Breaking the Chains: Overcoming Legalism

Racing in a potato sack is an awkward feeling. Any burst of energy and a zeal to win must be harnessed, because if you try to run in a potato sack … splat. Down you go.  

At Field Day in elementary school, I learned what it felt like to move hindered. Bound. It wasn’t possible to run free like the wind. If I moved forward, I had to hold the potato sack at my waist and hop. And if I fell, I went down confined in my sack. Claustrophobic. I couldn’t wait to get out of that sack.

When we hold on to legalism, we move through life hindered. Bound. Our hearts may find security in adhering to rules, but we miss out on the freedom of focusing on a relationship with God. When we operate in life like God intended His children to, we can run like the wind.

Why Legalism May Be Appealing

Legalism can become an oppressing bondage in the lives of believers, but some of us have a tendency to run toward it. Although we were saved by faith, we may try to keep a good standing with God by keeping His rules and self-imposed rules. Rules apart from relationship. Maybe we were taught that obeying the rules keeps you safe, keeps you walking on the straight and narrow. Maybe we turned from a wild lifestyle and found relief in a set of dos and don’ts. But if we practice legalism, we miss out on resting in the unconditional love of God who cherishes us regardless of how good we are. Yes, God blesses us when we obey Him, but God’s love for us isn’t dependent on our performance. He loves us because that’s who He is—He is love (1 John 4:8). In this we find freedom.

Learning to Run Well

 You ran well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?
Galatians 5:7 NKJV

If legalism is trying to hinder your race, hold on to the truth. We were saved by faith and by God’s work in us. That’s how we continue the Christian life. Our faith and cooperation with God, along with His work, make us holy. The “rules” or principles that He gave us in His Word, help us to become more godly, but they don’t give us eternal life.  Faith is key, and for the Christian life, so is love.

God wants us to obey Him, not out of a sense of duty (I have to), but out of love (I want to). Bask in the freedom of God’s love for you, and focus on your relationship with Him, not on dos and don’ts. Let His love motivate you to practice His ways. Your soul will gain some breathing room, and you won’t beat yourself up when you mess up. I know because I’ve been there.

5 Strategies for Overcoming Legalism

1. Remember how your relationship with God began.  

How did you receive eternal life—by doing good works or by receiving God’s grace? Rest in the fact that God saved you because you trusted in Jesus. Salvation is His work in us, and God doesn’t leave us on our own to live the Christian life. He is still working to make us like Christ, as we cooperate with Him.  

2. Make your primary life’s goal to know and love God.

This is what God wants most—for us to know and love Him (John 17:3, Mark 12:30). He is all about relationships. Sharing life with Him and helping others to know Him is life’s greatest adventure. Don’t make your goal of life to never mess up or to keep a rigid set of dos and don’ts. Return to the joy of your salvation—fellowship with God and His people (1 John 1:3,7).

3. Obey God because you want to, not because you have to or you’re scared if you don’t.

Let a love for God motivate you to walk in His ways. He is so good, so loving and kind, so patient with us. He knows when to get our attention and discipline us, but He is longsuffering. His perfect love for us doesn’t change, so let that love be an inspiration to follow Him. Set aside “duty” to walk in a vibrant, warm-hearted, close relationship with God. Consequences for disobedience can motivate us to be good, but we may decide we can handle them and choose against God’s ways. I’ve found that loving God is the strongest motivation for obeying Him. We fight for what we love, and we live for what we love.

4. Fall in the arms of your loving, heavenly Father when you mess up.

God knows that His children battle a sinful nature, and the battle is tough. But He has given us the Holy Spirit to help us win that fight (Gal 5:16). As our sympathetic High Priest, Jesus helps us to walk on God’s path for our lives, and He intercedes for us (Hebrews 4:15, 7:25). When you mess up, don’t run from God, but run to Him. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9 NKJV). Run to God when you mess up, repent of the sin, and keep moving forward in life with Him.

5. Have grace toward others when they make mistakes.  

When you allow yourself some breathing room to make mistakes, you will give breathing room to others. The grace and forgiveness that we have received from God is an example of how to forgive other people (Colossians 3:13). Since God has been gracious to us in our failings, we can show the same kind of love to others.

 

Have you seen legalism attempt to hinder your spiritual race? Which of the strategies above would help you to unwrap the chains of legalism and set you free to run like the wind? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and run the race well!

 

© Copyright 2015 by Katy Kauffman

legalism, spiritual bondage, Galatians, Breaking the Chains: Overcoming Legalism, Katy Kauffman, Lighthouse Bible Studies

Comments (9)

  • anon

    I grew up in a legalistic church, so I was kind of taught that way of thinking. Definitely hinders my spiritual race. Knowing and loving God more have done so much for helping unwrap the chains of legalism and set me free to run like the wind. So easy to go back there though when life is beating you down gradually like a boxing. Must keep returning to the points you mentioned above in order to survive and thrive.

    May 18, 2016
  • anon

    Kari, my prayer is that God helps you to continue to know Him and love Him, and to rest in His love. Thank you for sharing about your background and what's helped you to run "like the wind." 
     

    May 18, 2016
  • anon

    Legalism is such an insidious trap. The danger of legalism is that it convinces you that you are being righteous and blinds you to your own pride. I like your tips for breaking free of legalism--I think focusing on relationship with God helps protect us from falling into the legalism trap.

    May 18, 2016
  • anon

    Leigh, I'm glad you brought up pride, because that can be a motivation to be legalistic. But God has done so much to save us and heal us and make us righteous, so we can rest in His work and cooperate with Him in humility. Thank you for your comments! Focusing on a relationship with God brings freedom, doesn't it? And joy. 
     

    May 18, 2016
  • anon

    Thanks for the beautiful reminder to "bask in the freedom of God's love for you, and focus on your relationship with Him, not on dos and don'ts." Personally, I need to fall into His forgiving arms of grace more (helpful strategy #4) and strive-in-guilt less, when I lean toward legalism.

    May 18, 2016
  • anon

    I found such relief in knowing God wants us to move past the consciousness of our sin to fellowship with Him. When we repent, we can get up and keep moving! Thank you for sharing, Debbra, and I am grateful for our heavenly Father who loves us so much and forgives us. 
     

    May 18, 2016
  • anon

    How  do we help others overcome the effects of past legalism on the ones they love? I grew up in a legalistic church so I understand the confines and the box that place is a person in. The church has hurt many people by the stance they take in regards to how they address conflictual issues. Helping others see that that is truly man created rules, laws, and attitude And that God is truly love, caring, enjoy when we receive him in our hearts and that is what he desires. So if somebody’s father was beaten up by a legalistic church and they have given up on the face because of that and attitude toward sexual practices… How do we help them move forward?

    May 18, 2016
  • anon

    Hello, Vi,
    I think that one way we can help loved ones is to show the love of Christ to them. That we exhibit His character to them, which is free from legalism. God loves people just as they are, and He calls us into a relationship with Himself. When we follow Christ, we will want more and more to give up those things that hinder our walk with Him. But that is each person's choice, and not something we should force on someone. I hope that helps, and I hope the people you're talking about find a loving, sound church to belong to. 

    May 18, 2016
  • anon

    This is an old thread I know. I wanted to add my comment anyway. I grew up going to legalistic churches. Mostly Pentecostal.  I have several family members that still attend these churches. It makes my struggle very hard because I feel that I am constantly being judged by them. It makes me feel like a failure. I also have OCD thoughts and sometimes begin to doubt my salvation because they speak so much about a “change” that takes place after someone is “truly” saved. I compare myself to them and feel as tho I am less than them. They focus so much on behavior, it makes me doubt. A huge problem for me.  In my heart I know we are saved by grace, yet the doubts always come back. I honestly don’t know how anyone could ever have any kind of peace believing this way. Do these people actually believe they are perfect?  Good enough to go to heaven?

    May 18, 2016

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The Scrapbooked Bible Study: A Blog by Katy Kauffman

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An editor for Refresh Bible Study Magazine, Katy Kauffman is also a Bible study author who loves to write about the treasures of Scripture. Her Bible studies focus on winning life's spiritual battles, and her blog shares snippets of "scrapbooked" encouragement. Learn more about The Scrapbooked Bible Study, and follow Katy's blog to receive weekly posts. 

 

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