This Is the Reason Why Legalism Feels So Right—and Couldn’t Be More Wrong

I was driving with a new friend back from the park, and we were discussing our religious backgrounds and some of the standards that we used to follow when we were growing up.

We hit on the topic of dress and modestly very briefly, and when I shared with her the strict standards I held to during my teen years she asked me if my parents imposed those standards upon me.

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No, it was all my decision.

Meet teenage me: The girl who never wears pants, sews up the slits on her skirts, wears shirts a size too big to make sure they aren’t too tight, has scripture plastered all over her walls – and spends 2 hours every morning reading her Bible, praying, and memorizing scripture. The girl doesn’t date and confesses to her parents every time she has a crush on a boy. She asked for a hope chest for her birthday and spends her free time preparing to be a wife who can knit, crochet, cook, sew, and make pretty stamped notecards.

And all of this was of her own doing. There was no punishment from overly-strict parents. There was no “go upstairs and change that outfit right now young lady!” ever heard in our house.

What makes a teenage girl do all of this of her own volition? 

I can point fingers at the church we were attending – at the charismatic leader who promoted such ideals and lifted up his own daughters as examples to be followed.

But the answer goes far deeper than simply a legalistic church or perfectionistic ideals promoted from a small church pulpit.

People engrossed in legalism shame the heart attitudes and actions of “liberals” as “fleshly” and self-serving. And they lift up self-denial, sacrifice, and separation.

But legalism is fleshly. 

Can I just say that again and let it sink in for a moment?

Legalism is self-serving and fleshly. 

Checking boxes, doing right, dressing right – doing all the do’s and not doing all the don’ts – to earn the favor of God…

It feels so good! 

Because if you are good enough to earn God’s love, well then… you are pretty amazing.

It’s all about you. 

It feels really good to sit in your church’s monthly communion time and confess all your known sins before you partake to make sure that you are “worthy,” especially when you are already doing everything right anyway.

For a long time after my perfect world got wrecked, I used to think…

…if I could just get back to how things were when I was in high school…that’s when I was closest to God. 

I was never so close to God as I was then. 

Nor was I ever so far.

Because here was what was really going on:

“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.

I loved the books of Ephesians and Colossians because they were full of commands that I was following.

Legalism fed my flesh. 

But then when life got in the way, when exhaustion and a college schedule made it too hard to spend time in God’s Word, when I no longer wanted to dress the way I had before because I felt like a dork, when I got angry at God for a relationship that ended, when I was falsely accused of disobedience, when I was hurt by people who I had trusted and loved…

When I realized that “doing everything right” was impossible and that I could never be “good enough” for God…

It was then that I could no longer feel good about myself. I grieved for my “glory days” of spirituality and wanted to get back there to experience those feelings where I knew I was good and God was happy with me.

But at the same time I didn’t want to touch those days with a 10 foot pole.

For seven years I struggled. Guilt weighed heavy on me all day, every day.

Self-hatred. Depression. Frustration.

I hated church.

I would pick up my Bible once-in-a-blue-moon only to put it back down because it no longer made me feel good about myself. All I saw is all of the ways I was failing. In fact, most of the time I couldn’t even get to the reading part because the weight of how little time I read my Bible (compared to what I had in the past) made me feel so crappy I didn’t even want to bother.

I still smiled a lot. I still went to church. I still had Christian friends. I even blogged about my faith and having a good marriage.

I got really good at faking a relationship with a God that I thought was displeased with me.

And some days I actually felt good. I felt like I was doing enough right things that at least for a day or two, God was happy with me, and therefore I could be happy with myself. But it never lasted.

For seven years I wandered in a no-man’s land, a wilderness, between legalism and grace – trying to find some balance between the two. Trying to hold onto a past I knew was unfulfilling, but too scared to embrace a future of grace.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to be sharing more about the days I spent torn between legalism and grace. It’s a scary, ugly story. But “our scary stories lose their power to torment us once we allow God to redeem them.”

I’m going to be sharing some of the negative experiences I went through and so much of the negative thinking that either contributed to or resulted from those events. I’m going to be sharing the lies that kept me from God’s grace.

I have been around the blogosphere enough to know that there are a lot of people wandering in this wilderness. I’ve read the comments and the posts. I’ve seen the journeys. And I’m hopeful that sharing my story can help some of these people – maybe someone reading this right now – find their way into grace.

(I’ve already shared bits and pieces of this story in my posts Embracing Grace, Leave It All Behind, and Faith Refreshed. If this post at all resonated with you, I hope and pray that you will read those posts as well.)

Now, let’s chat. Has anyone else realized how legalism is a form of fleshly pride because it makes you feel good about yourself? How have you seen this played out in your own life?  


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Aprille Donaldson
Aprille is a twenty-something wife and mom living in the Triad area of North Carolina. She blogs at Beautiful In His Time, her personal chronicle of finding God’s beauty in her mess. She blogs about military and veteran challenges, special needs parenting, millennial motherhood, pregnancy, birth, and faith. You can find her on FacebookTwitterPinterestInstagram, and Google Plus