When does healthy, spiritual self-reflection end and legalistic, self-absorption masquerading as godly humility and spirituality start?
I’ve been pondering this as I seek to disciple teenagers God has entrusted to my care. I believe the latter is a religious spirit that evaluates Christian “spirituality” on the basis of rule-keeping and one’s conformity to an external set of human regulations. This in turn allows us to personally evaluate ourselves as righteous and godly and others reprobate and ungodly.
It is a trap we are all susceptible to—returning to an external code of rule-keeping that affords us the temptation to compare ourselves with others and briefly “feel good about ourselves.” I say “briefly” because it never lasts. Why? Because there is no rest, no security, no sense of being unconditionally loved when we are constantly measuring ourselves to some external criteria—and thinking God is doing the same.
The awe-inspiring, self-righteous shattering truth is: God is not holding a measuring yardstick that consigns our worth and acceptance on the basis of our moral, behavioral “height.” If God were we could not “boldly approach the throne of grace for mercy in our time of need” as Hebrews declares.
So much of the Christian life is striking the balance. For example, on the one hand, Paul says in Christ we now have liberty through grace, and have been set free from the judgment of the Law that always sought to accuse us and remind us that we “don’t measure up.” Yet on the other hand Paul also said we ought not to think that such liberty and grace affords us a license to sin and indulge our flesh.
With the lives of many current, confessing believers being morally indistinguishable from unbelievers—much can be said of the latter admonition of Paul. However in this short post I want to focus on Paul’s point that through Christ, liberty and freedom have come to us—such that we should forever close the door on the human propensity to find our identity, worth and spiritual standing on the basis of our conformity (or lack thereof) to an external code of regulations.
In many ways I believe Christ was so refreshing for the average sinner of his day who “didn’t measure up” because they intuitively sensed he wasn’t hiding a moral yardstick behind his back. His very countenance and smile told them he didn’t look at them through the eyes of Law but rather the eyes of grace.
In contrast it was the religious authorities—the moral perfectionists who crossed every “t” and dotted every “i”— who were the most turned off by Christ. In fact I think the feeling was quite mutual. Christ seemed to have very little patience for the religious regulators of his day. Why? Because Jesus understood religion is the counterfeit of true, life-giving, thirst-quenching spirituality.
Religion substitutes form for freedom, method for meaning, law for life, segregation for reconciliation and restitution for redemption. Strange as it may sound, the Gospel is principally not a call to repent and “try to do better”, to change bad habits into good habits or to make personal restitution for past wrongs. Those things are certainly good in and of themselves and have their proper place. But the Gospel is not “good news” because it offers us a path towards behavioral modification or personal restitution of wrongs committed (religions like Buddhism and Islam and even secular therapy can achieve the same ends).
Rather it is “good news” because it is the proclamation that what you cannot do for yourself—God has done for you—through Christ. It is the proclamation that the Kingdom of God has come to you, that God has chosen to love you: sin-stained, smelly and hopelessly guilt-ridden as you are. Thus the message of the gospel is not first and foremost a call to do anything–but to believe in someone who has already done everything.
Now it is true that life in Christ is divinely designed to be a journey into ever-increasing wholeness and holiness and away from self-centered, destructive sins–but it doesn’t start with doing and lead to achieving. It starts with receiving and leads to abiding.
Moreover the Gospel is good news because God isn’t counting sins anymore! As Paul says in 2 Cor. 5:19, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”
Sadly when Christians become overly consumed and worried about their personal sanctification—such that they find themselves forever feeling like they don’t “measure up” to some standard of holiness or virtue—it is a sign they have become overly turned inward and have actually succumbed to a religious spirit of false humility. False humility can occur in one of two ways, both of which are manifestations of the self. The first is you become so turned inward you constantly manifest a “woe is me, I’m not worthy” demeanor that robs you of a life of joy, rest and freedom that only comes when you realize outward performance doesn’t equate to inward spiritual worth.
The second way is when you equate your observance of external prohibitions with righteousness. This leads to self-righteousness, which is nothing less than trying to establish your own righteousness above that of others based on your observance of human commandments and teachings.
For example: “Being a Christian means you never drink wine or alcohol, you never sing or listen to any secular music, you never dance–not even at weddings, you never dress casual for church, you can never wear skinny jeans, shorts above the knee, or form-fitting clothes, you don’t wear make-up, you never try to look attractive, you can’t wear bathing suits in public, you don’t date, you don’t ever smoke, you never enter a movie theatre, you never watch T.V., you never kiss before marriage, you don’t wear jewelry, you don’t braid your hair, you never laugh in church, you never eat pork, you never play poker or with cards, you never get a tattoo, never grow your hair long, never pierce your ears…and on and on.
Some of these admonishments may be personal convictions and even be beneficial to a point, but none of them are explicitly condemned in the New Testament. Yet for many Christians such prohibitions have come to exemplify the very paradigm of what it means to “be a Christian.” PUKE! It is religion—it is a lie and a sham. The problem with such people who try to “get life” from such human commandments is that you can always find someone who is more extreme, more “faithful,” more stringent and more legalistically fanatical than you! It just never ends. There is no rest. There will always be someone who “does it better” than you. The woman who judges another for wearing a form-fitting shirt, will in turn be judged by another for wearing shorts above the knee, who in turn will be judged by another for even owning shorts instead of long pants, who in turn will be judged for not wearing a skirt, who in turn will be judged for not wearing an ankle-length, baggy dress, who in turn will be judged for wearing an “eye-catching” colorful red instead of a dull, unappealing, Amish-grey, homespun curtain thrown over their body …and on and on until women are wearing Taliban issued, full-body burkas.
Similarly the person who says being a Christian equals never tasting wine or having a beer because it supports an industry that contributes to alcoholism can always be condemned by another for using and supporting Google which is the #1 search utility for pornography. Some are now preaching that the internet itself is inherently evil just like fermented grape juice or anything alcoholic is inherently evil (cough syrup?) and therefore Christians should not compromise their faith by engaging in such “sins.”
I’m not at all an avid or heavy drinker, and I’ve never been close to drunk. But I enjoy having a cold beer or glass of wine once in awhile with good friends–especially when I lived in Israel where wine is the custom every Sabbath. My recognition that the Bible condemns only drunkenness and not necessarily the substance of wine or alcohol was not always the case. I grew up in an ultra-conservative, legalistic church. I have seen first hand how the fruit of such legalism is death. Many of those I grew up with, who sat under the zealous tutelage of the “godly life” and who were discipled under the standard of religiosity set forth by the church, ended up later in life either struggling immensely with a sense of God’s loving acceptance and grace or they completely fell away.
Paul says, “the letter of the law kills, but the Spirit gives life…where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:6,17). I find it quite interesting and unfortunate that Christian denominations who adamantly prohibit any and all alcoholic consumption–as a rule— have higher rates of hidden alcoholism in their congregations than those which advocate for moderation and following the considerations of conscience towards others whose “conscience…and faith is weaker” (1 Cor. 8, Rom. 14:1-2). Anytime we go beyond the requirements of scripture and conflate cultural preferences or personal convictions with scriptural mandate, we introduce a religious spirit that quenches life and ultimately drives certain practices, like drinking and dancing, into hidden shadows where abuse is much more likely to occur in the dark than in the light.
Even worse we place unnecessary stumbling blocks in the path of others coming to Christ whereby we burden them down with regulatory additions that have nothing to do with receiving Christ as Lord and Savior. For example it is misguided to say, “If you want to be a Christian you have to first agree to “stop listening to rap music” or “take your earrings out” or “never drink a glass of wine again” or “only vote Republican”, etc.
All such talk is nothing less than the placing of legalistic obstructions and hurdles along the path to Christ that ultimately hinders people discovering Christ. I remember when I first lived in Israel I had a “no tolerance for alcohol” conviction that I equated with “what it means to be a Christian.” It was actually Baptist missionaries who pulled me aside and said, “Matt–you can’t say such things here in Israel. It is customary for Jews to invite you over to their house for Sabbath and the taking of wine is a very heartfelt and bonding tradition they share with you. If you say, ‘Sorry–I’m a Christian and that means I’m not allowed to drink wine’ you have just thrown down a huge obstacle and stumbling block on their road to personally discovering Jesus as Messiah.”
It was a life-changing conversation that helped me identify and shed other areas where I unnecessarily and un-biblically equated certain prohibitions with what it meant “to be a Christian.” I realized that Christ often becomes hidden and tucked away behind these burdensome, religious mandates.
The Pharisees had their own, unique, religious additions they would burden people down with–and Jesus despised all of it saying, “The Pharisees…bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders…For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.” (Mt. 23:4,13)
The Gospel is not Jesus plus X, Y and Z. It is just–JESUS. There is no “plus.” Once you start bolting things on from the outside and tacking on additional “fine print” to the gospel you lose Jesus and gain religion.
And in the end religion is a human construct that thrives on rule-keeping and outward form but leaves the heart restless, insecure and untouched. Depending on one’s personality it will ultimately lead to a false humility that results in either self-righteous pride or hopeless despair.
As one who was once a radical enforcer of rule-keeping religion, Paul could easily discern its deceptive presence and danger. He had no tolerance for it once he came to realize that Jesus is the fountain head, the well-spring of life; whereas religion is nothing more than a deadly whirlpool in the open sea of humanity that sucks everything into it and can never be satisfied, appeased or quenched.
One can almost hear Paul’s intense emotion as he pleads with people to discern the critical difference between man’s religion of “do not taste, drink, do or touch” and life in Christ.
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery…You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace…He erased the certificate of debt, with its obligations, that was against us and opposed to us, and has taken it out of the way by nailing it to the cross… Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink…Do not let anyone who delights in false humility… disqualify you… Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules…are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship and their false humility…” (Gal 2:1-4; Col 2:8-23)