Last week I left you with a question: How do you cultivate a love for God in daily life? This week I want to look at two of the greatest enemies of loving God—legalism and condemnation.
Living with Handcuffs
My generation tends to overuse (and often misuse) the word “legalism.” We might look at someone who grew up praying the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday in church and say, “That’s kind of legalistic.” Or we may get turned off by “quiet time” with Jesus when it involves always doing the same pattern over and over again.
The truth is—legalism is a real struggle for a lot of Christians in ways so subtle we don’t even notice.
Here’s the definition pastor and writer C.J. Mahaney gives legalism in his book, “The Cross Centered Life”:
Legalism is seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through obedience to God.
I fall into the trap of legalism when I try to perform to receive approval from God. It’s a facade, and it’s exhausting. I can’t live up to God’s standard—no one can. Trying to justify myself is like trying to wrangle my way out of handcuffs.
When I live like that, I show myself and others that there’s nothing “free” about me.
The Constant Fear of Handcuffs
If legalism says, “I can work hard to earn God’s favor,” then the other side of the coin is condemnation.
The lie of condemnation is that God saved me from my handcuffs, but I had better watch out! If I do something wrong, God’s going to slap those shackles back on my wrists before I can say, “Jiminy Cricket.”
[callout]Do you struggle with condemnation? I do. Here are several questions Mahaney poses.
- Do you relate to God as if you were on a kind of permanent probation, suspecting that any moment He may haul you back into the jail cell of His disfavor?
- When you come to worship do you maintain a “respectful distance” from God, as if He were a fascinating but ill-tempered celebrity known for lashing out at His fans?
- When you read Scripture does it reveal the boundless love of the Savior or merely intensify your condemnation?[/callout]
Each of these questions bring back a time (or many times) when I’ve felt distant from God. Asking for His forgiveness can feel like begging for Him to take off the shackles again, to give me one more chance.
No one wants a God like that. I don’t—do you? No one wants a “Helicopter God” who constantly hovers over our shoulder, waiting for us to mess up so He can smite us. “See?” He would say, “I gave you another chance, and you blew it again.”
Truly, I don’t think God says that about me; I think I say that about myself. But if I’m judging myself more harshly than God, there’s a problem.
A Life with No Handcuffs
Recently, I was leading a discussion group with a bunch of high schoolers, trying to explain the difference between the Law in the Old Testament and “the law that gives liberty” from James 2. As I spoke, I remembered the beginning of Les Misérables.
In it, the ex-convict Jean Valjean seeks shelter with a bishop. The next day, he is caught by police for stealing the bishop’s silver. Shockingly, the bishop tells the police he gave the silver to Jean Valjean, and he tells Valjean that he should have taken the candlesticks, too! In parting, the bishop leans in to Valjean and speaks these words:
Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.
If you’re familiar with the story, that moment remains with Valjean for the rest of his life.
In a very real way, I believe Jesus speaks those words to us when we believe Him for salvation. He neither waits for us to justify our way out of handcuffs nor stands over us to slap them on. Instead, He removes our handcuffs and says, “You no longer belong to evil, but to good.” He isn’t giving us something to aim for; He’s telling us what already is.
Legalism is pointless because I can’t win. Condemnation is pointless because Christ already won. We hope for a clean slate, but Jesus breaks our slate and gives us His, forever sealed in His perfect blood.
The two great enemies of loving God—legalism and condemnation—last only until we realize the true scope of the cross. “He became sin who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God.”