Monday, July 13, 2009

how we change (1) my story

I have been a legalist all my life. Perfectionist, rule-maker, guilt-wallower; self-confident, self-reliant, proud; ashamed, discouraged, overcome. Legalist.

Why has it taken me so long to realise something so foundational to my faith? – that growth in Christ, just like conversion to Christ, depends entirely on God’s work in me through Christ by his Spirit.

It’s because I’ve been born again into a new life that I change. It’s because my old self has died with Christ that I change. It’s because Christ lives in me that I change. It’s because the Spirit transforms my heart that I change. It’s because God guarantees that one day he will complete the process he began in me that I change. It’s because I’m forgiven that I change.

It’s only as I begin to realise the immensity of what God has done for me in Christ – that he has done all that is necessary, and that I can’t, by any act of mine, add or subtract one iota from his loving work on my behalf – that change begins to come from a changed heart.

God has taken my heart, wrung self-confidence out of it, and filled me with the knowledge of his grace: and I rejoice to give him myself.

Let me share with you the ultimate secret of Christian growth: that it happens only as we give up our lists of hopeful rules and desperate vows, and look to Christ alone, remembering what he has done for us, fixing our thoughts on him, and placing full confidence in his finished work on the cross.

Welcome to a new series on in all honesty, as we begin to look together at the grace of God and how it changes our hearts. You might like to grab a copy of Tim Chester's You Can Change (or perhaps Elyse Fitzpatrick's Idols of the Heart or Tim Lane and Paul Tripp's How People Change) and read along with me.

images are from stock.xchng


Fiona McLean said...


Two comments, one more serious than the other (you can work out which is which!).

First, from one perfectionist to another - please change the word "enormity" in your post!! It means "extreme wickedness" or "a serious error", not "greatness" - although it is so often misused that perhaps at some stage even people like me will give up ...

Secondly, what do you think has contributed to your legalism? That is, what can we, as parents, do (or not do) in order to encourage our children to live by grace, not by works, yet still foster a healthy discipline? I find this hard. I was encouraged to do daily Bible readings from the age of about 8, and my failure to do this consistently was a constant source of guilt to me. It's taken years and years for my regular Bible reading and prayer times to become something I look forward to and enjoy, rather than an onerous duty. In reaction, I haven't laid any such expectation on my children, although we have bought our eldest (aged 9) a Bible reading booklet ("Discovery"), but I would love her to develop godly habits of Bible reading.



Jean said...

Hi Fiona!

I think you're right, the usage is changing. But I've changed the word anyway, just for you! ;)

Now I'm going to ramble about perfectionism and parenting for a bit. These are rambles, not collected thoughts!

I think perfectionism is more nature than nurture for me. I see the same tendencies in my oldest son, while my daughter is blessedly free from any such tendencies. I love it when she says "It doesn't matter, Mum!" when I fuss about something not being right! So I think a lot of it is born not bred.

That being said, I can see some things which contributed to my perfectionism:
- the example of a father who is also, by nature and probably by nurture, a perfectionist
- statements said by my father jokingly and affectionately - but maybe they still had impact?? -like "99%? What about the other 100%?" when I told him the results of a test or exam. This was never said seriously, so I'm not sure what impact it had. But I've heard stories about people whose parents said these things quite seriously.
- more significant was the expectation of excellence - there was always an expectation we would succeed - coupled with lots of praise. Is this a bad thing? I'm not sure! I'd like to think about this some more.
- going to a school which also had very high expectations of performance, which stressed achievement, and which prided itself on the results of its students

You could probably breed a perfectionist child if you worked at it. Saying statements like the above seriously; withholding praise unless things are done perfectly; having very high expectations that children will get things right and showing disappointment and irritation when they don't; parenting with a list of inflexible rules which are easily and frequently broken, and getting angry when they are; praising results more than attempts.

One thing I've heard which can contribute to perfectionism is praising a child for doing something - e.g. making a bed or colouring in - then fixing up their mistakes. I know I do this to my kids! I also notice that I care far too much about things like matching clothes.

One of the main things is example. Watching me flap around because the house isn't tidy before guests arrive; seeing me work far too long trying to get something exactly right - I suspect these are the things which are most unhelpful for my kids!

Probably the most significant factor is when we allow our love and approval and affection to depend on our children getting things right or obeying certain rules. The opposite of grace!

Also maybe focussing on external behaviour rather than on the heart - I'm sure this contributes to legalistic perfectionism.

... and onto the next comment ...

Jean said...

... continued from previous comment ...

That said, I'm not sure expecting our children to read their Bibles every night will cause perfectionism unless it becomes an inflexible rule which has to kept at any cost, even when children are tired or they hate the bible notes they're using! We try to keep bible reading fun and flexible.

I think the problem is not so much high expectations (expect when our expectations are nit-picky and focus on externals not the heart) but when we allow our love, approval and affection to depend on our children's behaviour.

So here's a good recipe for perfectionism:
- focus on external rules and make sure there's as many as possible in your parenting;
- don't allow any flexibility in rule-keeping;
- only show love, approval and affection when our kids get things right, and get angry when they get things wrong;
- talk about God as a God who expects us to conform to certain rules, not a God who wants love and gives grace;
- setting an example of legalistic perfectionism in our own lives and relationships.

Our children need to know that God wants them to love him with all their being, and love others as themselves, but that he regards us with love and forgiveness when we inevitably fail. They need to learn to live in grace and forgiveness, in their relationship with us and with God, not by rule-keeping and getting things right.

You've inspired me to maybe writing a blog post on this topic. Maybe you could help me by contributing your thoughts!

Valori said...

Hey Jean! Hope you are doing well! I think this is a very interesting topic. I think we can see the same issues in our own hearts when we think of the fact that God demands perfect holiness and obedience, but we can't live up to that standard. When we are walking out our lives in grace, we are not lowering our aim -- we are just leaning on a different source of strength, trusting that one day we will be like Him when we see Him as He is. Whenever we are requiring biblical (note I said biblical :) ) behavior from our children, we should always point them back to the gospel of grace and to the fact that apart from Him they can do nothing. We have taught our kids to have regular devotional times, but we have sought to make sure that they understand the gospel as the foundation for their relationship with God. So far, none of them seems to be legalistic (although I think we all have those self-righteous tendencies at heart because of our pride). I find that the gospel needs to stay central but we never keep it that way without discipline of some sort. Waiting to "feel" like meeting with God (or allowing our children to do that) doesn't take us very far. We meet with Him through His Word and prayer because that's where we find Him, and we want to know Him better not earn His acceptance. Still, I think anyone would agree that this takes self-discipline.

Anyway, sorry if that sounds kind of "teachy." Also, I think the nature part is a big factor. I was a legalistic person even before I was a believer, and I don't see that in my siblings. I wonder if a child not inclined this way would tend to rebel against legalistic standards instead of always trying to please? Not sure, and like you said, I'm sure parenting and example do influence in many ways, especially if parents are teaching self-righteousness to their children and don't know how to apply the truth of the gospel to their own lives. Something we can all grow in continually, I think, as we put to death self-righteousness in our own lives! At least I know I can!

Jean said...

"When we are walking out our lives in grace, we are not lowering our aim -- we are just leaning on a different source of strength, trusting that one day we will be like Him when we see Him as He is." Well said, Valori!

Thanks for your wisdom, and for your helpful reminders about the importance of self-discipline and the dangers of self-righteousness.