Archive for the ‘Legalism’ Tag

The Scary Road of Grace   2 comments

Some of my flaws are more fundamental than others, more pervasive and enmeshed, more demanding and persistent, more hidden and stubborn, like my deep rooted legalism.  If I voiced my intentions, I would say I’m a recovering legalist, but my progress seems so glacial that that might be unfairly congratulatory, like a daily drinker claiming to be a recovering alcoholic.  As I think about it more, I really have improved a great deal over the years, but all that thrust has not lifted me above its gravitational drag.  Legalism remains my default in so many situations, a judgmental sinkhole out of which I must crawl, talking down my critical reaction to others.  Trying to be gracious is a very long way from actually being gracious.

My soul is resistant to giving grace because it makes me feel so vulnerable.  In a disagreement, if I can dismiss them as being stupid or unbiblical or biased, then I don’t have to give any weight to their idea, which threatens my own perspective, a perspective around which I have built a safe world for myself.  If I label them untrustworthy, I can justify my suspicions of them and guard my heart against their potential betrayal.  If I mark them as selfish, I can depend wholly on myself… for fear they will refuse my request for help and so prove I am not worth helping.  It threatens me at my core.  As C. S. Lewis wrote, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal.”  A closed heart is a safe heart.  Thinking generously of others, trusting them, and opening my heart to them is dangerous.  Giving grace opens me up to assault from every quarter.

bird-in-a-gentle-handLiving in a world full of potential aggressors is frightening and lonely, so I am drawn to nice people, safe people, people like my wife.  They have helped me slowly build trust, creep towards vulnerability, discover genuine connection.  Once I develop a close relationship, I find that grace flows naturally… until I feel threatened.  That is when my grace muscle is stretched as I claim grace firmly enough to support myself and then extend it to the one challenging me. Berly has been the perfect companion for this journey into fear and grace.


Posted February 28, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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The Tarnished Golden Rule   5 comments

On my way to work tonight I turned from our winding, unlit street onto Hawkins Mill Rd, and an oncoming car flashed its brights.  I looked down, saw the blue square on my dash, and flicked off my high-beams while responding with a surprised, “Oh, thanks!” to no one in particular.  My mind flipped back two nights to our drive home from a school play.  The guy behind me had on his brights, too intense even for the night-time position of my rear-view mirror, so I shoved it up against the roof and leaned right to avoid the glare in my side mirror.  In less than a mile I was so irritated I wanted to pull off, get behind him, and power up my highs… just to teach him a lesson.  I didn’t mention this to Kimberly.



scales of justice

My grace period for dumb driving is short.  If the nuisance behind me had dropped his floods within a few blocks, I would have been grateful; within a quarter-mile, my “thank you” would have been sarcastic; after that, the dumb stamp would stick fast.  Notice that I am even-handed.  If I had kept my highs on tonight for another 15 seconds or a second flicker-reminder, I would have said, “Oh, sorry!” instead of “Oh, thanks!”  And if I accidentally went a mile as a high-beam tailgater, I would have slapped my forehead with an idiot label.  My good Christian conscience insists that I treat everyone equal before the law.  It’s the golden rule in reverse: I only disparage others to the extent I disparage myself.  Perhaps we could call it the iron rule.

Kimberly likes to keep things fair too, but her scales are those of grace rather than justice.  She sees mistakes as a daily, inevitable occurrence and wants us all to live in acceptance of one another’s shortcomings.  Wow, I think, no societal norms, no expectations, no standards?  Ignore the stop signs and traffic lights; it’s every man for himself.  I’m going to need an SUV.  No, she says, just lowered expectations…  sometimes people are late for meetings or forget to return a phone call or leave their high beams on, and that is okay.  No one shoots 100% of their free-throws (she didn’t actually use the b-ball analogy).  I agree with her.  So how do I reach this new high standard of grace?  After all, a 50-year rut is not overcome quickly, even by a perfectionist… especially by a perfectionist… or maybe ever by a perfectionist.  Now that I think about it, perfectionism seems to have a Teflon grip on grace–the harder I squeeze, the quicker it squirts away.  Grace falls into the open hand of acceptance  It’s a gift, not a conquest.

metal puzzleSuch wise sounding words, but what do they mean?  Like those twisted metal puzzles I got as a kid–it looks simple, but I don’t see how to solve it.  I can either work at being more gracious or not work at being gracious.  So I set goals and standards and work hard to be nice and patient and accepting.  Now I have a new standard by which to judge myself and others–instead of criticizing the late and forgetful, I criticize the impatient and demanding.  Wait, something went wrong.  So I stop working at it and just keep living as I’ve always lived, as a curmudgeon… hmm.  Why can’t my spiritual journey be as uncomplicated as everyone else’s seems to be?  I’ve  sorted out this grace puzzle before, but it seems I have to re-learn it every time I stumble on another facet of my deep-seated legalism.  So here we go again.

Posted March 5, 2013 by janathangrace in Personal

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God’s Love Letters #6: Why Tamar?   Leave a comment

Matthew 1:3 Judah fathered Perez and Zerah by Tamar

Art from Trash

Perez and Zerah are named together because they are twins, but why Tamar was mentioned is a quandry.  None of the honorable women before her in the genealogy are noted, but when we hit a scandal, Matthew has to dredge it up.  Well, he didn’t really have to go digging because the Old Testament itself was quite blatant about the whole sordid affair.  Tamar was Judah’s widowed daughter-in-law, and she prostituted herself to get pregnant by Judah.  Anyone proud of their genealogy would surely have skipped past this crooked branch, but Matthew, for some reason, calls attention to it, as though reminding his readers that their glory was not from their ancestors, but from their gracious God who could use the worst to bring the best.  It is not to God’s discredit that he used such flawed materials to construct his kingdom, but it shows the incomparable power of his redemption.

God is in the salvage and reclamation business, and he is so creative that he makes the results better than if they had come from perfect materials.  His second creation far surpasses his first, not just restoring innocence, but infusing us and our relationships with a far greater life force.  The glories of forgiveness, mercy, patience, sacrifice, in short of grace, were unrevealed in Genesis one.  It is natural for beautiful things to be appreciated and enjoyed, but that is such a meager understanding of love compared to that revealed by one who treasures the broken and ugly, so much as to sacrifice himself for our sake.  Without the Fall, we could not have experienced the depths, lengths, and heights of God’s unconditional love.


Being loved for only what is good in us is a direct building block of legalism–be good and you will be loved.  If we are loved only in our beauty, then we are unloved as ourselves.  How astonishing to discover God saying–be bad and I will love you every bit as much.  Unshakeable security only rests in an unchangeable love… for, as Paul tells us, “if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.”  He cannot stop being a love-filled God, even though it breaks his heart.  It seems to me that we have a far greater awareness and experience of God’s love than Adam and Eve who literally walked with God daily.  Who can express the deep peace and intense bond that comes from being loved wholly, being embraced with our every defect?

Posted June 14, 2012 by janathangrace in Bible Grace

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Finding Grace By Doing Less   4 comments

I have been fighting with fear for a month now, and a sense of being overwhelmed.  It partly comes from my anxiety of having to survive this summer on my lawn-mowing income (along with my inability to pick up sufficient regular clients) and partly from forgetting (as a result) my 2012 commitment to rest.  It has made me think afresh of the Biblical command, not to keep the Sabbath, but to remember to keep the Sabbath.  Apparently I’m not alone in having fear and busyness crowd out the vital place of rest for my soul.   I notice that, remarkably, I accomplish less, not more, when I neglect the rest my soul needs… the fear and drivenness drain away my energy.  This has not always been the case.

Most of my life I lived by overriding my own needs.  I thought I was meeting my soul’s needs by spending hours in prayer, meditation and Bible study, going to church, self-examination and the like.  But in fact these were just more activities to which I drove myself.  They were not “means of grace,” but means of accomplishment, of spiritual advancement.  In those days I measured success by how much I changed the world for the better, not realizing that I was denying with my life the very gospel I preached.  It is hard for the fruits of grace to spring from the drivenness of legalism.  I was getting more tasks done (being successful) because of my unceasing labor, but grace would have had so much more space to work had I learned to do much less while acting from a spirit of unconditional love (in both receiving it and sharing it).

My conception of success has changed so drastically since those days.  The ghost of ‘failures past’ still haunts me at times.  I have not been able to fully shake off those old definitions (mostly because the whole world seems to speak that language), but I realize now that my soul’s health and thereby the health of the hearts around me is my new measure of success.  It has little to do with numbers of tasks completed or people fixed.  I would rather accomplish one thing a day graciously than a dozen without grace, and because of my unhealthy proclivities, the more I try to fit into the day, the more likely I will shortchange grace.  As I grow in grace, I believe I will be able to do more good, but for now I must live within my limits and refuse the shame that shouts at me for doing too little, learning to trust more in God’s grace.

Posted June 10, 2012 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Who Writes My ‘To Do’ List?   2 comments

This is not a thought topmost on my mind these days… I wrote it some time back.  But I thought it was worth sharing.

Many conservative Christians direct their lives by a long list of expectations handed down to them from various sources (family, church, tradition, culture, etc.), many of which purport to be fundamentally grounded in Scripture.  I know this is how I spent most of my life, but for me it was the letter that killed the spirit.

I was raised to believe and obey the Bible.  At a foundational level were direct and clear commands that seemed to make a lot of practical sense, saving myself and my relationships much grief: don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t gossip (or in positive terms, be honest, be fair, be kind in what you say about others).  It doesn’t take much wisdom to understand the importance and relevance of these commands.

But along with these direct commands, I was taught to identify and live by biblical principles.  Here the footing got very unsteady, for who was to say what principles should be applied in this way by this person at this time to this situation?  Let me give one general principle, stewardship, focusing on one of its corollaries, efficiency, limited to one resource at my disposal, money.  The principle is: spend as little money as possible for the greatest good.  The Bible does not say this directly, but we all know this is what it means when it warns us against greed, tells us to be generous instead of self-serving and to be “rich towards God,” etc.  I said “we all know,” but some of us struggle with such a simple reduction of many passages to one principle.  Even if we agree that a given principle is worth following, we still find the devil in the details–a given application of that principle.  Let me list a few quandries:

1) How do the hundreds of other principles laid out by levels of priority interact with this principle, limiting it, redirecting it, even overriding it?  What kind of good should be done (for instance, is it more important to give Bibles or give bread); who will receive this good (for whom am I most responsible); what other resources will be used in the accomplishing of this good (will it be cheap but take “inordinate” time); may I consider my own interests, talents, vision; what positive or negative side effects may come from this expenditure; am I permitted to solicit money or borrow money for this goal; and I could go on for many pages.

Quantity or Quality? Brand or Generic? Organic or Inorganic?

2) How does this principle apply to purchases for myself?  What must I buy cheaply, and what may I take into account in deciding (the more expensive laundry soap that smells better, the fine quality suit, attending an ivy league school over a local state college?); what percentage must I give away (based on income, cost of living, family concerns, etc.); who decides and how does one decide what is lavish, normal, or frugal living; how much latitude (freedom) do I have; do my feelings matter in any way in making a decision.

3) What role do love and grace play?  Using this principle of financial efficiency, the disciples criticized the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume instead of giving to the poor, and they were rebuked.  It would seem the heart of the matter is the heart matters most, more than the behavioral choices we make, and that we need a level of freedom and faith to live out of  grace rather than law.  (I packed way too much into that sentence.)  As Augustine said, “Love God, and do what you want,” or as Paul said, “Love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Posted April 29, 2012 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Does Grace Enable Irresponsibility?   2 comments

Perhaps those who are concerned about my emphasis on grace are worried that I may encourage irresponsibility.  Some folks seem inclined to let things slide, choose the easy way, care too little for the concerns of others.  We think they need a “kick in the pants.”  I use “seem” to describe them because we really don’t know the issues they are struggling with, the energy, insight, support they do or do not have and so forth.  The closer I am to them, and the more perceptive I am at understanding others deeply, the more clearly I may be able to see what is at work inside them, but if they are clueless about themselves, I can easily be misled.  It is common to confuse fear, shame, depression, fatigue and the like with laziness, and the last thing such folks need is a kick.

As I see it, those who are truly irresponsible create two problems, and these can be profound depending on the level of their negligence.  The first is what it does to them, and the second is what it does to others (and their relationships).  When we say that these folks “take advantage of grace,” I think we mean that grace allows them to be irresponsible (does not force them to be responsible).  But when they choose this course, they are retreating from grace rather than embracing it, and the result, far from being to their happiness, is to their unhappiness.  They do not “get away” with it because sin always has its natural consequences–sin is always a harmful choice, to the ones acting as well as to everyone whom they touch (that’s why God warns us against it).  Grace can only bring redemption to such a situation if it is embraced, and this can only be done by faith, which is to say the slackers now see things God’s way.  Given this vantage point, I think we would pity the irresponsible, and if we have some role to play in their lives and are motivated by love, we may wish to warn them from this folly and invite them back to grace.

The second problem with the neglectful is their impact on others and their relationships, and this is where many feel grace is inadequate and the law must be applied.  What do we mean by “law” and “grace” in this context.  Is there something one does that the other does not?  If law is about restriction and grace is about freedom, then our call to apply law is to bring force to bear, either the force of a guilty conscience (say, by rebuking him) or the force of retribution or punishment (say, by taking his keys).  But why do we think these actions are connected to law and disconnected from grace?  Is it not possible for grace to stir the conscience or give a wake-up call of negative consequences?  To my mind, the whole distinction lies in what motivation prompts the act.

It seems to me that I turn to the obligation and punishment of law not from concern for the slouch, but from concern for the law (that the law is respected, obeyed) or concern for the “victim” (who may be me).  It often seems to us that in order to side with the victim, we must side against the negligent.  Thankfully, the grace of God does not need to love one less in order to love the other fully.  He wants the best for all concerned, and he will do what is best for all concerned.  If grace sends negative consequences on the irresponsible, it is not because God takes umbrage and is punishing them, but because he knows this is the best he has to give, the choice of extravagent love, not love withheld.  It is his invitation to redemption.  The exile of Israelis from their land is a prime example of this “tough love.”  Far from this being an act of God’s impatience and  abandonment, it was the richness of his love at work to restore them to their true selves and reawaken their immensely fulfilling love relationship with him.

Posted April 19, 2012 by janathangrace in thoughts

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She Done Me Wrong   5 comments

When I last shared about Kimberly and me, I left an important point untouched.  Are there not certain responsibilities that are moral in nature?  Is my wife not required to be monogamous?  Is it ever right for me to hit her?  For the relationship to work (any relationship), do we not need some moral standards on which we can insist, a moral code of conduct?

Let me begin by saying that I believe all intentional acts are moral.  Everything we do and how we do it is affected by our faith, love, humility, and the like.  Even things we do with no apparent moral content are choices to do this and not something “better.”   So perhaps the question is rather: are some moral choices “beyond the pale,” so significant that the relationship cannot simply absorb the behavior and continue on more or less as it was but must be addressed and worked through.  To reorient the question in this way, however, moves it from a legal question of right and wrong and rather asks what will hurt or benefit our relationship.  Relationship becomes central, and law becomes its servant (as Jesus said).  Instead of saying, “You must stop this because it is against the law,” or even, “You must stop this because it hurts me,” we simply say, “When you do this it hurts me,” because if we force or manipulate them to change, it will undermine the genuineness of our connection.  For important relationships, this step is just the beginning of an ongoing discussion and a doorway into deeper mutual and self understanding, acceptance, and trust.  That is not to suggest I have no recourse if I am  being hurt, but if relationship is primary, the solution does not lie in controlling the other person.

I am ultimately not accountable for their choices, but for my own.  I am responsible to see that my own needs are met in a healthy way, whether my friend supports me or not.  My needs determine where I draw the boundary line in our relationship, and my friend’s needs determine where he draws the line.  If he cannot respect my boundaries, then I will  take measures to protect my boundaries because I must respect myself and my needs whether he does or not.  This is not a judgment of my friend’s inadequacies or of my inadequacies (as though he doesn’t care enough or I am too needy).  We may both be doing the best we can, but not have the capacity to make the relationship work.

This was the huge distinction between my (former) perspective and Kimberly’s.  I thought the only legitimate basis for boundaries was the law.  If you lie to me, you are wrong; you must stop it, end of story.  If you cheat me, you are wrong and must stop it.  If you hurt me,  you must stop it.  I would use my relationship to blackmail their compliance, communicating with my behavior, “If you want to feel good with me again, you must change.”  With this approach, determining who was at fault was fundamental to resolving relational conflict. 

Basing such boundaries on my own personal needs was just selfishness.  But when Kimberly did, I could very clearly see she was not selfish.  She cared very much for my needs, whether she could accomodate them or not, and this confused me.  Every selfish person I know subtly or blatantly shows disregard for my needs.  Kimberly was saying in essence, “I do not have the emotional resources to care for all my own needs and all yours as well.  If any of your needs go unmet, it is very unfortunate, and we will try to find the resources of support you need, but I can only give from what I have.  You cannot ask me to go into debt in order to pay off your debt.  I cannot ultimately take responsibility for your unmet needs.”

Of course, this was not one straightforward, simple talk we had.  We both agonized over the emotional turmoil that sprang from our conflicting needs.  Let me give an example that plagued us for years… in the next post.