Tuesday, August 10, 2010

This Message That I'm Not Good Is Discouraging

I described in a recent post our desire to think of ourselves as good and our resistance to accepting that we really aren't good. I summed it up this way: "One of the most subtle deceptions that keep us trapped in a pattern of sin is the idea that our hearts and minds are basically good and capable of doing the right thing if we just try hard enough. Too many people cling to this idea as a self-image, not wanting to accept that they are not good by nature." The result of this mindset is that we are ineffective in resisting sin. We try to do it with our will, and we end up stumbling over and over again.

Many people resist the idea that they are incapable of doing the right thing on their own, because it makes them feel discouraged and devalued. We don't like being told we're not "good." But I've found that what really fuels discouragement in me is not the knowledge that I have a deceitful heart that can't be trusted (Jeremiah 17:9), but instead the repeated failures of trying to be a "good person" by following rules. When you fall short - which you always will - you feel depressed and shameful. This is what Christians call legalism. It is one of the chief enemies of joy in the life of a believer.

You may think you already know about legalism, but it is much more subtle and hard to detect than many people realize. People often describe legalism as trying to "earn your salvation" - essentially, thinking that "if I obey well enough, God will accept me." And because of this definition, people can easily think they aren't being affected by legalism because they are putting their faith in Christ alone to save them. "I know I can't earn my salvation," they may think, "and I am trusting in Christ's death on the cross as the payment for my sins. So I'm safe from legalism."

But it is very possible - and surprisingly common - for those who have put their faith in Christ to end up acting like legalists afterwards. Paul had to address this in the Galatian church. After they believed in Christ by faith, he still had to correct them: "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?" (See Galatians 3:2-3.) What often happens to Christians is that they believe in Christ as their sole Savior and the sole source of their forgiveness, but then they think that now that they have faith and are filled with the Holy Spirit, it is their job to work hard to obey God's commandments and to keep themselves pure. And so they start with faith, but end up trying to finish sanctification (the process of shedding old sinful ways and learning to walk in obedience to God) on their own strength through sheer willpower. This is something every Christian has to vigilantly watch out for, because it is a trap you can slip into even when you think you're very mature in your faith and thinking. In the next post I'll describe the antidote.

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