Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Ed Welch on legalism (2)

Ed Welch is talking about guilt. He's talking about a "resistant strand of guilt" - the kind of guilt which can plunge you into anxiety and depression. "No matter how much you offer the wonderful forgiveness of sins, the person still feels guilty. It's like this virus that there's no treatment for. ... We call it legalism."

He tells a story about some of the different varieties of legalism. I found myself in several groups, but especially in group 3, at which point I have to admit I started crying with relief that I wasn't alone. Have a read: you'll find yourself there somewhere, I guarantee it!
Let me tell you a story of legalism …

Consider yourself in a wonderful banquet-hall. There is fellowship, there is celebration, there is joy. Jesus Christ is the centre. … You’ve known something about this banquet hall. ...

But here’s this peculiarity. On this side of Christ returning, sometimes, while we’re in the banquet hall, these old memories kick in. There’s a sense of nostalgia. And so we drift away … and end up moving towards the back door. … So we wander out … We find another place. ...

One time I was taken to a bar. ... In Texas there’s no such thing as a tiny corner bar. … We went to this place, and it was basically an entire city block called Billy Bob’s. … It’s just immense. It’s smoky in some place, people are drinking in some places, people are playing pool in some places, people are going to a concert in the back room. We have come into Billy Bob’s.

And you see all these people drifting around. ... You’re a little disoriented initially. Where do I go? Who do I fit with? ... You’re looking for ... some group ... where you can feel comfortable. So you’re wandering around, and there is this group over here.

1. scrupulous legalists
They’re all dressed very well, they’re clean as can be, they’re perfectly well-groomed, and immediately I don’t think I’m going to fit in with them. … This is the group that would be scrupulous, ...the ascetics, ... the ones that are very, very careful with laws, ... the anorectics, ... the obsessive compulsives ..., concerned about fine points and details, crossing t’s, dotting i’s. ... Their entire life is, have they done the right thing? Every five minutes, there’s something judging their life. ... So I see that particular group, and I recognise very quickly that I don’t belong there. Even though some of you do. But it’s not my place. So I look around some more.

2. successful legalists
I find another group. Their appearance is somewhat similar, but their ethos is different. ... There don’t seem to be as many laws. They seem a bit more casual. They are the successful legalists. This is the group that have made it. They have the right amount of money. They come from the right family. They go to the right church. Their kids have gone to the right schools. They have the right intelligence. … This is the group that has successfully measured up to the law, whatever the law might be. ... I personally don’t tend to feel as though I have measured up. So I stop and listen to this particular group, but I move on.

Now in actuality, I do fit in that group, because the vast majority of times that I have frustration or anger in my life, it’s because I’ve measured up, and that person hasn’t. But I’m not recollecting all those things at this particular moment. So I move on some other groups.

3. striving legalists
Here’s one that’s a little bit more familiar. Call them people who are striving. They’re trying to make it. They don’t quite feel okay, but they want to be okay. The over-achievers, the productive people. They keep working and working, but it’s like that myth where you’re pushing the boulder up the mountain, and just when you think the boulder is almost up there, it comes screaming down on you, and you have to start all over again. That’s the experience of this particular group. ...

My father lived in this group his entire life. My father was a wonderful example of a person who followed Christ. But my father never, ever felt like he did enough. Ever. Depresssion and anxiety were constant companions. He wouldn’t evangelise enough. He wouldn’t save enough people. That was his constant prayer in the home, which is admirable; but the ethos of his life, the feel of his life, was not a feel of joy. The feel of his life was a feel of never being able to measure up to the standards that God had for him, always saying “Lord, next year I’m going to be doing better.” ...

That's a place that I fit into fairly well. There’s not a whole lot of joy there. There is no joy there – just like low-level, low-grade depression all the time. It’s not like you feel like you’re going to die; it’s just like you feel sort of a little bit miserable all the time.

Are you finding any places where you can hang out yet?

We’re assuming that we are legalists. The Scripture is speaking to a universal dimension of the human heart. When we look around the world, we find that every single religion is legalistic. So we are anticipating that we are going to find it as well. We’re also anticipating that we are going to find ourselves in multiple groups. ...

Let me give you a few others if you haven’t found your place of comfort yet.

4. deal making legalists
If you do this, then I’ll do this. ... In other words, “Lord, I will pray extra long this time, if you ...” “I am too bad to be a Christian. I am too bad to be able to go before God. What I have to do, is I have to be able to clean up my life first, and then, I will be able to go before God.” ... It’s deal-making with God. It’s penance. ... Every single religion has its form of penance. I will do this to hurt myself to pay God back for my sin, and then God will somehow be appeased. I fit there.

Some other groups if you haven’t found yourself yet.

5. unsuccessful legalists
They’re not even trying anymore. They know they won’t make it. “I’ve done something too bad and I can never be forgiven.” ... “I just can’t believe that God can forgive me.” … Doesn’t that sound religious? ...

Can you hear the apostle Paul ... starting to seethe? Can you hear him call you names ... ? Can you hear him say, “How dare you minimise the glory of God? How dare you think that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is just like a bull with a blemish on it? How dare you think such a thing? How dare you?” ...

I’m sure I’ve said it in my own life before: “How could God forgive me for this?” It sounds very religious. It sounds very pious. It sounds very contrite. And it might be on some level. But it is also speaking against the sufficiency of what Christ has done on the cross. It’s saying that there is something beyond the pale of forgiveness. And that is an abomination. …

“I believe God forgives me, but I just can’t forgive myself.” It sounds very pious, but do you see the arrogance in that? Can you see that my judgement ... is higher than the judge of the land? God’s judgement is good, but I haven’t satisfied the highest level of judgement, my own ... and I just can’t forgive myself. You will hear those things in the church all the time. …

6. demanding, angry, accusing legalists
They take the law, and they massage it and shape it and twist it until they have kept the law. … All of a sudden I’m authorised to stand in judgement of the rest of you. That’s what Pharisees do. You just keep shaping the law until finally you’re in and other people are out. … “How dare that person treat me that way? This is what they deserve!” Demanding, angry legalists. …

7. nice legalists.
If that doesn’t get you – and by the way, if you’re really good at this, you see yourself in every one of the groups – if that doesn’t get you, this one definitely will. The nice legalists. The people who can’t say “no”. They’re people you love to have in your church, because whatever you ask them to do, they’ll do it. The people who are overworked. They people who are burnt out. The people who are just plain nice!

What’s the law? The law is “I want you to like me. I want you to think that I’m spiritually okay. ... I want to look as good as possible to you ... ” So what’s the law? What’s the thing that you have to measure up to? Your standards. What you determine is nice and not nice. ...

Have you found yourself within these groups yet?

Here’s what happens. If we have been in the banquet of the king, … we will never last long in this Billy Bob Bar. At some point, the King will come and get us. At some point the King will come. You know how some bars are, they’re dark and a little bit dingy, and everybody looks good when it’s dark and dingy. At some point the lights go on, and all of a sudden you find that you’re in this sort of ugly place, and you’re looking pretty ugly yourself. That’s what happens. ...

It’s familiar, granted. And so there’s something comfortable about it. But is this where you feel like you’re home? We have a God, we have a Spirit who pursues us, who turns the light on when we have been living in darkness, and who calls us back to himself. And that’s called repentance.

Repentance is leaving Billie Bob’s, and moving back into the banquet hall.

Which group(s) do you belong to?

from talk 11 of Ed Welch's Issues in Biblical Counselling; emphases and headings added

images are from Wolfgang Staudt, Keeli Rhiannon, Round America, Backwater Blues Band, Stephen Witherden, evrimsen, Stephen Witherden (again) and Xerones at flickr

1 comment:

Carmelina said...

Come, Lord Jesus - Revelation 22:20b