Legalism Part 2: The Broad Appeal of Legalism

Toyota Prius

(To see Part 1, click here)

But why is legalism appealing?  We absolutely detest it in other people and especially when the finger is pointed at ourselves.  I think it is the one sin that the most righteous to the most wicked person in society would condemn in others but would be least likely to see that they commit it themselves.  But if we hate it in others, how can we live with ourselves?  Why then does legalism turn people on?  I thought that there may be a couple reasons.  Perhaps it has something to do with enjoying absolutes…black and white.  There certainly is something reassuring in knowing that there are no questions and only answers.  But the Bible doesn’t always work that way.  It seems to give us the answers to the key issues of life and leaves other things for us as individuals to work out (Rom 14).  God actually gives us the space to apply the Gospel in our contexts.  But the legalist hates this kind of thought.  It seems downright postmodern to believe that something could be right for one person and wrong for another; however, that’s exactly what the Bible indicates (Rom 14:22-23).  But there seems to be another reason why legalism is so appealing.   I think this is tied with the other appeal of knowing all the answers.  It is that sense of awesome spiritual superiority that you get when you have all the answers.  Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.  You’ve seen it in yourself and others.

It’s the parent whose kids all turned out right.

It’s the guy in prison who stole, but at least he didn’t commit child abuse like that other inmate.

It’s the hipster in the Prius.

It’s the preacher with the right Bible version.

It’s the cop who is always catching everyone else doing wrong.

It’s the vegan to that poser’s vegetarian.

It’s the guy who owns his own home.

It’s the kid who is the teacher’s pet because she always keeps the rules while the teacher is looking.

It’s the guy who wishes he could say “I told you so” a million times when people don’t follow his procedures.

It’s the overweight guy who smirks at the alcoholic.

It’s the protester on the street that says that another person or company did something wrong.

It’s the intellectual who always has the deepest insights on all things political and religious.

It’s the lady with a college diploma to that guy’s GED.

It’s the voter who is so thankful for the good sense not to vote like the person with that bumper sticker.

It’s the guy who lusts after women and not men.

It’s the person who looks at the bum on the street and assumes things about their poor choices.

It’s the family who always know what holidays to celebrate and how.

It’s the person who wears the nice clothes.

It’s the guy who is in touch and connected in his culture (whether high culture or pop culture).

It’s the angry motorist on the highway who wishes everyone could drive as well as he does.

Now I don’t suppose that all of these people have to become legalistic and superior about the way they do things.  But based on my experience, when you find yourself in one of these spots it’s really easy to start smiling and thinking to yourself about how much better you are.  Been there.  Done that.

As I continued to think about the appeal of legalism, I shuffled by one of the teachers offices and somehow the archaic image of the teacher’s apple popped into my head – an image which took a couple of odd twists and turns as it usually does in my bizarre little mind.  Somehow I ended up thinking of an apple or probably some other really cool fruit dangling from a mist-covered tree in a garden some years ago.  Perhaps the roots of legalism’s grip on me go even deeper.  Maybe they go back to my parents…my first parents.

One thought on “Legalism Part 2: The Broad Appeal of Legalism”

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head, and even though I didn’t explicitly see the word “pride” in the post, I see the definite connection between a legalistic attitude and “the pride of life” here. Thank you for convicting me about areas where I am proud and where God can continue to humble me as well 🙂

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