Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.
- John 3:1-6
“So Nicodemus goes to meet him at night. He goes in the darkness. Appropriate. For legalism offers no light.
“That’s legalism. It’s rigid. It’s mechanical – and it’s not from God.
“Can I give you the down and dirty about legalism? Legalism doesn’t need God. Legalism is the search for innocence – not forgiveness. It’s a systematic process of defending self, explaining self, exalting self, and justifying self. Legalists are obsessed with self – not God.”
- Max Lucado, The Greatest Moments
Ouch! Lucado’s words cut to the bone. I have accepted Jesus as my Savior and yet find it so easy to try to stay between the lines, as opposed to strengthening my relationship with Jesus.
It is harder when you have children. No good parent failed to establish boundaries. With boundaries there was at least the threat of punishment. There was the opportunity to show mercy. But the child could walk up to the limit and be okay. Once the child stepped over the limit, the child was into dangerous ground.
We establish systematic legalism with our children to teach them that the rules are there for a reason. We do so also, so that we can teach responsibility and discipline. But what do the children learn?
Does a child go out on his / her own to become the greatest follower of rules and not have a relationship with Jesus at all? A model citizen that the neighbors love having as a neighbor – no trouble from him / her.
Does a child go out on his / her own to establish a meaningful relationship with their Lord and Savior, and, even thought they had been rebellious as a child, establish the same boundaries with their children? A model citizen that the neighbors love having as a neighbor – no trouble from him / her.
I wrote about why God answers prayer recently. The point was that He did not show favoritism toward those who followed the rules better, did more good works, etc. He does not grant answered prayers to just the ‘good’ ones. God is love. He shows His love in many ways, and to prepare us for His plan for our lives, He might just not grant us our desire. He has something better for us. But we see the rejection of our prayer request, and what do we do? We try to be better. We return to a legalist trap.
“Our modern lust for technique comes from the fact that we live in the great how-to age. The age of technology and technique is the age of endless methods, formulas, recipes, seminars, how-to manuals, twelve-step programs and constant lure of efficiency.”
- Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk
Guinness is speaking of avoiding a ‘how-to’ with regards to Christian persuasion, because every situation is different. One list of steps will be great for an encounter with one person and then become a disaster when talking to the next. But his quote can be taken to heart in many areas of endeavor, for one, living our lives as servants of God.
God is pleased when you go to work at a soup kitchen or a food bank. But, maybe for an example, have you noticed that you are distracted while working there? You have these thoughts of something else. You have unused skills that are not being fully utilized handing out a little food to a few needy people. Then you take a leap of faith, and God is delighted when you create an organization that delivers tens of thousands of meals to the needy. God is not disappointed when you were at the soup kitchen, but He used that experience to move you toward His plan for you to feed tens of thousands of people.
This may not be your story, or your skill set, but it is suggested as an example.
When we become a Christian and join a church, the church has programs where we can serve others. We have our own set of boundaries. Now, the church establishes a second set of boundaries. And we must be wise enough to realize that God is limitless. He goes beyond those boundaries.
Why can’t we?
Yes, we should do our part by being law-abiding, but not as an end unto itself. We should focus on the person of Jesus, not what He said to do. Let’s break those chains of the modern world of technique and technology.
By the way, as an engineer who trained the customer’s operators and maintainers, I tried to teach WHY they did this or that instead of showing them the button to push. I dare say less than half were even paying attention, and only some of the time. When speaking through a translator in a foreign country, they paid more attention than in the US. It was a cultural thing, especially in Asian nations.
And yet, with thirty years of industrial teaching, it was so easy to drop back into the set of rules and legalism that I had been exposed to as a youth, even though I trusted Jesus and knew He had forgiven me. My response toward others might be immediate irritation, but soon, when things calmed down, forgiveness was the ultimate reaction with others.
So, in my heart, I suppose I was never a legalist after accepting Jesus as my Savior. Now, if I could just rid my behavior of that ill.
Soli Deo Gloria. Only to God be the Glory.