I've had a few conversations over the last few months with "legalistic" Christians. This is often a frustrating endeavor for me. I honestly don't know how to reach them. I see these people as fundamentally unhappy and deep-down I see in them an anger towards God rather than a trust in His love for them and His desire to bring good into their lives.
I came across a blog I had written awhile back in which I made the point that life is about relationship, not religion. The second half of that blog discusses legalism. I'm copying that portion into this posting just to revisit the issue:
If we are in a relationship with God and commune with Him via the Holy Spirit (our spirit relating/connecting to His Spirit) we will be lead into right behavior. Jesus Christ set me free from the worry of sin, from the condemnation, from the fear. Now I walk with Him. I try things, I make mistakes (which includes sin), I fall, the Holy Spirit speaks to me, I learn, and I grow. It is by living that we become the men and women God wants us to be. Its partly by failing that I grow in my sensitivity to the leadership of the Holy Spirit.
So does God want us to sin? Absolutely not. The wages of sin is death. It hurts us dreadfully to sin. But God wants us to be able to let it go and move on. He wants to lead us out of sin as we commune with Him in a love relationship - not because we are fearful of hell or the criticism of fellow Christians. God wants to teach us to avoid sin because it is an assault on the relationship He has with us and because it is an assault on life itself. God has good plans for us and sin prevents Him from leading us into that blessing. Sin is the choice to do something our way, contrary to the leadership of God. God is the author of life and knows what it takes to provide for life. Sin produces death because it is contrary to God and to His wisdom. Follow God and live - that message is everywhere in the bible.
We often sin because we hurt. All people need love, acceptance, and leadership. God promises to meet all of those needs through the Sprit - He is our comfort (love), provides fellowship (acceptance), and offers counsel (leadership). When we connect with God, we can receive all of these things and be made whole. Our hearts can be filled, so to speak. When we are disconnected from God, our hearts become empty. It's at this time that we often turn to sin as a remedy for the pain of an empty heart. Only the love of God can fill an empty heart. Sin is man's attempt to fill his own heart; to find a little relief; to escape the pain of life. As we grow in our relationship with God, we learn how to recognize when we are disconnected from God by the desire for sin that sometimes rises within. We can sense our own "heart level" and use that nudge to step back into fellowship with God.
So why did Israel have the law? The bible says in Gal 3:19 that it was "added because of transgressions till the Seed should come." And in verse 24 that it "was our tutor to bring us to Christ." Like a child needs rules and laws provided by the parents for protection - Israel needed those laws because they had very little love for God and weren't interested in pursuing a relationship with Him. God made a promise to Abraham (Gen 22:18) that He intended to keep. Specifically, God promised that from Abraham's descendents a savior would come that would bless the entire world. Israel was the promised vessel through which Jesus Christ would come. If Israel didn't follow God, like so many other ancient nations, they would cease to exist. God gave them the law to protect them and hence His ability to keep His promise to Abraham. He didn't give the law to other nations and He doesn't give the law to us. The law was not God's wish - it was added because of Israel's sin. God has no love for the law. The law had a purpose; that purpose has been fulfilled - Christ has come.
Focusing on the sin is legalism - and legalism kills. Here are 6 serious problems with legalism.
1) A legalistic person has a relationship with rules rather than a relationship with God.
2) Legalism produces a sense of self-righteousness in the person who follows the rules. Fake holiness. A self-righteousness that keeps them from seeing their need for God. Remember the pharisees? They had no love for God because they were convinced of their righteousness.
3) Legalism produces self-condemnation in those who recognize their own inability to obey consistently. "I'll never be able to do this!" People give up and leave Christianity in their hopelessness.
4) Since the heart is still empty, a legalist is tempted to think that there might be relief in that which is forbidden. People begin to think, "I'm so unhappy, but those people sure seem to be having a good time. Maybe I'll try what they're doing." For that person, the remedy for the emptiness must be sin. The legalist is drawn to sin by his own desperation for peace within his heart.
5) Legalism makes Christianity look unappealing to the lost; like a bunch of boring people trying to be good. Who wants that?
6) Legalism prevents people from learning to listen to the Holy Spirit and recognize when they are disconnected from God and how to reconnect. It puts them in a state of spiritual blindness.
Our job on earth is to reach the lost. Legalism prevents us from doing so and focuses us on the sin of others rather than on ways to love them. Commenting or pointing out the sin of others never led them to Christ. Its love that draws people, not condemnation, not the fear of hell. Have a relationship with someone, find out what moves them, get interested in that. If you want to save them - love them. The Holy Spirit is already convicting them of their sin and you'll have opportunities to teach them as they grow in their relationship with God and learn to listen to the Holy Spirit. We are called to exhort, edify, and comfort (1 Cor 14:3) - not criticize.
Legalism steals the life that God intended for us to have. He wants us to live wonderful lives. Full of joy and blessing. He wants us to fully enjoy the kingdom of God. A great deal of Christians today are nothing more than modern day pharisees.
So, again I quote Jesus from the book of Luke:
So he answered and said, “ ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’” (10:27)