Confessions of a Legalist

When I was in the business world, I used to meet with various executives to provide them with projects updates. During one trip I met with a CFO one day and with his president the next day.

Confessions of a self disclosed legalistThe CFO told me of troubles he had with the president. The president, he said, cheated other shareholders by bullying; he coerced them into unfair compensation. The CFO told me that it was hard to work with a man who was so abusive and borderline unethical. He said, “I’d never do that.”

The next day I met with the president. He told me of trust issues he had with the CFO. The CFO’s wife was crippled by a chronic illness, and the CFO actively engaged in pornography. The president railed against this man who was emotionally unfaithful to his bedridden wife. He wasn’t sure he could work with such a man. He said, “I’d never do that.”

The Issue

Each of us sees things in others of which we say, “I’d never do that.” Some of us are fit and we see others who become overweight and we say, “I’d never do that.” Or our children are well-behaved, and we see others who let their children go wild, and we say, “I’d never do that.” Or our finances are in order and we see others in drowning in debt, and we say, “I’d never do that.”

What is the real message in our phrase, “I’d never do that?” First we imply disapproval. It’s not good to be unhealthy, in debt, or to cheat.

However—more importantly—the phrase also supplies a sense of self-congratulations, a kind of self-righteousness, and a hint of Pharisaism. It reminds me of the man who prays, “Thank you, God, that I am not like other men, extortioners, … adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). He is really saying, “Thank you, God, that I’m not like them, because ‘I’d never do that.’”

This self congratulation fuels a kind of private applause, a personal standing ovation. We praise ourselves as we contemplate the behaviors we avoid. Saying I’d never do that is an act of other-condemning designed to create a world of self-praise.

The Irony

Anyone who has been a victim of another’s pharisaical legalism knows the pain and shame of condemnation. We don’t want to be out of shape or to be deeply in debt or to see our children out of control. To have another aggravate our wound of failure is to experience double pain and humiliation.

When I think of the pain caused by pharisaical legalists who condemn anyone outside their little moralistic camp, I want to rail against their oppression and self righteousness.

As I think of what they do, I say to myself, “I’d never do that.”

Therein lays the irony. We condemn those condemners and we praise ourselves for being unlike those self-praisers. We happily go about our way, disdaining the bad behavior of others; happy because we’re not like them.

Or are we?

There is a seductive power in saying, “I’d never do that.” The power is fueled by our need for significance, and that need is temporarily relieved in the self-praise we receive by saying it. The effect is to step on others in our need to raise ourselves. We become a legalist ourselves, an anti-legalist legalist.

So what are we to do?

The Answer

We’ll never fully understand the pain and horror of the cross Christ faced, but we can imagine. It’s not just the pain of the beatings or the suffering of nails and asphyxiation; it’s more the loathsome repugnance of our entire guilt and shame placed on his shoulders.

Hanging there, he willingly took all of our guilt upon himself; essentially he was saying, “I did it.”

Picturing this in our minds can lead us to say, “I’d never [be able] to do that” but this time we say it with awe. It creates an atmosphere of praise for another, a thunderous ovation of applause for what he did. It replaces our praise of self with worship of Christ.

Knowing he did this “for the joy set before him”—which is us—empowers us to finally sense we are his beloved.

And that settles our need for self-praise. To the degree we experience awe in his “I did it,” to that degree we’ll no longer need to fill our significance vacuum, and to that degree we’ll no longer need to trample on others with our other-condemning self-praise, “I’d never do that.”

As for thinking, “I’d never do that,” let’s never do that again.

© Copyright 2012, Beliefs of the Heart. All rights reserved.

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18 Responses to Confessions of a Legalist

  1. Sam, this is both poetic and personally self-revealing: “This self congratulation fuels a kind of private applause, a personal standing ovation. We praise ourselves as we contemplate the behaviors we avoid.” Thank you for creating an alertness in me for this poison.

    Gary

  2. Bruce says:

    Dear Sam,
    You do have a way of “finding me out”! Lise and I berate ourselves for doing the judging (another way to say what you are saying in this teaching, of course) of others.
    We get “self worth points” for congratulating ourselves that we “don’t do that”. Satan wants us to rely on this false sense of worth rather than, as you said, turning to the One who gave everything in heaven and earth to have us back from our sin; from whom we receive our ultimate worth if only we will rely on Him!
    Why am I SO weak to fall, “on my own hook”, into his trap??? Thanks for “finding me out” again and encouraging me to look to Jesus. You’re are the BEST at hearing God with these very special teachings and admonitions.
    Blessings and Love,
    Bruce :~)

    • Hi Bruce,
      We are “weak” and “falling on our own hook” as long as we live out of an inner emptiness; as we need to grasp for self-significance.
      Instead, we need to believe in our hearts that we are truly His beloved; and that fills us. Anything else is operating out of empty-glory (Phil. 2:3 – the King James called this vain-glory).
      Thanks!

  3. Brooks Carlson says:

    Sam – No offense, but I’d never post a blog like that.

    🙂

  4. Matt Wallace says:

    That was a good post, Sam.

  5. Richard says:

    Sam – What I like about your writing is that you can so precisely pierce my heart! Several years ago my wife and I saw that we were becoming so very judgmental and began to pray that the Holy Spirit would convict our hearts and that we would turn from that behavior. Well, this blog hits at what we have become and our self serving praise of how “good” we have become. May Christ save us from ourselves and the (as Gary) said the poison that seeps unaware into our hearts. I pray that the drivers that still lie hidden in my heart will be revealed so that they can be circumcised by the Holy Spirit.

    • Richard,
      I agree, “May Christ save us from ourselves and the poison that seeps unaware into our hearts.”
      I believe this poison comes from our need to be important, to feel a significance. And our attempts fail to fill that need on our own. We need to get it from God. Which is one of the reasons I love the Calling Message; God has something special for us to live out, a glory and significance…but one that comes from him.
      Thanks for the comment,
      Sam

  6. Jim McFarland says:

    Sam,

    You reminded me again why I have to wear a cross everyday. It has an inscription that says ” Die to Live”. I need it to remind me to die to my previous sense of worth and seek my worth in following Christ’s example, and being surprised by his joy that fills my empty cup.

    • Hi Jim,
      I love your comment, “I need to…die to my previous sense of worth.”
      I wonder, though, if we should “seek our worth in following the example of Christ.” I think, rather, we simply need to receive our worth from him and his love for us. We can only follow his example after we’ve already received our worth from him.
      What do you think?
      Great comment and great thoughts, thanks.
      Sam

  7. Rachel says:

    Great post US. Thanks for sharing!
    -Rachel

  8. Bruce Yocum says:

    I remember vividly the day, when thinking about someone who had done serious harm (objectively, he had) I thought “I hope he gets what he deserves.”
    Almost instantly a chill went down my spine. “Want to get what you deserve?”
    Suddenly, what I wanted for that man was mercy.
    Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
    That does not mean we condone what he, or I, had done. Both of us were sinners. Therefore I hope that both he and I recognize ourselves for what we are, and hope for mercy for one another.

    • Hi Bruce,
      Someone once said, “If there is no justice, what hope is there for the world? If there is justice, what hope is there for us?”
      When I read your story, a chill went down my spine as well. I don’t want what I deserve.
      Thus the incredible hope of Grace.
      Thanks for your spine chilling comment.

  9. Lou says:

    Sam,

    I also see a comment like, “I’d never do that” as being yet another way we have of minimizing the issue, of avoiding introspection and “not going there”; a way of dismissing the idea that we actually COULD or maybe even DO the very thing we say we do not.

    Lou

    • Lou,
      I am so glad you made that point. Yes, by saying, “I’d never do that,” we anesthetize ourselves to avoid deep personal reflection.
      When I think, “I’d never do that,” the truth is almost always either: a) I actually WOULD do it, given the same circumstances, or b) I’d do something different but equally bad, given my own personality, experience, upbringing, and idols.
      Excellent–but humbling!–point.
      Sam

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