Archive for the ‘Legalism’ Tag

My Angry Legalism   2 comments

I am not a gracious person by nature.  Among other flaws, I have a strong undertow of anger that side-eyes anyone who steps outside the bounds.  Just yesterday I accelerated from a stop light and then slowed into the left turn lane when a car darted out from a gas station to my left, forcing me to swerve.  He was trying to beat the traffic coming the opposite way, no doubt expecting me to keep accelerating so that he could swing in behind me.  He stopped, straddling lanes in both directions, and as I passed, I raised my hand at him and mouthed “WHAT?!”

As much as I treasure grace, it is not my default.  My go-to is still legalism and anger and judgment.  They are reflexive both in me and at others, and I have to talk myself out of it, like explaining for the hundredth time to a child why he shouldn’t chase the ball into the street.  It takes hundreds of explanations not because he misunderstands or disagrees, but because in that moment he’s fixated on the ball.  Unfortunately, some undercurrents in us are more complex or more rooted or more hidden.  Anger and blame were a moral right in our family when I was growing up so I don’t even have that self-conscious check in my spirit–it doesn’t feel wrong.  It wasn’t baked into my conscience as guilt inducing… or rather it was baked into my conscience as legitimate and righteous, unless it is excessive.

But if I conclude that my problem is simply an excess–that irritation is okay, but not spitting–then legalism wins.  I reduce everything to behavior and never bother to ask the vital question, “Why do I feel so angry?”  My anger or my expression of it is not the real problem, but the symptom, like a check engine light.

In this case, the diagnosis is complex.  I have bought into a legalistic system in which we all live within certain parameters, and we keep one another in line by penalizing line-breakers: shirkers, cheaters, moochers, and bad drivers.  I work hard to stay within the lines, knowing the whole system will collapse if we don’t all conform, so I am heavily invested in everyone following the rules.

I’m not curious about why they cross the line.  Perhaps they lay down the lines differently or they are dodging the opposite line or they don’t prioritize this line.  Maybe they are struggling too much to care about lines.  All of that looks like so many bad excuses to me–get back in line and then we’ll talk about your issues.  This overriding sense of legalistic suppression comes out against myself also in self-condemnation for crossing lines, especially if it hurts or inconveniences others.

I absorbed my dad’s view that it was personally insulting for someone to cross the line in a way that blocked our goals or intentions.  It showed that they disrespected us, not caring how their behavior impacted us, which poked at our insecurity in our behavior-based worth.  Since we were unaware of our anger except under occasional provocations, we blamed the other for “making us angry” as though anger came from outside and not from within as self-defense against a perceived slight.  Seen empathetically, my anger is a cry of fear that my very worth is being threatened by every assumed mistreatment–I must judge you to deflect my own sense of inadequacy.

Sadly, it is this very judging that maintains the legalistic system that keeps me running from my shame and away from grace.  Not only when I am mean, but every time I do something stupid or careless or off-kilter, I shame myself into better efforts because I am sure that doing it right is the measure of my worth.  And with that system, I judge the worth of others by what they do.  We are all trapped, and keep each other trapped, like crabs in a bucket that keep pulling down the ones trying to escape.  Grace is all of a piece–we all get it or none of us do.  When we start measuring out who is “worthy” of grace, we have slipped back into legalism again.  So giving grace to other drivers (or neighbors or colleagues), real grace, not forced and grudging but free and affirming,  is my best path to accepting grace for myself as well.  Let grace reign.

Posted June 24, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Driving Myself Crazy   2 comments

I drove to work after my last blog with my soul percolating in anticipatory tension.  Patience on the road is not my strong suit anyway.  I was gunning, braking, and swerving my way down the freeway, muttering about all the stupid and pigheaded folks who drove in the left lane as if they were the lead car in a funeral procession, when I realized my adrenaline rush was going to turn the workplace into a war zone.  I pulled into the right lane to settle down and set my heart in a better direction to cope with the fire-sale crowds at the paint counter.

Fearing the impatience of my customers made me defensively more impatient with my fellow drivers.  When I accept impatience towards me as legitimate, internalize that criticism as justified and blame myself as inadequate, I become a shareholder in a legalistic system, and with that system, I justify my own impatience towards others.  Slowness, incompetence, and bungling are never in themselves cause for incrimination.  We tend to see these as willful negligence, an intentional disregard, because we are frustrated and looking for someone to blame.  But the court of our mind cries out for consistency so that we must also blame ourselves when our missteps impede others’ plans.

In this way results, not intentions, become the basis for judgment, and we buy into a distinctly American morality that sees success as the inevitable reward of diligence and hard work.  Mistakes, especially repeated mistakes, are the sign of moral decay or personal defect.  We offer “grace” for a certain level of deficiency and stuff down our impatience, but cross that line and we pull out our corrective ruler to slap your hand for not living up to our expectations.  Yet grace that fits within a quota is not real grace, which is endless, and its goal is not meeting expectations, but giving us the fullest life possible.

Unfortunately,  like all forms of legalism, impatience used by us or against us is all of one piece, mutually reinforcing.  My impatience towards others forces me to accept their impatience towards me and vice versa.  If I do not live in a world of self-deception in which I am the definer of what expectations are legitimate (namely the ones I meet), then I live in world in which I am always trying to validate my worth.  I am driven to perfectionism in which I am my own worst accuser, and my only defense is to pull others to my level by pointing out their failures.

Our society is constantly reinforcing this legalistic worldview.  Each time I make a mistake in mixing paint, I feel like I need to somehow justify myself or prove to my supervisor that I have constructed a system to avoid that mistake in the future.  But I am human.  I get distracted or confused.  In the hubbub I forget to take necessary precautions.  I will keep making mistakes, and I need to find a way to support myself in my own mind, to be patient with myself.  Remarkably, I find that leaning into grace for myself helps me lean into grace for others as well.  And when I use my impatience of others to confront my own legalistic worldview and push myself back towards a grace perspective, it rebounds to an easier grasp of grace towards myself.

I think I need to spend more time in the slow lane.

Posted May 24, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Apologies That Fail   Leave a comment

He phoned in hot about getting the wrong color paint, kept interrupting, and demanded that I make him more paint–the right paint–NOW so he could pick it up the same night or the morning after.  It was the kind of treatment that sears the soul, and it ruined the rest of my night.  He came in the next morning and apologized.  The gray-scale photocopy he used to select his paint was inaccurate.  He felt bad for getting angry and blaming me when it was his own mistake.

I have been in that situation many times–angry and blaming someone else for my own faults.  Sometimes I discovered my error too late to apologize, and I think back on those occasions with deep shame and sorrow for the wounding I caused.  But humble apologies can’t fix everything–the wounding for which I apologize can keep festering, hurt the relationship, and spread out to harm others.  I feel just as wary of my apologetic customer today as yesterday, and that wariness spreads over onto other customers who might also lose their temper.  I now feel an unhealthy degree of anxiety about making mistakes, and that makes me more likely to judge the mistakes of my colleagues.  It is a subtle change, often subconscious, but it taints the air.

On their face, apologies seem to be expressions of grace, but they can just as easily come from legalism and will then often spawn further ungracious ripples.  My customer was primarily chagrined about his wrong evaluation, not his anger.  If I really had mixed the wrong paint, he would have felt justified in being angry–I wasted his time and money with my carelessness.  In other words, he was following a strict legal code–fault deserves anger, the greater the fault the greater the righteous anger.  He saw his failure as misapplying the legal code, in this case his anger was unjustified.  In contrast, grace says we all fail so let’s be patient with each other’s mistakes.  Just say no to anger, even when the other person really is at fault.

So many times I have been chagrined in this same legalistic way.  Instead of learning to be more gracious and less angry with other’s mistakes, I take home the lesson that I need to be more accurate in assigning blame.  In other words, faced with a challenge to my legalistic ways, I become more entrenched in them.

A few days ago I was passing a long line of cars backed up in the exit lane.  Just ahead two cars in my lane had slowed to a crawl, trying to merge into the stopped lane.  The traffic to my left was going too fast for me to shift over.  It seemed clear to me that the two blocking my lane had decided they didn’t want to wait in the long exit lane and had sped ahead to cut in line farther up.  Because of the unexpected jam, I was running late for work, and getting irritated at the lane cheaters, I lay on my horn.

There are two possibilities: they were innocent or guilty.  If they were being selfish, my anger was justified, but if innocent, then I was at fault.  Simple math: the guilty are punished and the innocent are not… until we add in forgiveness which ruins the equation. We all need forgiveness, repeatedly.  It is the oil that smooths our many faults in relating to each other.  Grace is not only sweeter than law, but far more powerful to transform us, both those who give it and those who receive it, because it works to change the heart, not the behavior.  Since grace defines our motivations, not our actions, it can reveal itself in tough as well as gentle ways, but it is always an act of blessing… and anger is usually not.

 

Posted March 27, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

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Screwing Up   10 comments

Two weeks ago, having failed to find another job, I moved from a part time position in appliance sales at Home Depot to full time in the paint department.  I was stacking paint last night on a high shelf and dropped a gallon can of shellac-based primer.  It crashed to the floor, covering my shoes, my pants, a six-foot stretch of aisle, and splattering all the products on the bottom shelf.  Herbert, an assistant manager, came to help me clean things up, and as we soaked up the puddles, the rest of it dried hard.  It was well past closing time by then, so we had to stop, leaving a note for the morning crew.

I hate to make a mess that I can’t fix myself, especially if someone else is then forced to deal with my mistakes.  It’s especially hard when others are resentful or critical–their feeling is understandable, even justifiable, and I have no means of rectifying it.  Today I have a low-level hum of dis-ease as thoughts about it keep circulating up to my consciousness and then subsiding again.  It is my day off, so I can’t even apologize in person (although I did in the note).

What strikes me as especially sad is my tendency to feel bad even when the other person seems gracious, as everyone at my job has been.  I find it so hard to trust grace.  I’m sure they’re just being nice outwardly but have ticked a black check by my name.  They think, “He owes me,” or “He can’t be trusted,” or some such ungracious reaction… probably make wry comments in the break room.  I feel so much safer with others when I can skirt my need for grace and just prove myself by hard work.

But “safer” here is a feeling based on good performance reviews, which is a legalistic trap.  It means that I continue to value myself (and others) by our effectiveness and only turn to grace as a last resort, a “grace of the gaps.”  But when legalism is the daily currency, it shapes our whole mindset and relationships.  If grace is only the fall-back, we are still operating out of a legalistic mindset in which only the failing require grace.  I don’t realize how easily I slip into this mindset until I am the one screwing up and in need of grace.  My failures become an invitation into a worldview of grace.

So often I respond to others’ failures with this stop-gap grace.  I reflexively judge their failing because gracious thoughts do not come naturally to me.  So when I realize my unkind thoughts, I try to force myself to think differently, push away the critical thoughts and talk myself into being accepting of their faults.  “They don’t know any better,” I say, or “They aren’t good at planning ahead.”  The underlying assumption is that “good” people like me don’t need grace, at least not much, but these unfortunates need grace.  I only pull out the grace card when it is needed, but am quite content to otherwise live with a legalistic mindset.

But true grace knows no hierarchy or proportion, giving itself fully to everyone.  Certainly exercising grace is more difficult in some situations and with some people than others.  It is much easier to give grace to an apologetic person than an angry one, but both are in equal need of grace as is the person who did not mess up at all (though grace may present itself differently in each case).  In fact, it is the the one who rarely screws up that is probably in “more” need of grace than the others, for she is much more likely to be blind to grace and her need of it.  Either grace is the lifeboat we only use when someone falls out of the ship of a performance-based worldview, a way to accommodate misfits and failures, or grace is the ship in which we choose to sail.

I want more and more to learn to see the world with a grace mindset.  When I am challenged by my own failings or by my judgmentalism of others’ failings, I don’t want to apply grace like a bandaid to help us through that moment, but I want it to be a reminder of the worldview I wish to wholly embrace where grace is the engine and the rudder and the compass.  I have a long way to go.  May I use my blunders as stepping stones to grow in my commitment to grace and not see them as challenges to try harder to earn my worth.

Posted March 22, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

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My Life as a Legalist   Leave a comment

This article is worth your read.  It doesn’t offer a path forward (how to learn to love yourself), but it is a very good description of well-meaning legalists like I was most of my life and the consequences in myself and my relationships that I am still working to overcome.  The grace of God is key in this process of recovery, but it takes faith, time and perseverance.

5 Toxic Things That Will Happen If You Don’t Learn To Love Yourself

 

Posted January 29, 2016 by janathangrace in Reading

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Why Is Grace So Hard to Grasp?   5 comments

My constant refrain this year past, muttered or sighed or groaned: “I am SO tired!”  Many times every day and out loud to myself–in the kitchen, on walks, at work, and even in my mind as I spot tasks that stare grumpily at me, like the window air-conditioner sitting on our coffee table that I brought up from the basement two days back.  I’ve barely managed to keep up with life: washing clothes and then leaving them in the laundry basket to fish out for work, while I dump dirty clothes on the floor next to it; watering plants just before they die, or not; cooking raw meat just before it rots.  I’ve dropped other things after dragging them around mentally like a ball and chain, such as the $8 rebate from Ace Hardware that expired… well I actually didn’t give up on that, it just ran out before I mailed it in.  Unfortunately, I never give up on things.  I just accumulate them like sandburrs on bare feet.

I could sit here on the living room sofa and write a discouraging list of tasks that I can literally see from here: A dvd player to take to Goodwill–it’s been sitting accusingly at the end of the loveseat for two weeks; an old external hard drive to process, walnuts in a coffee container that need shelling, now practically buried behind accumulating paperwork, books, and other stuff that needs to be sorted and resolved; a briefcase full of files and lists neglected for many months; a dime-sized food stain on the sofa arm under my wrist that needs cleaning–it has been there for two months; and the latest addition–insulation that arrived yesterday, now propped against the wall, that needs to be hung in the attic.  I’m not even mentioning the things that are in the room but just out of sight–I am fully aware of them–out of sight out of mind is a laughable proverb for those with a mind like my own.  I haven’t even touched on the cars, yard, basement, shed, office–a thousand obligations wrap like Lilliputian threads around me.  I could cut off the least important hundred tasks and make no difference to the overall affect.

Mind you, I go to work every day, pay my bills and mortgage on time, walk the dogs, take out the trash, shop and cook enough to keep us fed adequately, mow the lawn, exercise, wash my clothes.  In other words, I am a normally functioning human, which seems enough for most folks.  I’m amazed at the ability others have to simply ignore their overflowing in-boxes.  Something needs to change in my outlook on life, somehow to live under the flow of grace in a way that releases me from this constant weight of obligation.  For all the work I have put into grasping this principle over many years, one would think I would have found freedom by now.  Even learning grace seems to be such an arduous, long-term effort–my thoughts, my habits, my feelings slide so easily back into my old ways.  That sounds so wrong-headed even in saying it… shouldn’t grace be easy by definition?  Law is so deeply engrained in my soul.  It stains every thought to the roots.  Well, let me celebrate each baby step and not add insult to injury by condemning my lack of growth in grace.  It will come, it will take time, and this post is one more reminder to myself to re-orient my soul in line with God’s unconditional acceptance.

Posted May 7, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal

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The Patience of Grace   10 comments

“I’m sorry for being impatient with you Sunday night,” I told Forest, one of my student workers, as he sat down at the circulation desk.  “You were doing your best, and that is all I can ask of anyone.”  I am not a patient man, with myself or with others.  I “came by it honestly” as my mother would say since Dad was highly committed to efficiency and raised us on the double: if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing quicker.  “What took you so long?” was cliched into the moral soundscape of our lives, a diagnostic metronome to gauge our pace in life.  I never earned my efficiency badge, so it became an obsession of sorts as I chased after the qualifying time that kept eluding me.  Life was a race and I was losing, but instead of quitting, I just ran harder.

My hopped up need for hustle exalts efficiency over more Scriptural values like patience, and even when I demote it, it still  mucks up the works by prodding me to bark at consequences instead of intentions.  That is, if you get in my way, I’ll get hot whether it’s your fault or not.  Forest is diligent, but learns slowly.  Impatience (if ever legitimate) must burn at his negligence, not at his learning curve, over which he has little control.  Scolding a slow person for being slow is abusive, and the first step down that harmful path is expecting too much of others… which usually springs from demanding too much of myself.

So the cure, ironically enough, begins with grace towards myself, even about my abusive impatience towards others.  I cannot in any healthy way scold myself into virtue.  Being patient with myself is not at all the same as excusing myself or minimizing my fault.  Rather, it is fully admitting my faults, but seeking a cure in God’s greater grace rather than my greater effort.  Divine grace is key not only because it forgives me, but because it creates a whole context of grace, a circle big enough for all our failings, mine and Forest’s both.  Excuses, far from being an expression of grace, are a rejection of it.  They are a claim to need no grace since no wrong has been done–I only need your understanding, not your forgiveness.  Excusing myself closes the door to grace just as surely as loathing myself.  Self-justification and self-condemnation are both blockades to grace–in the first I am too good for grace and in the second I am too bad for it, but both express a legalistic worldview. and trying to validate them by calling them “righteousness” and “contrition” respectively will not change their antagonism to grace.

I scolded Forest shortly before we closed Sunday, and I was already feeling guilty by the time I walked out the door.  I wrestled with it on the way home, refusing to play the devil’s song of shame in my head, but embracing my failings and the grace I needed to relieve my shame.  Instead of spending the two days till his next shift beating myself–a common habit of mine that is so personally and relationally destructive–I settled into the relief of God’s all-encompassing grace, and when I apologized to Forest on Tuesday, it was not from a shame-induced defensiveness or groveling, but as a fellow recipient of grace.  We both fail, we both need grace.  May we all learn to grace ourselves and one another more freely.

Posted November 11, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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