This post is part 16 in a blog series that I have entitled “the wilderness between legalism and grace,” in which I share how I came to realize that I had an incorrect view of God and self and how I became free of the system of legalism whereby I was trying to earn God’s favor. You can view all of the posts in the series here on the series landing page.
For a moment, I’d like to go back and talk about legalism and review a few things that I have mentioned in previous posts.
Here’s how I define legalism:
Legalism is a system whereby a Christian believes he must earn God’s every-day favor, acceptance, and fellowship through strict adherence to a behavioral code which most often is based on fallen man’s interpretation of Scripture.
I have also mentioned that I believe legalism to be a fleshly perversion of Christian living:
“Being close to God” = “doing everything right” = “I can feel good about myself”
You really feel great about yourself when you can look at everyone else and know that you are better than they are because you are doing more right than they are.
Furthermore, I made some connections between legalism and perfectionism:
Legalism is nothing but spiritualized perfectionism.
Only the ones who try the hardest, stay the cleanest, work the longest, and do the best win at the game of pleasing God.
Legalism preys on the perfectionist. She is an easy target. So easily ensnared because being perfect before God just makes sense. The perfectionist is the one who gets rewarded and applauded the most for her actions.
I would like to expound upon these concepts, briefly, to talk about a deeper problem that I believe is behind both legalism and perfectionism:
the desire for control
Legalism and perfectionism both take a sinful, messy world and try to make it black and white. Do this, don’t do that – and God will be happy with you. Check this box, avoid this, make sure of that – and you are guaranteed success. Try hard, do your best – and life will be good.
When both our spiritual success (as in, God being pleased and happy with us) and our successes in other areas of our life (work, school, relationships, etc) are dependent upon how hard we work to do our best or adhere to a set of rules or guidelines, it puts us in charge. Everything is up to us. We are in control of our lives and our spiritual walk.
And boy do we love to be in control.
And that’s why, as hurtful as legalism is, it’s so incredibly hard to give up. Because when our successes don’t depend on a black and white check-list and there isn’t a set standard of do’s and dont’s to judge ourselves and others by – man, that’s tough. We don’t like it because we cannot control it.
Sure, in a legalistic system, we hate seeing all the boxes we missed checking that day. And as much as we hate feeling the guilt and shame from not measuring up, we like knowing where we stand and how to “fix it.”
Grace is almost harder to accept than guilt and shame, because it is so humbling. Accepting grace means saying “I am nothing, he is everything.” Accepting grace means admitting that there is absolutely nothing you can do, no checklists long enough, no white white enough – to ever be good enough for God. You can’t fix your broken. It means depending – WHOLLY AND COMPLETELY – on someone else to be perfect in your place.
Which ultimately, outside of that simple step of faith, means we have absolutely no control. God reached down into a mess and made it beautiful, and we had absolutely nothing to do with it, other than being that heap of a mess that asked him to make something beautiful out of it.
It’s beautiful, but it’s terrifying.
When I slowly started giving up legalism in certain areas of my life (like modesty, music, and church) I did so not because I was accepting, or even understanding grace. I did so because I was simply too tired to care – too discouraged to keep trying at stuff I knew I was a failure at. I let go of dreams of perfection of a perfect college experience and a perfect relationship because the dreams were shattered and there was nothing I could do to put them back together.
But letting go of control in those areas left a huge void. My addicted-to-control hands searched for something else to grab ahold of. I poured myself into being the perfect wife – the perfect Army wife.
And then, God gave me a baby. And I looked at my quickly-growing abdomen as another chance to prove to God and the world that I could be in control of my life. I could make this work. I could do at least one thing right.
And I think God just sat there shaking his head at his child who was so determined to have it her way.
What’s it going to take for her to realize that trying to control her life is futile?
I researched childbirth. I read the books and the internet articles. I made the perfect birth plan. I had the pretty nursery, the baby shower, and the gift registry. Everything was in place for me to succeed at this thing called “motherhood.”
Instead I found myself with an additional 80 pounds to shed, a 9 lb 13 oz malpositioned baby, a scar on my perfect abdomen, a baby who refused to nurse, severe recovery complications, postpartum depression and anxiety – and a whole lot of mess that I couldn’t control.
But it didn’t stop me from fighting. I closed the fingers around my life even tighter. I willed that baby to nurse (with a lot of help). I pulled myself out of depression so I could send my husband off to war. I started shedding those pounds.
I will have control. I will.
And then I approached the mess that I hadn’t been able to control with a check-list in hand, looking for where I had fallen short. Self-blame. Guilt.
If I had just done x, y, and z, then I wouldn’t have had a c-section. Then he would have nursed right away. Then it could have gone right. It didn’t, but here’s why. And I sure as heck am going to do it better next time.
I immediately started planning a VBAC for our next baby. I researched natural childbirth and breastfeeding more after Ezra was born than I had while I was pregnant with him. I’m not joking.
In the midst of all of that research, I stumbled upon what I believed to be the pinacle of perfection in motherhood: attachment parenting. A method of parenting where both babies and mommies are happy, babies get taken care of the best way possible, and everyone can look at you and see how awesome you are as a mom. AP babies get breast milk (the “best” food for babies) until they are ready to wean. They get worn or held which is better for spinal development. They are never left to cry because that damages their tiny little brains. And on and on and on the checklist of perfect parenting went.
Being the perfect mom became my new legalism.
And just like when I was in high-school and I looked down upon the non-skirt wearers and the secular-music-listening-to friends? I did it again. Only this time, I was judging other moms. You know, those epidural-getting, formula-feeding, stroller-pushing, letting-their-poor-babies-cry moms?
Eventually, this legalistic system failed me too, and I went through the painful process all over again. When the baby just wouldn’t go to sleep without crying. When my back couldn’t handle the baby-wearing. When I started realizing that sometimes, the “rules” of perfect parenting were just ridiculous.
Once again, I just couldn’t measure up. I was the one breaking the rules. I was the one that was being judged and hurt by others because I wasn’t good enough.
And I realized that motherhood was yet another thing that I couldn’t control, that I couldn’t be perfect at, that I couldn’t win the favor of God or others through.
I am crying right now as I write this because this desire for control seeps out into every. single. area of my life each and every day. I can sing grace from the rooftops and blog about how I’m free from the shackles of legalism – and then the next moment I realize that I’ve found just another thing to clasp my hands around – to try to do perfectly – to control. Marriage. Preschool. Clean eating. Friendship. Blogging. (Okay, now I’m just stepping on my own toes.)
And I grieve because I know I’m not the only one out there doing this. Because I see the pins on Pinterest. I see the e-books. I’ve read the blog posts. I’ve even written a few myself.
8 ways to write the perfect blog post. 10 steps to grow your blog. 6 steps to a successful homeschool. 15 ways to prepare for motherhood. 7 ways to avoid a cesarean section. 5 ways to plan the perfect birthday party. 12 foods to always buy organic.
None of these are actual posts to my knowledge. But they could be. And they would go viral.
Because we love our checklists. Because we love control.
For me, motherhood was just the last straw in knocking me off of my feet and laying me flat on my face at the feet of Jesus, begging him to make something beautiful out of my mess.
What if, instead of trying to earn God’s favor through obeying a set of rules, we looked at ourselves as the depraved beings that we really are and begged for the righteousness of Christ to clothe us every day?
What if, instead of trying to be perfect, we let it all go and begged for grace to make it through each long sin-filled messy day?
What if, instead of trying to be perfect moms, perfect wives, perfect home-schoolers, perfect DIY-ers, perfect bloggers, perfect eaters – we just let it all go.
What if stopped trying to control everything, opened the fingers clenched around our lives, and ran with abandon to the arms of our God whose love is enough to cover all of our sins – whose goodness is enough to be good when there is absolutely nothing good about us?
Let’s talk about this one. Does the desire to control bleed into every area of your life like it does in mine? How can we let go of it? How can we accept grace not just in our spiritual lives, but in our day-to-day mess?
To view all the posts in this blog series, visit the landing page.
Next post, part 17: forget where you “should be” and “give God your ugly”