The List, the line, the look

JP: From Warren Vanhetloo’s Cogitations (# 1130 06.15.09). See additional comments below the quote.

[the following uses “legalism” in a colloquial rather than the theological sense, but the message is clear]:

I grew up in a Christian home, had parents who loved me and loved God. I went to church every Sunday, learned all the stories, gave my offerings – even went off to a Christian college. And I loved God – and I still do. But I had a problem – legalism. I didn’t know it was a problem, at least not for a long time.

I was addicted to “the list.” The list was made up of all the things that you were supposed to do and not supposed to do if you wanted to keep God happy with you. Most of the things on the list were good things – some of them even came right out of the Bible. But some of them didn’t. They were passed along to me from several sources, but mostly from the traditions of the church. Since I am not much of a rebel by nature, I had no problem with keeping the list. The problem was what the list did to my Christianity. It became way too much about performance, and not enough about reality. And ”spirituality” became more of an issue of conformity than obedience.

And the list led to “the line.” The line was somewhere on the list. When a person kept enough of the list to make it to the line, he could feel good about himself, and about his supposed relationship with God. By measuring up to the line, a person could feel like he was good with God. And he could also feel like he was better than others. Think of it as spiritual arrogance.

But the line led to “the look.” Appearances became the most important part of life. And what was seen on the outside was prioritized over what was happening on the inside. It’s not that things weren’t happening on the inside in my life – they were. But things like peace and love and joy weren’t as important as the Bible says they should be. And no one was judging my spirituality by that.

It got worse. When you are a legalist, you spend a lot of time evaluating others, making sure they measure up. What does their ”list” look like? Does their list include all the important things that are on mine? And where is their ”line”? Is it up there where it should be? Or can I consider myself superior since my line is higher? And do they “look” like they should? Or can I look down on them for looking better myself? This evaluation was often called “fruit inspection,” when in actuality, it was judgmentalism.

Then one day I picked up a book by Jerry Bridges by the title of Transforming Grace, and that is exactly what happened in my life. I was transformed by finally understanding what Grace was all about. The list? I couldn’t keep one good enough to please God – that’s why I needed Jesus, both for salvation, but then to live the Christian life. And measuring up to the line? It wasn’t making God love me any more – He loves me because of who He is, not what I do. And my concern about looking good? He was more concerned about who I was than what I did. My view of Christianity was changed. It was no longer my doing things to please God, it was my doing things to express gratitude for what He’s done in my life. It’s not about a list. It’s about love.

My comments:

  • It’s entirely appropriate for organizations (think a Christian college) to have standards for matriculated students. Those standards themselves do not sanctify but rather bring order to an organization. A real life example from a non-profit with which I serve: we require our board members to be members in good standing of churches that support that ministry.
  • Even secular businesses have “a list”. Where I work, one standard of conduct is that employees will not buy foreclosed homes that are owned by the bank because there would be a perception of a conflict of interest.
  • The same goes for leadership and service opportunities in a church. “The list” does not sanctify but rather protects the reputation of a ministry.
  • I encourage readers to have personal standards of conduct. For many (as it has for me), it may mean having “a list”. Again that list does not sanctify but rather provides a preset boundary of behavior that has been filtered through the grid of God’s revealed will.

Updated: Also posted on Sharper Iron.

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