the most part, found to be agonizing. But somewhere in the midst of the supposedly interesting stories that don’t aid the message, the corny jokes that should never have been told, and the plethora of statements I downright disagree with, my community found a way to thrive.

Oftentimes the books you agree with aren’t the ones that help you grow. So in the midst of all our frustrations, we created some really deep and meaningful conversations. (Also, we laughed a lot at this author’s expense.)

In this our final chapter (cue the Hallelujah Chorus), the author complains that many people seem to think that godly habits are legalistic—nothing more than rules, rules, rules. He goes on to ask why people training for marathons aren’t considered legalistic. Why aren’t people who do their homework legalistic? Why aren’t people who brush their teeth multiple times a day to prevent cavities legalistic?

Why, he asks, is it only legalistic when someone practices godly habits out of a desire to grow spiritually?

Um, Mr. Author Dude… You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Legalistic: strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit.

In Theology:
a. the doctrine that salvation is through good works
b. the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws

Rebekah’s Conclusion: People who practice godly habits out of a desire to grow spiritually are not legalistic; they are genuine.

Legalistic are the people who practice godly habits because it’s what they do. Because they feel like they have to. Legalistic are the people whose religion is rules. Legalistic are the people who haven’t encountered Jesus. Why else would they be living like the Pharisees He rebuked?

Disclaimer: I understood the point the author was actually trying to make. I understand the value of spiritual disciplines. More often than not I open my Bible out of habit rather than desire. I’m really good at doing things because I feel like I should.

I’m a writer, okay? I realize that inspiration isn’t something that will be faithful to me on the daily. Oftentimes it’s something I have to make room for. So like everyone else waiting to hear from God, I crack open the cover of that book and read, hoping that some verse, somewhere, will jump out at me—my little nugget of truth from heaven today.

Does that make me legalistic? I should hope not.

Because, for me, spiritual discipline is not a checklist of things I have to do to make me holier than thou; it’s a habit I cultivate out of a desire to know God better. Essentially, I do it for love.

So about a week ago, when a friend asked me if my family was religious, I cringed, hesitant to say yes even though I knew what he meant in asking. My eloquent response looked a little something like this: “Uh… Mmm… Yes?”

And he nodded enthusiastically because, after seven months of navigating this friendship and trying to figure me out, it’s all coming together for him.

He probably thinks I’m legalistic; I’m trying to convince him otherwise without going too far off the deep end.

It’s difficult sometimes to find that balance of following the law to the spirit rather than the letter. Hard to navigate living in a world that counteracts Christian culture while trying to be a likeable witness.

Everyone who knows me thinks I’m a good girl who follows all of the rules. They don’t realize there are only two rules I live by.

Love God.
Love People.

As long as I’m getting those two things right, everything else sort of flows out of that.

It’s not legalism; it’s love.


In It Not of It

Confession: I have lived the majority of my life on a pedestal. It was the pedestal of all pedestals as, even in Christian circles, I had the reputation of being the Good Girl. The girl every God-fearing mother (and probably some perfectly heathen mothers too, for that matter) wanted their daughter to be.

I didn’t set out to be that girl, and I was always uncomfortable when anyone compared their children to me, but I was that girl, regardless.

What can I say? It is not in my nature to be rebellious. I guess I hate disappointing people too much. Goody-Two-Shoes is a title that comes all too easily to me. I’m sorry, okay?

But I don’t like the pedestal; it’s lonely up there.

So I decided to come down. And in the clumsy, fumbling, painful exercise of dethroning myself, I learned something that completely shattered my worldview.

If you grew up in church culture, you have probably heard ten thousand times that Christians are called to be in this world, but not of it. Right now, you’re probably thinking of that one family you know who have taken that statement and resolved to live it to the extreme.

What I’m realizing as I ponder the current state of my life is that we put too much focus on the latter part of that directive. After all, we’re already in the world, so how do we make ourselves “not of it”?

But are we in the world? Are we really, truly in the world as Jesus intended us to be?

I may be a citizen of earth—I may be a natural born resident of the U.S. of A.—but what I realized just this week is that I have never mastered the art of being in this world; I have only managed to perfect the religion of Be Not of It.

In her book, Interrupted, Jen Hatmaker reflects on her youth with this statement:

“I spent most of my time trying to ‘be separate’ (2 Corinthians 6:17), but what with all my arrogance and judgement, I’m not sure that was a tall order. I feared culture and the people in it, certain that my proximity to them would pave the road to perdition.”

I, too, used to be that girl. Thanks to the grace of God and the wilderness I have wandered this past year, I am her no longer.

Sometimes it scares me how easily I let that girl go. Sometimes I’m aware a part of her still lingers, nagging in the back of my mind that I have blurred the line between conviction and compromise.

I wish I could tell her for certain she is wrong. That all her fears are for naught. That in my descent into the heart of this world I have managed to remain entirely “not of it.”

But I can’t make that guarantee, because the line is harder to draw than one might think. And maybe I’m stupid to take a stroll into the darkness. Maybe this tumble from my pedestal is going to be the death of me.

Or maybe, just maybe, I’m finally learning how to be in the world the way Jesus was.

Jesus and I Walk Into a Bar…

It wasn’t what I had in mind when I told God I needed to get out more, but the invitation was so timely (and more importantly, so persistent) that I couldn’t imagine it to be anything but God saying, “Okay, here’s your chance.”

“Call me when you get off work,” he said. And because I’ve grown to love this man via stolen snippets of conversations in bathroom doorways, I found myself standing at a gas station at eleven o’clock at night, punching his number into my phone along with the words, “Do you still want my boring company?”

Next thing I know, he and his buddy are pulling into the parking lot, telling me to climb into the car. (This is what my mother has since referred to as “not very smart,” but I had weighed my options and decided—however illogically—that there was simply no other choice, so into the car I went.)

Somehow, I’m the one who is expected to make plans, only I’m terribly bad at making plans in general. I am especially bad at making plans when it comes to having to think of something to do in town in the middle of the night, since I’m normally at home reading books at that time.

This is when they find out I don’t drink. There is somewhat of an uproar from the backseat as my friend is trying to wrap his alcohol-hazed mind around the fact that I have never in my twenty-four years of life had an alcoholic beverage. Never as in… never.

“Here’s what I want to know,” he said. “If you don’t drink, why in the world did you think it was a good idea to hang out with us?”

I couldn’t very well tell him about the conversation that had taken place between me and Jesus that afternoon (the one about how I never actually do anything and how I really should be more intentional about spending time with other human beings), so instead I reminded him that technically he invited me, almost to the point of begging. This was his idea and I was just along for the ride.

So they decided to initiate me into their world. And that is how I ended up in bar with two guys I barely know in the middle of the night. (Again with the motherly admonitions of “really bad idea.” I know, I know, but God dumped these guys into my life and I was just trying to figure out what to do with them.)

We’re nodding our heads to the beat of “Another One Bites the Dust,” when my friend surmises that I probably want to leave. At this point—dare I say it?—I am immensely enjoying myself and I will leave whenever they are ready, but they don’t need to fuss over me. However, they did fuss over me, probably because I was somewhat of a contradiction and quite obviously out of place in this bar.

“So, you don’t want another drink…” (Yes, I did let him buy me my first drink, mostly because his brain was impossibly close to exploding over the fact that I had never—wait, really, never?—drank alcohol.) “…but you don’t want to leave?”

That pretty much summed it up. So we went out for air (and by air I mean, my friend pulled out a cigarette while I tried my best not to breathe too deeply of the secondhand smoke).

“I don’t get it,” he said. “Why are you here?”

“Because you begged me,” I playfully reminded him for the thirteenth time.

He shakes his head, unamused. “I just feel like this is a bad kind of different for you. Isn’t it?”

He is looking at me like he is daring me to disagree. Like he is half-expecting me to pull out my soapbox right there on the street corner and start preaching hellfire and damnation. And I think about how it would be a great place for a soapbox. I can imagine a white-haired, scowling-faced man with a sign standing right under that street light, declaring that the entire establishment and everyone in it was going to hell, probably myself included.

Me, I don’t have a soapbox. I just have a heart full of love for the man that makes me laugh with his endless supply of jokes about wheatberry bread.

So the question. Is this a bad kind of different? Who gets to determine which kind of different is good and bad? While it’s not a lifestyle I would choose for myself—not one that would appeal to me on the daily—it is his lifestyle, and that is inherently what he is asking me about. What do I think of his lifestyle? What do I think of him?

A bad kind of different, isn’t it?

I leaned against the other side of the pole where he stood and did what Jesus would do in my situation. I answered with a question.

“I came, didn’t I?”

It’s the kind of question that can pass as an answer because he knows I am aware of his lifestyle. I knew exactly what I was getting into, and I chose to come anyway.

His eyes clouded in confusion. “Yeah. Yeah, you did.”

I’ve spent the last three weeks mulling this experience over in my mind, trying to figure out how to tell this story in such a way that I can tie it up with a pretty little bow. But the truth of the matter is that life is messy, and sometimes the threads of our stories don’t weave together as perfectly as we might hope. Just like it’s true that sometimes we find God in bars more profoundly than we do in church services.

My life has been loud lately. Loud, and messy, and confusing. And when I sat down this morning to try to sort through some of the messes, I found myself disgusted with some of the things I uncovered. I sat over my Bible, picking out promises of hope in the midst of it all, and couldn’t help shaking my head. Because I don’t get it.

“Why are You here?” I found myself asking. “Why do You bother picking me up when You know I’m going right back down, probably tomorrow?”

And I heard God’s answer, soft and smiling. “I came, didn’t I?”

Yeah. Yeah, You did.

And I’m glad He comes. And I’m glad He stays. And I’m glad He is not the kind of god who stands on soapboxes and tells me how wrong I am. I’m glad He braves the messes where I would choose to walk away. And I may be right back in the thick of it by tomorrow, but I know I won’t be alone.

And that means something. No, that means everything.