In my late teens I dove headfirst into an entirely different brand of “Christianity”. It was the highly charismatic Word of Faith movement. In this movement, blessing and cursing from God is directly related to what we do or don’t do, just like the Old Covenant. (Now many Christians hold to this idea, in other forms, but none as crassly as this bunch. I sometimes think of them as Job’s Comforters.) If we have faith, all will go well. If not – because of not claiming the right promises and repeating themselves to ourselves often enough to build our faith, or not donating enough of our income, or because of some less than wise decision, or else because of some sin – things will fall apart. And since things go wrong all the time, people begin nit-picking to find out what is wrong in their lives that is causing the problem. This leads to all sorts of insane, superstitious, fear-driven behavior. I’m too embarrassed to tell some of the things I and others I knew did as a result of this horrific doctrine. I literally did things that endangered my life. Some very horrific things happened to me at the hands of some of these folks that caused me to run far and fast from them and God, who I’d become convinced was a cruel trickster lying in wait for anyone who stepped out of line.
Several debauched years later, a series of traumatic experiences left me terrified for my life. I decided I needed to ensure God would be on my side. It was time to start trying to live like a Christian again. So I headed back to church, this time to a relatively moderate Pentecostal denomination. By that point in my life, legalism, in my mind, was part and parcel of being a Christian. I not only didn't question it; I expected it. Legalism was, in my mind, the sign of someone who was serious about being a Christian. Some people are very good at living in this way. I never was; but that didn’t stop me from internalizing all the hyper-spiritual rules and using them to condemn myself. I remember during that time reading a book about grace that someone had given me. I think it was called "Grace Plus Nothing". I remember as well that I thought it was too good to be true and and, therefore, a load of bull – everyone knows grace doesn’t come for free, and you can't get something for nothing, right? That church experience ended for me when I saw Word of Faith doctrine creeping in. The leadership did not care, so I beat it out of there in a hurry.
I moved on to another type of church. This one I held in great esteem because they didn’t participate in any of the charismata publicly, and only taught through the Bible. I viewed these guys as the pinnacle of serious Christianity, and they encouraged this view, having little truck with the rest of Christendom. I attended one of these churches for a while. It was laid back. Casual dress was the norm. The legalism there was subtle. It was there, only it was, well – nebulous. It came more in the form of emotional spirituality – being led by “impressions”, a need for God’s guidance for the smallest of things. Often when things went wrong it was attributed to not seeking the Lord enough, or waiting to hear from Him. If you are faithful to have your quiet time, seek the Lord at each crossroad and before every purchase, etc. your day will go well, or if it doesn't, at least you're off the hook. You know you did your part. By God’s grace, a lot of the folks got along fine like that, struggling along, hoping they were in God’s will from one moment to the next. And there really were some dear Christians there, people I really looked up to. Unfortunately I’m one who takes an idea very quickly to it’s logical conclusions. I take things as far as they'll go. This way of life led to new rules being piled on top of old, however people felt "led". For me that meant being led by my fallen and misshapen conscience to feel guilty and consumed by fear over the strangest of things, and not guilty at all over things I should have.
One day I picked up a Bible Study manual one of my favorite pastors was teaching through, deciding to study through it on my own time rather than attend the class. It laid out the New Testament, the Sermon on the Mount in particular, as a new set of laws reaching farther and deeper than anything the Old Testament law ever did. That study turned the New Testament into a new system of laws, like the old one in some ways, but much, much harder. I got about 2 chapters into it before I gave up hope – all hope. I thought, well, if that’s the good news and this is what it takes to be a Christian, then there’s no hope for me at all. I put away the study guide, and my Bible for almost a decade. I still remember the moment, the room I was in, the sun shining through the window, and my hands putting the study book and the Bible carefully away on the shelf. (I later found out that the pastor who led that study, and many of the folks involved in it, folks who I had admired as the most spiritual people in the church, started a church of their own. It ended up becoming, well, very much like a cult. Many lives were devastated. )
About eight years later I got saved. (Yes, I went through all that having never been converted. I was a hypocrite, self-deceived.) But I entered my Christian life with much of my old misinformation still intact. I still held the notion, until very recently in fact, that the difference my conversion made was that now I was able to obey the laws of God, because I love Him and really want to glorify Him. I felt that now that I was His, I’d always be able to have His favor, not because Christ’s righteousness was imputed to me (I didn't really understand that), but because He’d enable me to always do the things that please Him – to be righteous. (He’d enable me to earn His favor, if you will.)
With my new desire to please God, I set about to do all the things I could not do before I trusted Him. I threw off all sorts of obviously sinful behaviors, and some that I just had a low opinion of when I saw them in others. I found that for the first time in my life I did have power over sin and set out to be perfect. Whatever Scripture said was law, and what it didn’t say I could find some “principle” to apply to make a new law. The shift was subtle and gradual.
“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is
in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Matthew 7: 1-5
It wasn’t long before I’d raised my idea of what was “spiritual” above what was Scriptural. I was becoming more and more adept at applying “Scriptural standards” to every imaginable thing. I was becoming quite pleased with myself. It wasn’t long before I was judging others by my very “spiritual” standards. I was beginning to think, secretly of course, that I was more spiritual than just about any Christian I came across (except for a few folk, who I alternately admired, and dreaded). But I gave God all the credit of course: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men….”(Luke 18:11) I became impatient and judgmental of those who were, in my opinion, content in their sins. If they really loved God, after all, they’d want to please Him. If they were really Christians, they would repent of this or that sin. It felt good to be so “spiritual”. It was comforting - reassuring - to compare myself favorably against others; until, that is, I began to become aware of deeply rooted sinful attitudes and motives in my heart. It’s very upsetting to see how long it took for me to even begin to recognize the Pharisee I was becoming – to see the log in my own eye. And it’s frightening to face up to the fact that it was fear (among other things) that was driving all this behavior. I was still afraid of incurring God’s wrath. The image of Him as a trickster had not been eradicated. It came back whenever I sinned. I could not grasp the statement of Scripture that there is “no condemnation in Christ Jesus”. I had no category for that way of thinking. Deep inside I still felt that was only true to the extent that I did not sin, or if I sinned, to the extent that I repented with great heartache and groveling. It was as if forgiveness is earned by being sorry, and the sorrier I feel the more assured I could be of being forgiven. Well, I was able to go along like that for a while. But thanks be to God He was not content to leave me like that, bound up by a spirit of fear, serving Him out of dread.
"O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? Let me ask you only this: did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain? - if indeed it was in vain. Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith – just as Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness….You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump…" (Gal. 3:1-5; 7-9)My pastor gave me some sermons on grace to listen to. They turned my world upside down, my desires, my motives. I’m still trying to absorb news that is really good – the meaning of these words: “there is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” I am free from the guilt of my sin. Christ bore the penalty for every one I’ve ever committed and ever will commit. God is not angry with me. I need not fear Him any longer. Christ bore all the wrath I ever have and ever will deserve. I’m free to love God and walk in freedom. The Law has no power over me anymore. These are beautiful, Scriptural, truths and my flesh is fighting against them. My prison of fear is a place I’m accustomed to. I know it well and am hesitant to step out. What will I become out there in the free world? And so I’ve been standing, with one foot in freedom, and one in the prison, praying for the courage to move forward.