5 Healthy Ways to Recover from Growing Up in Legalism
Legalism is a strict adherence to laws over conviction of the spirit. Religion, and specifically for Christians, the Word of God, defines what we believe to be true about the world and beyond. But strictly adherence and emphasis on the law, with little regard for the heart, have squelched even the most passionate Christians.
A lofty and unrealistic expectation for perfection is exactly what Jesus came to earth and died sacrificially to free us of. Legalism, and the confusion of religious beliefs with behavior, is an impossible standard. Jesus choose to stand in the gap of who we are and who we can never be. It is only through him that we are worthy to stand in the presence of our Holy God. Through Him and in Him, believers stand not in condemnation, guilt or shame, but love.
James, the brother of Jesus and a father in the early church, warns us to be doers of the word, and not just hearers. Christianity is not a free pass to sin, and it is important to hold each other accountable, in love. But in our fight for righteousness, we often apply undue pressure to reach impossible standards. We’re airing our grievances out on social media before we come to each other in private, or wearing masks of forgiveness over cold shoulders.
Here are 5 healthy and Biblically true mindsets to hold onto if you’re recovering from legalism:
1. Learn (Who God Is)
God is our number one fan, not our biggest critic. Jesus Christ coming down to earth was God’s greatest expression of His love for us. Love is who God is, and drives all He does. In order to recover from legalism, we must cling to Him. Feeling unworthy of the life God has designed and purposed for us to live is a distortion of the truth. A healthy fear of God is essential to the Christian life, but the more we know and love God, the more we begin to understand how great His love is for us. He sent His only Son to die for us so that we may live life to the full (John 10:10). Reading Scripture prayerfully, daily, is an important cornerstone of the Christian faith. It’s how He communicates with us, encourages us, and grows us.
2. Listen (to What His Word Says)
James warns us to be doers of the word and not just hearers (James 1:22). The more we learn about God, the more we begin to reflect His holiness. The process of sanctification (the maturing of our hearts to be like Christ’s) is life-long. In our impatience, we often rush to compare and hide the parts of ourselves not fully developed, instead of learning and listening. Practice gratitude for each new day and embrace the connections God makes through them. Often what we pray and read in Scripture will come up throughout the day, if we steady our hearts to listen. In the same way, He will direct our paths, as we develop our relationship with Him.
3. Leave the Past Behind (Forgive Yourself and Others)
Growing up in a legalistic environment makes it extremely difficult to forgive ourselves. Though the message of Christ is forgiveness, we legalistically have attached strings to it. Penance, punishment, guilt and shame have to be suffered in order to be forgiven. Though there are consequences for disobeying God for the protection of our own souls, He never holds His love or His forgiveness in the balance. The gift of salvation is ours to receive, and He doesn’t take it back on account of our bad behavior. When we truly seek Christ, we can confess and let go of the past. I once heard it said, look back only long enough to move forward. Don’t let legalistic rules and regulations on past sins and lifestyles cripple a life of love walked out with Jesus. He doesn’t hold our sins against us.
4. Live (a Prayerful Life - Pray Continuously)
“Pray continuously,” Paul urged, and through the suffering he endured in his life we can surely take note. Learning who God is, listening for and to Him, and learning to forgive ourselves and others requires prayer. Jesus died to open up that line of communication to our Father in heaven. He wants to be connected to us in daily conversation. Freedom from legalism is rooted in the power of prayer. Prayer activates the very spirit of God living within us, to allow us to remember who God is and understand the truth He reveals to us through Scripture His surrounding creation. By remaining in Him through prayer, we can see more clearly the connections He makes in our everyday lives. The brushstrokes of His brilliance abound each and every day.
5. Love (God, and Each Other.)
Paul said, of faith hope and love, the greatest is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13 NIV) Love sets us free from legalism. The Old Testament is full of laws that God’s people were consistently unable to keep. Yet, through it all, He continually rescued, preserved, and unconditionally loved them. It’s impossible to live completely holy and sanctified lives on this earth. Grace frees us from the heavy weight of impossible expectations. Though our sins grieve us, as they should, our behavior should never be confused with our belief. The hallmark of Christianity is grace and love. Through we are not perfect, we are perfectly loved. And because of that love, we are moved and motivated to be new people, recognized by our love for others. Not our perfect behavior, but our great love and grace despite the ongoing mess in this world.
Scripture tells us to guard our hearts. Employ these five simple practices to allow Love to permeate past the effects of a lifetime of legalism. Our God is bigger than anything or anyone threatening to come against and disqualify us. Better than all we could acquire on this earth. And worth every sacrifice. Keep running the race, fighting the fight, and aim to be a reflection of His love and grace. All we are created and purposed to do in this life is meant to bring Him honor. In all things, glory up.
Image Credit: ©GettyImages/fizkes
Meg Bucher writes about everyday life within the love of Christ. An author, freelance writer and blogger at Sunny&80, she earned a Marketing/PR degree from Ashland University. Her first book, “Friends with Everyone,” is available on amazon.com. Meg leads/teaches Bible Study in Women’s and Youth Ministry. Living in Northern Ohio, she’s been wife to Jim for a decade and counting, is mom to two tween daughters, a distance runner, photographer, and Cleveland Browns fan.