Some people seek to ‘win’ through success in business and financial gain. Others do it through their good looks. Perhaps you are the best tuba player in the world.
For me, it has been incredibly hard to accept that my intense religious devotion does not make me better than anyone else.
I find it to be a universally applicable rule: what you are good at is what you tend to use as the standard for measuring human worth and value. There are as many forms of legalism as there are ways to be humanly successful. Whatever the form, we keep the rules and climb the ladders of ‘success’ in an attempt to justify our existence.
However, one of the most pernicious kinds of legalism is the religious kind, because it is especially self-deceptive. When you are dedicated to proving your self-worth through religious activity, you are more prone to believe that you have not only the world’s favor, but God’s favor as well. The better we are at doing religion, the less likely we are to see our need for God’s amazing grace. Our religious accomplishments become evidence that God loves us because of all that we do, as a response to all of our hard work.
A Life Plan Can Lead to Legalism
Because a Life Plan clarifies how we plan to live for God, it can easily become a tool for measuring how much God loves us.
We begin to believe, “My Life Plan is certainly rigorous. I am an Olympian Christian, living for God at the very highest level.”
We can think to ourselves, “in comparison to all those disorganized Christians, at least I know where my life is headed.”
We begin to shade the truth about what we did – and didn’t – do the previous week. “Ok, I said I’d read the Bible every day, but at least I thought about reading it on Tuesday. That sorta counts.”
As we twist the Life Plan to justify our value, we unwittingly grow in pride, judgmentalism, hypocrisy, self-deception and other sins. Inevitably, this begin to cloud our self-awareness of sin and our recognition of God’s grace.
Like anything else – a chess ranking system, the bottom line of a financial statement, the number of social media connections – a Life Plan can motivate and deepen a legalistic approach to life.
It Can Lead to Humility
However, a Life Plan can equally lead to humility. If, by God’s grace, we regularly use a Life Plan to honestly examine our lives, it will make clear our sin, idolatry, stubbornness, and waywardness from God.
We need some method or structure to examine our lives. A “Confession of Sin” is part of many church liturgies for a reason: it leads to humility and a sober awareness of God’s gracious love. If a Life Plan leads us to repentance, rather than to pride, than it can serve God’s purposes.
Perhaps adding a reminder at the start of your Life Plan will nudge you in this direction.
At the top of my Rule of Life is the phrase, “My ongoing need: sinner first, sinned against second.” This sentence stops me in my tracks, with all my resentments and petty grievances, and reminds me that I stand in need of God’s grace every day.
Find language that works for you, something, anything, to counter-balance our tendency to take any structure and turn it into a legalistic framework.
It Can Teach Us the Gospel
One of the most famous of Martin Luther’s sayings is the encouragement, “Preach the gospel to yourself every day.”
How do we do that? Well, knowing what the gospel is and why it matters for your daily life are certainly necessary. But then we need to remind ourselves of the gospel regularly.
So build the gospel into your Life Plan. Deliberately saturate your life plan with the gospel at its center, with its hopeful message permeating all that you plan to do and become.
If your approach to your own Life Plan is one of humility, and your Life Plan is built upon the gospel, then by the grace of God, you will be less likely to turn your Life Plan into a performance-based guilt trip. You may even find that it becomes one of the ways that God drives legalism out of your heart and strengthens your trust that He graciously loves and accepts you in Christ.
Questions for Reflection
1. In what ways do you currently struggle with legalism?
2. How could you design a Life Plan to work against your tendencies towards legalism?