Legalism seems to be the smallest of sins, but it is really one of the biggest. The bigness of this sin shows up in a lot of ways. The first place that legalism wreaks havoc is in our own souls. I remember this distinctly. It started out well.
I wanted to be a good kid. It started out as a simple desire to follow God’s Word. I would take battle to the Enemy like Pilgrim in Bunyan’s dream. But little did I know that the Enemy was more subversive in his tactics than I had imagined. The Devil doesn’t like all out war with clean battle lines and trenches. No, he prefers the guerilla tactics of hit-and-run jujitsu combat. He takes even our best aspirations and uses them to fight us.
I wanted to keep the rules. Not just the Bible now. My focus began to shift beyond Scripture to all the rules of the family, church, community, etc. I had to fulfill everything.
I wanted God to like me. Perhaps this thought came about because I didn’t think there was much of me to like. I sucked at sports. I studied hard, but I’ve never been brilliant. I’ve always struggled with aspects of dyslexia, inverting letters or thinking ahead of myself as I speak. I was socially awkward. But I thought if I could learn more about God and pray and read my Bible, maybe at least God would like me. Even if no one else did.
I wanted to be the best. Now my legalism turned outward. It was not just good enough to be good, I had to be gooder! I couldn’t just read books, I had to read more books than anyone else I knew. I had to be the best I could be spiritually. Sure, sometimes I couldn’t find chapter and verse for the things I did, but I was always sure to tell people that I was taking the wisest or safest route on the issue at hand. And to me, taking the less-wise and less-safe route was not the best. Only the best would work for me.
I wanted to escape the cycle. Now my legalism became heavy. As I grew up and began to struggle with real sins and lusts and such, my legalism wasn’t enough to curb sin anymore. Now the enemy was attacking from every angle. My foundation for the past years had been my legalism and what a shoddy defense it was now! The best I could do was to console myself between attacks of the glories of my own righteousness. I would make fresh commitments to God. I would read more books. I read my Bible lots and lots. But then the new round of temptations would come and I would be devastated. I was angry with myself. I wished God would just kill me. I thought of suicide. Despair and darkness would set in. I would cry out for help and God would love me and help me. And then I’d go back to my fortress of legalism.
Legalism hurts. It cuts to the deepest part of the soul. The promise of legalism is a life above the fray. A life of purity and free from sin. It is the life that is safely positioned far from the cliff of temptation. It is the tiptoeing conscience, sneaking away from the big dangers of the spiritual walk. But the promise of legalism is empty. Believe me. Legalism is a cliff unto its own self. Legalism tiptoes around the sleeping giants of temptation and into the middle of a massive minefield. The purity and higher life are merely a façade – a mask you have to wear to make people think you’re really something you aren’t. But that’s just what legalism does to you. What about what it does to others?