One day I was walking to class wondering why I was such an arrogant legalist – an annoying little jerk who liked to follow the strictest set of rules and liked to point fingers at everyone who broke them. Never mind the fact that I had sins of my own locked up deep inside…no, I kept the list as far as everyone else knew. But that was the life that I could remember for, well, as long as I could remember.
As I tripped on the bottom stair and continued up the sidewalk ahead hoping no one would notice (peoples’ opinions mattered, after all), I started wondering if there were others who had been hemmed in with similar struggles their whole lives. Well, of course there were! I could name a dozen or two more legalistic than myself…oh wait. That was a rather legalistic thought, wasn’t it? That’s how sneaky legalism is. When you think you’re beating it, you think you can tell by comparing your legalism to other peoples’ legalism.
Pushing this thought aside, I started thinking a little more down another mental path: are there people who don’t struggle with legalism? Are there people who don’t have the spiritual superiority complex? You know, people who just enjoy their relationship with God and love other people like crazy? I thought of a couple people that I really looked up to and wished I could be like them. How epic it would be just to have a spirituality like theirs! Frustrated, I kicked the bottom of the door frame as I pushed it open and moved from the atrium into the classroom hall.
But even these people surely plagued by some of my same problems. Why is it that people like law and not grace? Why do people, like me, like rules and religion rather than the righteousness of Christ? Why does my heart pile up standards like garbage at a landfill, trying to make a makeshift Babel and climb to God? It is almost like I start running to works unless God, by His grace, points me back to the cross. Yes, I know the Gospel is far lighter than my set of rules and self-elevating standards, but I keep running back to them. Why? Why? WHY??? Doesn’t Galatians (4:21) speak about people who desire to place themselves under the law? Maybe that was the key. I remembered something a pastor once quoted from Martin Luther: “Religion is the default mode of the human heart”…or something like that. So maybe this is something endemic of the whole of humanity. Maybe we’re all in on this.