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How Do I Know if I'm Legalistic?

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We live in a DIY (do it yourself) culture. We have figured out how to create really useful tools out of things like plastic soda bottles. If something breaks in our home, there’s probably a YouTube video out there that will walk us through how to fix it - after the person recording the video tells us their life story and why they love cats of course. Not only that, but if we think we are getting sick, a quick search of our symptoms on Web M.D. will quickly allow us to diagnose ourselves with a disease that will surely kill us.

The point is, in the information age, we have the ability to figure out what’s wrong in our lives and what we can do about it. Can this be done with legalism? I would venture to guess that most of us hate legalism and would be willing to do almost whatever it takes to make sure we don’t become legalistic ourselves. Unfortunately, we all have at least some tendencies that border on legalism in our lives. So how can we know if we’re being legalistic, or if we are actually pursuing holiness? I’ve come up with a list that is not exhaustive, but I think may be helpful in examining ourselves to see if we’ve fallen into this slippery slope that we hate so much.

1. The Joy is Gone.

Maybe our best biblical example of legalism would be the Pharisees and religious leaders in the Gospels. Out of every story we read of these men, you would be hard pressed to find even a hint of joy in their lives. Life for them was about keeping the rules, making sure others kept the rules, and adding to the rules to be really sure nobody broke them. Holiness was not a joy-filled pursuit, but hard work that was not for the faint of heart. If you can’t remember the last time prayer, Bible reading, or Christian fellowship stirred true joy in you, you may be showing signs of legalism.

2. Holiness is a Checklist Rather than a Pursuit.

Most of us have experienced the guilt of beginning a Bible reading plan and not following through. The popular “Bible app” has a feature called “streaks” that shows you how many consecutive days you’ve been in the app. I’m willing to bet that many of us have read the Bible on a particular day just to keep our “streak” alive. Legalism causes us to treat following Jesus like a checklist that ensures God still loves us rather than a pursuit of God. Holiness becomes more about checking a box than checking our hearts.

3. Your Standards are Higher for Others than Yourself.

Legalism asks of others more than it asks of ourselves. It holds others to a standard that we pray God doesn’t hold us to. In this way legalism becomes its own fatal flaw. The more we focus on how others are measuring up, the less we pay attention to our own walk and the further we drift away from the very standards we are holding others to. Pretty soon, our lives are flooded with the sins we spend all our time condemning others for.

4. You Can’t Celebrate Others’ Spiritual Success.

In John 9, the Pharisees spent so much time condemning the man born blind that they never actually celebrated his healing. Their immediate reaction was to ensure that he didn’t “cross the line” by giving glory to Jesus for this healing. While we don’t necessarily handle things exactly like the Pharisees, our legalism can often quench the joy and zeal of others because we never celebrate spiritual victories in their lives. Encouragement of others can quickly starve out our legalism because if we are able to celebrate their success, we won’t have as much time to condemn them for their failures.

5. People have Stopped Asking you for Spiritual Advice.

Jesus says of the legalistic Pharisees that “…they (the sheep) will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers” (John 10:5). Legalism steals from, kills, and destroys others. So why would they continue coming to you when you continue to burden them with guilt and shame rather than pointing them to repentance and redemption? If people avoid you when it comes to spiritual guidance and direction, it might just be because you’ve become a Pharisee, and they are looking for Jesus.

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