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I Fought the Law, and the Law Won

This is a continuation of my previous post.

Three years into college, I had done everything in my power to grow into the man evangelical Christianity wanted me to be. But I could never do enough, and the pressure was making me physically sick and leaving me with a sense of worthlessness.

Oftentimes, the only thing that kept me going were the occasional compliments and pats on the back from church friends. Some even said things like, “Man, I admire how you live for Jesus, but there’s no way I could do that.”

“You’re darn right,” I thought.

But though I was able to impress many of my friends with my legalistic gymnastics, my good buddy Shon never applauded my lifestyle and never compared himself to me. No, to my consternation, he was disturbingly comfortable with who he was as a Christian.

I wasn’t sure what to do with Shon, a quiet, tree trunk of a man who was seven years older than me. He yawned in the face of the legalistic code most of us rigidly followed – he watched TV, grew his hair long, listened to secular music, rented movies, and didn’t talk about Jesus enough – in fact, he hardly talked at all.

When church services lasted too long, he would take a pen and an offering envelope and draw a stick figure of a man killing himself. I was afraid this meant Shon was in spiritual rebellion, and I figured he was probably going to go to hell.

Though Shon wasn’t playing by the rules of our Christian sub-culture, he seemed closer to God than anyone I knew. His prayers were like conversations between Aslan and one of the children from the Narnia series. He was open about struggling with sin, but he wasn’t obsessed with it. And Shon not only loved God, he actually liked Him.

Even if Shon was going to hell, I trusted him and was grateful to have him around. He was the best friend I had – one of the people who liked me for who I was, rather than for what I did. That was a good thing, because as it would turn out, I wasn’t as squeaky clean as I imagined.

Though rigidly moral, my thoughts were bloated with sinful pride. I saw myself as being a cut above weak-kneed Christians, especially those who didn’t go to a church like mine. But I felt annoyed and resentful around Christians who were stronger, especially when they were more spiritually disciplined than me.

I had a near-total callousness to the needs of the poor, justifying myself by giving people rides to church and occasionally visiting a local nursing home. Yet I also felt superior to those who were rich and had chosen American comfort over foreign missionary work. Of course, I hadn’t gone into missionary work either, but I hadworked in a Venezuelan orphanage for a month – two points for me.

Pride inevitably comes before a fall, and I had plenty of it to go around. I was so prideful that I was shocked when I crossed a couple of sacred lines and fell into sin. These were lines I had promised God I would never, ever cross, and I was terrified, feeling that this meant that all my good deeds had been done in vain.

I tried to resuscitate my salvation by promising God I wouldn’t cross those lines again – until I did. And then I went ahead and crossed a new set of lines, heaping on more guilt, feeling more sick, figuring it was just a matter of time before God projectile vomited me out of His mouth and straight through the gates of hell. So I think it’s fair to say that another, major sin issue in my life was unbelief in God’s redeeming love.

Inebriated with guilt, I called Shon one Saturday morning, hoping to find some grace in confessing what a failure I was. Shortly into the conversation, I started a bumbling confession, unable to find words to describe how my life was disintegrating.

“Do you want to tell me what’s going on?” Shon asked.

“I – I was – I didn’t mean to – I was just trying to – well, last night -” I paused. “Shon, this is hard to talk about.”

I couldn’t say it, and I felt a lump growing in my throat, making it even harder to speak. I was terrified to tell the truth, to acknowledge my brokenness, to admit that it wasn’t working, that I couldn’t follow God’s law, that I wasn’t a real Christian. But finally, in fits and starts, I forced myself to speak, sharing the sordid details, my eyes filling with tears as the weight of the law came crashing down on me.

“Shon, listen – I’m a fake, a loser, a wannabe Jesus freak who has no self-control,” I said, my voice shaking. “I’ve been trying for years to be what God wants me to be and – whatever that is – I’m not that. I’ve failed, and I can’t do it. I just can’t.”

“You’re going to be okay,” he said quietly.

“No, I’m not Shon,” I said, tears running down my face.

“You know how hard I’ve been trying for four years now. I read my Bible, I drag everybody and their mother to church, I lead small groups, I sing in the praise band. I tell people about Jesus every chance I get. I pray all the time – I do everything Christians are supposed to do – but I can’t live by the rules anymore,” I said. “I’m serious, Shon. I can’t do it.”

I had said it. And I felt a surprising sense of relief. I took a deep breath, wiped my eyes with my sleeve, and listened to the silence on the other end of the phone.

Then Shon quietly said, “This is good thing.”

“What’s a good thing? That I can’t live by the rules anymore?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Do you think you figured that out by yourself?”

After my conversation with Shon, I began doubting whether spiritual legalism had a place in the life of a healthy Christian. And rather than look to my friends for new rules to follow, I began looking in the Bible for truth that would set me free.

There I found scriptures like Romans 3:20 which says, “No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20). I knew that verse was true, because I was living proof of it.

For four years, I had rigidly followed the rules – some of them biblical, some of them cultural – but either way, I never felt cleansed or worthy. Instead, I was pathologically obsessed with my sin, and it eventually led me into more sin. But although I was beginning to see that legalistic Christianity wasn’t working, I didn’t know what the Christian life looked like without rules.

I found myself at a spiritual impasse, knowing grace was the answer, yet not really knowing what grace was. But for the first time since my childhood, I believed God had the patience to parent, that He was willing to work with a spiritual klutz like me.

19 Comments
  1. josh, i hope you make your blog into a book someday. you are writing a good one.

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    September 21, 2010
  2. In a sick sort of way, I'm impressed that you managed to keep up that hellish lifestyle for four years. I would've caved after a month. I'm glad God brought you out of that, though. There's nothing quite like legalism that can make life a living-death. And you illustrate that perfectly in your writing. Thank you for sharing this.

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    September 21, 2010
  3. Ok, Josh… that's THREE copies of the book…SOLD! How many more commitments do you need? We are patiently waiting.

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    September 21, 2010
  4. Josh: Please! Please! Don't ever stop writing about your struggle with legalism; I believe I speak for many brothers and sisters when I say that this is perhaps the greatest challenge which our faith faces each day. As one who has struggled often with this idea that I am free to be who I am in Christ and not just who some church people say I should be, I am most grateful for your thoughts and feelings on the subject. Grace has taught me each day that although sin should never be acceptable in our lives, it is, in fact, who and what we are; i.e. sinners… and our sins are never a surprise to Him who knows us better than we know ourselves.On my daily walks, I sometimes just contemplate the personhood of Jesus. It is at times such as these that I feel the total freedom that He brings, thus allowing me to accept myself and to be the unique individual He created me to be. Peace.

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    September 21, 2010
  5. Now I know we are kindred spirits because you just described me and I'm thinking most of us. We are so trying to become worthy and don't really get that we don't have to. The Tree of Life, what a wonderful place to live. Love Ya!

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    September 22, 2010
  6. What a blessing your writing has been to me. While you were an admirable (?) example of legalism, I think we all suffer in different degrees from a desire for self-righteousness. Looking forward to the next installment…as you reveal the Truth, I'm hoping for some of that same Truth to get into me.

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    September 22, 2010
  7. Wow, I just stumbled across your blog from reading the comments on Donald Millers blog. This is the first blog post I have read (and so far the only), but it's really good. I aspire to be a good blogger myself someday. I try anyway. 🙂 Keep it up! I think I'll keep coming back every week. Maybe even link to you.-Joshua

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    September 22, 2010
  8. By the way, do you Twitter? I think you should Twitter…

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    September 22, 2010
  9. I'm too long-winded to tweet. To be fair, I tried it for two weeks, and then I dropped it. It was like my Facebook news feed on cocaine.

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    September 22, 2010
  10. Well then, I guess it's good that you don't Twitter. 🙂

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    September 23, 2010
  11. I'm with you, Joshua (Rogers) – I joined Twitter as a work thing, but it's really…restricted. 🙂 I like to spread out. E.M.Forster said, "How can I know what I think until I see what I say?"And thank you for being honest and open about legalism – there are so many shades and degrees that I think we can justify to ourselves why we're right, everyone else is wrong, and that twinge in our chest is indigestion – not the Holy Spirit.

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    September 23, 2010
  12. I just saw a video that completely blew me away; the documentary is entitled Called To Be Free, and it is the story of the miracle of The Worldwide Church of God and how The Holy Spirit took this entire body built upon cultish legalism and the charisma of a false prophet to the Truth and liberty which we enjoy under God's unconditional love for us as proclaimed in The Gospel of Jesus Christ. The video speaks of both the pain and the joy experienced by this body as they moved from the chains of darkness to the Light of Jesus Christ. I was deeply touched by the great work which The Holy Spirit still does among us today.The video is a bit long, but I do recommend that you watch it in its entirety to appreciate this wonderful transformation of a people bound by legalism to their joy as free children of wonderfully gracious God.http://www.exadventist.com/Home/Video/tabid/502/Default.aspx

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    September 23, 2010
  13. SAG45, thanks for recommending the video. I look forward to watching it. And thanks to Joshua Davis – I hate to admit it – but I set up a Twitter account @Spiritual_Klutz. I only intend to use it to update when there's a new article. I appreciate all of the thoughtful comments, by the way.

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    September 24, 2010
  14. Well written, funny, honest. Top work!And as for adding the "how to comment" section just above the comment box – that's the most genius thing I have seen on a blog in a while. Must definitely save all those "posted by anonymous"… ;o)

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    December 23, 2010
  15. Thanks for this. I identify with this struggle with legalism, although I think mine wasn't as extreme as yours. It also reminds me of the John Wesley's testimony of struggling to please God and "attain heaven" for years and years, before coming to the simple realization that salvation is by grace through faith.

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    February 8, 2012
  16. In a lot of ways, I think my story is the inverse of yours. I didn't work myself into a legalistic lather… instead I started out in one.I'm the son and oldest child of a Baptist minister. I was raised in the church from birth onward. I made a profession of faith when I was about 5 years old; I knew Jesus died for my sins and asked him to save me. For my entire life my parents were vividly active in the church, and so were my sister and I… (whichever church we were in was generally itty bitty, so it was kind of inevitable.)And from adolescence on, it's been a downhill slope.My parents, especially my father, were very legalistic. we had dozens of rules for everything. We attended churches and christian camps where the speakers bragged about smashing their rock and roll records when they got saved, and preached about the carnality of ET and Micky Mouse ( I give you my solemn word I am not making that up.) Every sermon was about how nobody was working hard enough for Jesus, and how people were deceiving themselves because they weren't really "repentant", "easy believism," "lukewarm Christians," Or my father lamenting how he had spent so many years running away from God and pursuing his selfish dreams of being a photographer when he knew he was meant to be a Pastor (you can imagine what that did to me and my dreams of becoming an artist) is any of this starting to sound familiar? When I went to my (one year of) college, it was to a CHRISTIAN College…. where it was more of the same. They made grown men sign in and out of their own rooms like reform school kids, had mandatory church services every single day (and twice on Wednesdays and Sundays) and where they measured our hair weekly to make sure we were keeping it trimmed to the proper white anglo saxon protestant Christian length.And that's when it all started really going downhill.soon I was out in the regular world— I quit living up to that strict, disciplined expectation of my childhood, the more ashamed I got, and the more numbed I got to real sin in my life….my faith and my salvation assurance, never strong, were battered into ruin. My guilt over failing to live up to my potential only made things worse. I felt guilty for breaking all my parents' rules, I felt guilty for pursuing my dreams of being a cartoonist rather than going off to the Congo to be a missionary, I felt doubt about my salvation and felt guilty for THAT…And sad to say, I am pretty much right at that place now. Still shaking off legalism, still conflicted, still living at a personal nadir.Is this why pastor's kids always seem to go off the rails? Because they start out in the most legalistic environment possible, and they break themselves trying to break free?

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    April 10, 2012
  17. Wow. I read this, and it seems pretty apparent to me that God is working in your life. It really does.

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    April 28, 2012
  18. I really appreciate this series. Resonates with what I struggled through, I was trying to act biblically but having no desire to do so, in the end there's only a bitter taste in my mouth and condemnation toward others. Thank you.

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    February 15, 2013
  19. Well said. You're welcome.

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    February 15, 2013

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