Archive for the ‘Legalism’ Tag

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.

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Posted November 11, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Postcards from My Dark Past   9 comments

Early this summer I dragged out a cardboard box from my closet, blew off years of dust, and opening it, pulled out a stack of notecards. Each card held a quotation, insights that inspired and challenged me, scribbled down from a decade of reading, and I planned to transcribe them to my computer. For two months I couldn’t muster the energy, but last week I finally plunked them down in my lap and started flipping through for some encouragement to share on Facebook.  I read through ten cards… and then ten more, pulling them randomly from the pile, and discovered that what I meticulously recorded and saved was toxic. They were snippets of a mindset that dragged me into darkness and despair, a spirituality that was intense and genuine… and deeply flawed.

One of those treasured nuggets read, “A really humble man would rather let another say that he is contemptible and worth nothing than say so himself….  He believes it himself and is glad that others should share his opinion.”  Another famous divine wrote, “Strive always to choose not that which is easiest, but that which is most difficult; not that which is most delectable, but that which is most unpleasing; not that which gives most pleasure, but that which gives least; not that which is restful, but that which is wearisome; not that which gives consolation, but rather that which makes disconsolate.”

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“HUMILITY CONSISTS IN THE CONTEMPT OF OUR EXCELLENCE”

Even when the quotations were “positive,” they crushed me with their impossible standard, like this prayer: “Grant that every word I speak may be fit for you to hear; that every plan I make be fit for you to bless; that every deed I do may be fit for you to share” –flawless speech and thought and action daily.  I was a very committed young man.  If this was the measure of true spirituality, then I was determined to reach it.  With all my heart I drove myself to meet this standard, redoubling my efforts when I fell short, and finally I despaired.

In my brokenness, the grace of God found me.  In my years of striving I would have looked on such a free gift as “cheap grace,” as taking advantage of God’s goodness, as spiritual lukewarmness like the church of Laodicea.  But once I despaired of myself, grace was the only hope left to me.  We cripples cannot earn our keep.  It must be given to us.

For years after stumbling into the light of grace, I blamed myself for that twilight of wandering, of waste, of wounds to myself and others, but that murky stretch of my journey may have been inevitable, even necessary, since only the destitute embrace grace. Moses spent four decades in the backside of the desert herding sheep. David spent years running from Saul, sleeping in caves, being tagged a traitor.  Demolition sets the groundwork for re-creation, so that the very strength and success of the unbroken stunts their souls.  So let me, like Paul, brag about my weaknesses and magnify the grace of God.

Posted September 6, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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Be Honest Or Be Good?   1 comment

Following the great literary tradition of Dr. Seuss, someone coined the phrase “Fake it till you make it,” meaning that if you can’t do something good from the heart, do it without the heart until the heart catches up.  If you hate someone, smile and be nice anyway.  If you are frightened, affect a bold, unflinching attitude.  If you are upset, act as though you are calm.  Fake it.

Pretense never appealed to me. I take the honest approach.  If I hate someone or think he’s stupid, I let him know it, scowl at him across four lanes of traffic or shake my head in pity.  There’s a reason I don’t have any Jesus bumper stickers on my car–it would be false advertising.   “Receive Jesus and you can be just like me” has some major shortcomings as a marketing strategy.  To be honest (I’ll try to stick with that), I’ve noticed that when I force a smile through clenched teeth, and he smiles back, good happens, a sliver of peace accidentally slips down into my heart and relaxes my jaw.

Or not.  When I try to stuff the bad feelings and force myself to be virtuous, it doesn’t work so well.  I wrestle down my aggravation over this lane-hogging driver… and the one who dilly-dallied till I missed the green light… and this guy who parked so crooked I can’t pull in, and each time I push down the bubbling anger, it comes back up hotter.  Putting a lid on it can make things boil over.

So which is it–does it help or hurt to act good when I don’t feel good?  Why does positive behavior sometimes pull my reluctant heart along and at other times trip it up?

For me, it depends on the impetus.  When I choose to do good in a way that seems to devalue and override my feelings, it turns radioactive.  When I give grace to others by denying it to myself, it poisons me.  In fact, I don’t think it’s real grace.  Picture grace as electricity–I am the cable, and God is the generator, and when I cut myself off from grace, I also cut off those who receive it from me.  Being only the wire, I can’t crank grace out on my own, especially not from legalism (which is the impetus if I am moved purely by obligation).  Or to say it without wires and sparks: I cannot shame and fight my feelings and then hope to be accepting and generous towards others.

Here is how it plays out for me in two traffic scenarios.  First, under law.  I try to clamp down on my irritation by “shoulding” on myself, forcing down my feelings.  Legalism makes me very conscientious as a driver–I don’t tail-gate, I let others merge in front of me (one car only, thank you), I don’t hold people up at traffic lights as I text on my phone.  I work hard at it because my self-worth is tested daily, and I have to pass every section, even the driving part, to get my human license re-validated.  If God’s keeping a scorecard, I can’t afford to make mistakes, and If I can’t have excuses, neither can you.  It’s a tense way to be a driver… and a husband… and an employee… and a neighbor… and a human.

Grace only has room to flow in when I change the game from whack-a-mole to save-a-mole.  I decide to accept myself and others with our mistakes instead of trying to beat out the faults till we deserve acceptance.  Instead of saying in my head, I drive right, so you must drive right, I say, I make mistakes, so you may make mistakes.  Now this is not a new equation of fairness on a different standard as though I am saying I will allow you as many mistakes as I allow myself, but if you cross the limit, I’ll whack you.  Grace is unlimited.  It is no longer based on fairness.  Whatever I need I get and whatever you need you get.

But what if it goes past mistakes into meanness–she is deliberately unkind.  Then grace takes the form of forgiveness, and since I need a lot of that too, I want forgiveness to be woven into the ambiance of grace in my relational world.  I’m not suggesting a world without boundaries, leaving us defenseless.  But walls are not weapons, so personal boundaries are not a conflict with grace, but a concession to our limitations.  In fact, boundaries are a form of grace to myself, providing support for my weaknesses and security for my fears, and only then will I have the resources to offer grace to others, even to trolls, who are no less deserving.  None of us have merit badges–that’s why we need grace.

Posted March 3, 2014 by janathangrace in thoughts

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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.

headlights

 

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.

WHO IS LOVED?

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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