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A recent article on Recovering Grace, entitled “Moving On,” prompted me to think about the reason it is so difficult to move forward after being victimized by legalism. As I have worked with those hurt by legalism over the years, I have often heard stories about what happened five, ten, maybe thirty years ago. These folks still struggle against the lies they were told and the anger they continue to feel toward those who misused them. I have come to the conclusion that a great deal of the difficulty of moving on has to do with the treasures that were stolen.
Each of the following could be an article in itself, but let me just introduce the problems legalism created by stealing these treasures. You may think of more precious things that were stolen, but these are the ones that have come up most often as I have communicated with victims.
The character of God. Legalism presents an angry and vengeful God who wants to see us fail and then will punish us when we do. He rejects us when we sin and puts us into situations to test our faithfulness. He even punishes us for the things our great-grandparents did. But this is not the God of the Bible. Yes, I know the Bible speaks of the wrath against sin, but the message of love—forgotten by the Legalist—is the primary message of Scripture. God loves us and draws us by love. When the love of God is set aside and His anger becomes the focus, where do we go when we are afraid? The Lord may be a strong tower for His people, but the victims of legalism can’t run to Him and feel safe because they think He is angry with them. I have often asked parents this: “When your children sin, and they will, do you want them to run to God or away from God?” The character of the God you introduce is important. Stealing away the love of God and substituting an angry or vindictive spirit is damaging.
The message of the Bible. So many times people have told me that they simply cannot read the Bible anymore because all they see in it is condemnation. The message of love and peace the Bible brings was stolen from them and replaced by a system that almost always forced them to see shame in its pages. Not only was the Bible blamed for bringing the challenges of the legalistic lifestyle, it was a constant killjoy. “Because the Bible says,” was the refrain that supported every legalistic action, no matter how cruel. But the Bible tells us of the love of God. It was given to proclaim the message of His heart toward us—which is very good. Stealing the real message of the Bible is a great sin against both the believer and the seeker.
The new heart of the believer. How many times did we hear, “The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked”? Victims of legalism are told never to trust their hearts, which meant never to trust their own judgment. Sadly that meant that they were only to trust the judgment of those above them, which opened them to all kinds of abuse. How can anyone go through life successfully and joyfully without the ability to trust their hearts? I remember, when I first understood the great error of this, asking why we should delight in the Lord. The Scripture says that if we delight in the Lord He will give us the desires of our hearts. But if our hearts were as wicked as we were taught, why would God give us those desires? Of course, we were told that He would change the desires of our hearts to the right thing, but that didn’t really help much. The truth is that the believer has a new heart, one which the Lord uses to communicate with us. When He connects to the new spirit in us, He connects to the new heart (See Ezekiel 11:19). But when legalism stole away our ability to look within and trust our hearts, it took away our opportunity to hear the voice of our Lord.
The love and joy of others. Legalism is a system of condemnation and comparison. It sets us up to put others down. If I can’t ever be good enough, I can at least be better than you. We learned to judge and condemn others, rather than to understand them. We learned to compare ourselves with them, rather than to listen and care. We learned to keep them at a distance just in case, rather than to love them. In legalism, we learned to mistrust God, others, and ourselves. But the Lord gave us each other for good. We learn love from each other and others give us an outlet for our love. Relationships are good. Yes, they can be difficult, but they are meant to teach us about ourselves and how to trust God. The message from the beginning, according to John (1 Jn 3:11) was that we should love one another. But legalism pushes us away from each other.
I have come to believe that those who leave legalism must rediscover these treasures. Some will seek them outside the faith. Others will stumble around trying to find them within different legalistic systems. But they know, in every part of their being, that the treasures are worth seeking.
So let me summarize what I have found.
God loves you. He has never not loved you and He has never stopped loving you. Nothing you have done has changed His love for you. All that He has done, through Jesus, has been because of His love for you.
The Bible consistently tells of this love, if you can look past the old legalist system to see the truth. I have suggested that people read through the book of John just for one purpose–to see the love of God. The message is very clear. From beginning to end, the Bible tells of God’s love.
Those who have come to Jesus have received from Him a new heart. It’s true! The old has passed away and the new has come. If you listen for God’s voice, you will hear words of love and affirmation. Never will He condemn or shame you; that’s another voice. Always He calls with a kind voice of acceptance. And you can trust that He will lead you, through your heart, because of His love.
Others are good for you. Yes, they struggle and stumble through life just like you do. They sin and they hurt people. But you don’t have to trust them in order to enjoy them or even love them. You are called to trust the Lord. He may lead you to people who are very different from you and you will learn from them. We were meant to live in relationship with many people and God expresses His creativity in the styles of their lives. Put away your expectations and let others fail. Then you will begin to see how God loves you even through others.
Whatever time it takes, seek the treasures. They are still yours.
Dr. David Orrison has been a pastor for over 30 years and is now the Executive Director of “Grace for the Heart,” a ministry dedicated to proclaiming the sufficiency of Jesus Christ for all aspects of the Christian life. Dave has served in the Evangelical Free Church and in the United Presbyterian Church, and he holds a Ph.D. in Theology from Trinity Seminary. Dave has unique insights into the struggles of what he calls “performance spirituality,” as he has worked extensively with people who are unsure of their relationship with Jesus because of the burden of legalism and the hopelessness of a “works-based Christian walk.” David has lived in Loveland, CO for 25 years and is happily married to Alice. They have eight sons. David blogs on a regular basis at http://graceformyheart.wordpress.com.
All articles on this site reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of other Recovering Grace contributors or the leadership of the site. Students who have survived Gothardism tend to end up at a wide variety of places on the spiritual and theological spectrum, thus the diversity of opinions expressed on this website reflects that. For our official statement of beliefs, click here.