One of the most difficult things for a parent is recognizing that their child is growing up and then allowing them to do something new. There’s a time when responsibility can, and should, be handed over to the child in order to keep them growing. But it can be hard to know enough to be comfortable. As a parent you might begin asking questions like: When is the right time to let go? What is the proportion of responsibility which is appropriate to balance the child’s ability and inability? How much it is necessary to step in and direct or fix their mistakes (if at all)? And when is it right to screen them from the consequences of making mistakes? Sometimes I’ve seen parents be so risk-averse that they would rather cut their child’s food for them until they are 13 than let them handle a knife. Other times I’ve seen parents so flippant that they allow their three year-old to cross a busy street by themselves. There’s a balance that needs to be met, and it’s hard to know exactly where it is based on the danger inherent in the task, the child’s maturity, and the opportunity costs of not pushing them to learn something which may stretch them and drive them to greater success later.
A good example of what I mean is if my eight year-old son and six year-old daughter were to ask me if they could make dinner. It might possibly depend on what they wanted to make as to whether I agreed or not. If they want to make something simple, like a simple turkey and cheese sandwich, I would probably say yes. But if the sandwiches they wanted to make required a sharp knife to cut bread or cheese, plus a hot oven to cook them, I’m pretty unlikely to agree. No-one wants to see a six or eight year-old get third degree burns because they’re trying to make Croque Monsieur.
The problem for our purposes in this post though, is if I instructed my six and eight year-old to make me a CroqueMonsieur. I might tell them, “Kids, I’m feeling very hungry today and the only thing that sounds good to me is something French and as difficult to make as it is to pronounce. How about if you walk down to the bus stop in the thirty degree weather, go to the grocery store to pick up some gruyere cheese, buy it with your own money, and then make your way back home. After that, you can bake some homemade bread, whip up a béchamel sauce, grate the cheese, assemble the whole thing and then stick it in a hot oven under the broiler. Oh! And if you think you need some help, go ahead and let me know … if you must.”
Those are pretty silly demands to make of a couple of little kids; no matter their maturity or capability. It’s not safe … and it’s probably not at all realistic. But there’s another issue that is key too. When it comes to my kids, I could imagine them being ecstatic about the opportunity … but for how long would that last? They’d probably love to be given that chance to be grown up in so many ways and my daughter would love to make something French since that automatically makes it “fancy.” However, inevitably they would fail … and then how would they feel? Ultimately, they lack several things which are necessary: knowledge on how to use the bus routes, knowledge about where the store is, knowledge about where the gruyere would be in the store, they might not have the money to pay for the ingredients, they might not know how to make – or be capable of making – a béchamel, etc. An impossible task such as this would certainly crush them – and that’s reason enough for me not to ask them to do it; how much more that it simply isn’t safe?
Correspondingly, I used to think that God directed the same of me in my impossible task of being holy. Knowing that I need to do what God commanded me to do, it was as if He was telling me something like I told my kids, “Hey you, I need you to complete this task for Me. Travel a great distance, buy a great many things, complete a complicated recipe which requires several skills which you do not have, and let me know if you have any questions.” In other words, I thought that God was telling me to make do with what little that I had at my disposal … as if the cognitive and spiritual deficits of my immaturitycould be overcome by a lil’ ol’ fashioned elbow grease or stick-to-itiveness. Sure, I didn’t have enough money to pay my debts … sure, I might sweat and bleed, or get burned, a bit while pushing harder toward perfection … I might get scraped up and bruised as I stumbled forward along the road of life … I might fall into occasional depression and become heartbroken from time to time as I attempted the impossible; but all of those things are expected of me and within my capability to fix and endure.
Never mind that I couldn’t EVER seem to do anything right – falling into the same old sinful traps over and over again – no matter how hard I tried. Never mind that my brain seemed incapable of shutting out my sinful thoughts. Never mind that my heart was becoming increasingly doubtful of God’s care as I let myself down in my efforts to live up to His instruction. Never mind that I grew so tired of trying that at times I fed theduel-headed beast of sin and desire by just succumbing. I’d stillpick myself up again and again (so I thought), dust myself off (so to speak), treat my bleeding scrapes (putting temporary bandages over wounds which never healed), put salve on my burns and scars (better a small burn than an eternal one), nurse my bruises (pretending that my skin was supposed to be that purplish color), and stagger along in the direction which I thought was right but was hard to see through my clouded eyes, swollen with injury and tears.
I went for years believing in this “theology.” And I increasinglywondered why it seemed that some people had it so easy while I had events and direct instruction which came from God but alsogot in between me and God. I wondered how I could overcome the obstacles that seemed to present themselves daily and, to be perfectly honest, I grew so tired and jaded that I stopped praying with anything more than habitual staleness because I wondered if God cared about me at all. And, if He did care about me, why didn’t He care about me more – so that I could be as blessed as those who had things (seemingly) easier? I even began to get some sort of sick satisfaction out of seeing other people suffer. Not because I enjoyed their suffering, but because it seemed to justify my pitiful outlook on God. As if their suffering, major or minor, made my situation more understandable and consumable. (How revolting is that?)
That, my dear readers, is what a legalistic outlook will do to the soul. It decays the heart and confusticates the mind because it requires the impossible. Any effort on our part which comprises the most miniscule amount of sincerity brings about the sense, deep within us, that the impossibility of the task is absolutebecause any sincerity is beyond us. We may ignore that sense, relegating it to a deep recess of the mind, hoping to make it go away. Or we may fight that sense, arguing with it incessantly, hoping to conquer its implications. But it never goes away. We can’t forget it, or master it. Instead, it may lay dormant for a while, before it inevitably rises from its own ashes to clamp onto our bowels in order to give a sickening twist of recall to our soul. A twist which screams, NO! I’m NOT good enough! I CANNOT do this! It is IMPOSSIBLE! This twist in the gut, when felt over and over and over again, leads to one of two choices from the person in this situation. Either he picks himselfup and starts over in trying to be right in himself, or he says, “To hell with it! To hell with me! I cannot be perfect … so I will not even try!”
This situation, or “theology,” or outlook, or religion, or whatever you want to call it, goes by lots of different names, but for our purposes here, we will call it simply “legalism.” The word automatically brings out a visceral reaction. We hate that word. But ironically, it is often in the very halls in which legalism is decried most loudly where it is most alive and most practiced. You will hear from the same pulpit in one sermon a loud proclamation that a check-the-box lifestyle is not what God has in mind, while in the next sermon you will hear that the action of the individual, or the subscription to the right man-madechurch/organization/liturgy/ritual, is what brings salvation. Amongst the hearers the hypocrisy may not be evident, because it is too easy for a fleshly mind to misread its insidious “logic”into God’s Holy Scripture. And so the mind begins to incorrectly develop a faulty connection between God’s command for purity and man’s ability to be pure.
Legalism creates this connection by doing one of two things – or perhaps both at the same time. It either elevates the efforts of man by attributing powers to the human will which have no evidence of existence, or it lowers the work of Jesus to an ineffectual level. This elevation/denigration is necessary in order to make up for a logic gap that is created by realizing that one is not holy, but knowing that one must be in order to be saved. What I mean is that, when we subscribe to legalism we immediately start a dilemma that follows a circular track of reasoning which we might call the “Legalist’s Logic Loop.” It goes like this:
How horrible is the life of the person who follows this path, doubling and re-doubling back upon itself. Where is the off-ramp? Where is the escape? Can nothing be done to rescue us?
The good news is that there IS a way of escape. But it might not be exactly where you thought it was. I think a lot of people who have fallen prey to, or grown up in, legalism tend to go from one extreme to the other. They reject the box-checking of legalism and swing completely to the opposite end of the spectrum,pretending that there are no boxes to check, and so lapse into an ineffectual and spineless religion where anything goes. They refuse God’s law in its entirety, having had a poor taste of it as it was shoved down their necks, and so they miss its goodness,sweetness, perfection, and necessity when it is applied correctly. “A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough” (Gal 5:9).
The simple fact is that we do indeed have a mandate to be perfect. Jesus said it Himself, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). And the instructions which God gives us have the intention of leading us to perfection, as is said in Psalm 19:7f, “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.” These are promises which do not seem in any way to be empty. On the contrary, they are very intentional – which is why they are repeated in four different ways. However, these promises’ fulfillment is contingent upon the transformation to perfection by conformity with the law of God. As if God is saying through the Psalmist, “I will restore your soul, make you wise, lead your heart to rejoice, and enlighten your eyes, if you will follow My commandments.” (Fortunately, He also makes the promise regarding the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:33, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it.”) If we continue reading Psalm 19, we even come across a verse which vindicates the Lord’s verdicts of doom on us when we are imperfect, “The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether” (v9 – emphasis mine). And the Lord’s verdicts are clear in that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23) and “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us” (1Jn 1:10).
So, if the legalism loop is not broken at the first point, “I MUST be perfect,” then where is it destroyed? The escape is found in the refutation of the second step: “I MUST therefore have the ability to be perfect.” If this step in the loop is destroyed, each subsequent step also falls. Humans have always had this ghastly idea that the command by God for perfection implicitly, and necessarily, infers that we have the capability within ourselves to carry out that command. And by subscribing to this onethought, the logic train must by needs follow the silly loop above. After the faulty step number two, all of the followingsteps seem to at first be encouraging. We say to ourselves, “I will be happier if I can just change my actions, change my mind, just live better, and be better.” But then our hopes are dented by our actual practice and finally are ruined by our lack of capability.
Maybe we go through the loop a few times, or a few dozen, or even a few hundred – long-suffering in the pitiful paroxysms of purposeless pain. At some point, however, our knees buckle and we find that we lack the strength to get back up and try again. I’m speaking experientially here, but there are plenty of scriptures which also clearly establish this fact of human inability (see Gen 6:5; 1Kgs 8:46; Job 14:1-4; Ps 51:5; 58:3; Jer13:23; Mt 15:19; Jn 6:44; Rom 3:10-12; 8:7f; Eph 4:18ff, just to name a few).
When I reached that point, I remember a single ray of sunshine bleeding through the clouds that seemed destined to blot it out in my mind. It seemed impossible to make any headway in either my action or my desire. But then I remembered a verse from the Bible with the word impossible in it: “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Mt. 19:26). I remembered these words, but I couldn’t remember the context, so I looked it up. It was Jesus who spoke those words aftermeeting the Rich Young Ruler. Poor ol’ RYR had gone away sad because Jesus told him to sell all that he had and then put Jesus first. For a moment I began to write off the passagebecause I thought, in some simplistic way, that Jesus was only speaking about rich people in that passage; that it was something about wealth in this world that got in the way of a man’s ability to live up to perfection. That’s certainly a warning from the passage, but it had to have broader significance than that, right?
I then noticed that my Bible had a reference to the parallel passage in Mark and understood the story a bit more when I sawthere that the same story has a tiny bit more dialogue. This is unusual for Mark, since his gospel seems gloriously focused on action. But maybe that’s the point: that sometimes those who put their trust in action can rely upon it to the detriment of something greater? Jesus first says in Mark 10:23, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” But then He broadens it when He sees the disciples’ amazement and says, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” – expanding His statement from the rich to everybody. He goes on then to say, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (v24f). And the disciples then, in their astonishment, ask the question in verse 26 that is burning on every legalist’s heart: “Then who can be saved?” Unquestionably, the common ‘wisdom’ of the day was that wealth was a sign of blessing and endorsement from God (and I daresay this ‘wisdom’ plagues our culture today too). Sure, the camel through the eye of a needle statement was directed at wealthy people. Nevertheless the concern from the disciples was no doubt personal because if those who were seemingly blessed by God with wealth had so little chance, what chance did those who were seemingly cursed by God with poverty? Each of those present probably turned that thought around and around in their minds, looking for a way that the impossible would be possible for them. Maybe they weren’t just asking the simplified, lowest-common-denominator question, “Then who can be saved?” Maybe a dozen voices all coming to the same conclusion at once, blurted out a series of protests that ended with that simplified, recorded version? Maybe it sounded more like this, “Wait a moment, Rabbi … do you mean that it is THAT hard to enter the kingdom of God? That even those we know to be blessed by God will find it that difficult? What about priests? What about Pharisees? What about the descendants of the great families? Surely those things count for something? Then who can be saved?” With thatjumble of voices, I can almost hear some yell out in hopeless pleading that one question which gets recorded, “Then WHO can be saved?” Or conversely, maybe the rest of the questions died away and one soft, barely-audible, whisper asked the summaryquestion: “Then WHO can be saved?”
I also wonder how long that question hung in the air, because it seems to hang there 2,000 years later. We don’t get a very good idea of the length of pauses in scripture, do we? Perhaps Jesus answered right away? Or perhaps He let silence reign for a moment in order to let the implications of the question seepfurther into the minds of those present? Maybe He gave them a moment to think about their own trips down the well-trodden paths of self-reliance and self-righteousness? Maybe He even let them think through their own versions of the Legalist’s Logic Loop and wonder internally why their logic model didn’t square with what Jesus had said? There were many different personalities present. Some, like Peter or Nathanael, might have jumped to a conclusion rather quickly, but others, like maybe John or Andrew, might have needed a moment to turn the problem over in their minds. We maybe get a sense of this pause by the simple phrase at the beginning of verse 27(emphasis mine), “Looking at them, Jesus said …” I wonder what kind of look He gave them. Did He keep His face impassive in order to give more import to His words when He finally chose to speak? Or, did He look at them with compassion, giving them a chance to get the knot of guilt and doubt fully formed in their gut? He would have known the turmoil in their hearts as the power of the lesson fully blossomed and everything about the hopelessness of keeping the 611 Mosaic laws taught to them in the synagogue all of their lives began to dawn in their minds. “Then WHO can be saved?” But after Jesus let them realize this pain and depression for a moment, He said, “With people it is impossible [there’s that word again], but not with God; for all things are possible with God” (v27).
The problem fits all people, and therefore the solution must fit all people. And it is in the words of the Son of Man that we findthe escape from the logic loop of the legalist: “With people it is impossible, but NOT WITH GOD!” Our inability is not unknown by God (as if anything could be unknown by God). On the contrary, God is well aware of it. What’s more, He’s also aware of our inability to grasp, on our own, the impossibility of being perfect. Not only did He have to tell us in this powerful verse that it is impossible for man to effect his own salvation (you can’t jam a camel through an eye of a needle), but He had to illustrate it by giving well over a millennia of examples of how His perfect, sure, right, and pure (see our passage in Psalm 19) law could never be kept. And then, when the perfect time came, He unveiled His perfect plan, formed in His sovereignty and majesty before He even molded man and breathed into him the breath of life. The plan that the impossibilities for man would be made possible by the work of perfect God Incarnate. He, by Jesus’ life and death, resurrection and ascension, cut the Gordian knot of legalism which we fashioned in our arrogance and ignorance. “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:3f).
We aren’t perfect, but that is His demand … and His law is good. We can’t be perfect … but this does not nullify His perfect law (Rom 2-8; Gal 3-4). And so, God has come to earth, clothed Himself with humanity and offered us His clothing in return, that the Legalist’s Logic Loop might be destroyed and trust in the promises of God might replace the hopelessness of self-reliance and self-righteousness. Jesus DID live perfectly. He was “tempted in all things, as we are, yet without sin” (Heb4:15), and therefore has the right to stand before the Father. What’s more, He “clothes us” with Himself that we also may be sons of God and stand before Him. The impossibility of reconciliation between the perfect and the imperfect has been made possible by God, just as Jesus said in Matthew 19:26 and Mark 10:27.
His Holy Spirit is what reveals this great truth to us – rescuing us from the bonds of legalism in the process. We begin to seethen that all of the glory of man’s salvation therefore belongs to God! We no longer have to believe, as I did, that God tells us, “Hey you, I need you to complete this task for Me. Travel a great distance, buy a great many things, complete a complicated recipe which requires several skills which you do not have, and let me know if you have any questions.” Instead we hear Him tell us, “My Child, I know that what you need to do is impossible for you – please stop this endless self-destruction by attempting the impossible. Do you not see that I have reconciled you to Me at My own cost? I will now give you a new heart, and put My Spirit within you. I will guide you to make you know Me better, and I will save you. I will not do this for your honor – you have none to your name – but I will do this for Myglory – and give you new and better name. That all who see you will know that I am the One Who renews the broken, refreshes the weary, and who makes the impossible possible.”
If none of us who are parents would ever command our children to do the impossible – driving them to horrible pain and despondency in the process – without giving them the necessary guidance and capability, why do we inflict that injustice upon God? Do you not see how perfect is the plan of God? Do you not see how merciful He is? Do you not see how He takes those who have spent their lives in a desperate, hopeless search for perfection, and heals their bruised and battered frame by Hisillimitable strength? Do you not see how He relieves the ones afflicted by the terrible trap of the Legalist’s Logic Loop? Do you not see how He replaces our self-reliance with reliance upon Him, and our self-righteousness with His perfect and always-trustworthy righteousness? And do you not see that He does all these things through Himself and by Himself and in Himself and all to His glory?
When God works this miracle, it also does something else that is amazing. I mentioned at the beginning that my inability to make any progress by my own strength also injured my willingness to talk to God. That is no longer the case. I now want to talk to God, because He has become my friend. I want to thank Him for saving me from an endless loop of frustration. I want to offer Him everything because He has given me everything to begin with. He is my Friend … and who doesn’t want to talk with a friend?
The Legalist’s Logic Loop easily ensnares and holds us in wretched bondage … but God can disentangle us from it … and what a RELIEF it is to be free! Praise be to God!