We have a friend who never liked bread crust as a child. She would eat out the center of a slice of bread, nibbling away up to the edge of the crust, which she would leave on her plate. Her mother told her to eat it, but she refused. She simply didn’t like the crust. Sandwiches, dinner rolls, and toast would all be carefully deconstructed, the bread eaten, the crust left behind. Her mother told her that God watches us all the time, every moment, and saw everything. God saw her refusing to eat her crust. Every time she left a crust, God knew it, and added that crust to a house he was building for her in heaven. When she got there, she would find herself inside that house of crusts. She would have to eat her way out before she could be with Jesus. Our friend grew up to discover her mother’s oft-repeated fabled house of crusts was a lie even though she still isn’t fond of crusts.
Stories like that can shape our view of God, grace, and heaven.
When I fidgeted in church as a child, I was told that not liking worship meant I didn’t love God sufficiently. Was I reading my Bible regularly? Was there something I had done wrong that I hadn’t confessed? Worship in heaven was continuous, unceasing—and that was the standard for what is best—which I took to mean that heaven was one never-ending worship service. That struck me as so mind numbingly boring, so hopelessly dreadful I feared going to heaven. I didn’t want to go to hell of course, but the idea of heaven-as-worship-service almost made me ill.
Whatever else we may say about them, such stories told to get children to behave are a form of legalism. Let me define that term so there is (hopefully) no misunderstanding. Legalism is anything that suggests we can earn redemption, achieve or add to our own righteousness, or by accomplishing something (doing or not doing something) gain increased favor with God, or when rules are added to maintain conformity to some tradition. It is using the law to try to change someone, even though true change is always the work of grace. It is forgetting that law can never solve the deepest problems of the human heart. Whatever the motivation, such stories help children to see God primarily in terms of judgment and the faith primarily in terms of duty. We may get over the stories easily but find the subtle shaping of our hearts and imaginations much harder to leave behind.
This past summer a mother I know gave her 7-year old son a haircut. Short for the hot weather and ease of care, but sort of Mohawk style instead of the more common buzz cut all his friends were sporting. It wasn’t radical, just different, though the men at the prayer meeting of their fundamentalist church didn’t see it that way. They teased him mercilessly, all supposedly in good fun, and so relentlessly the boy finally cried. One of the brethren said to the boy’s father, laughing, that the boy would be careful about haircuts the rest of his life—a good lesson for a child to learn.
I find such abusive behavior appalling. For one thing, the haircut was the mother’s choice and they undercut her authority in a way that is stunning in its cruelty. For another, a buzz-cut is not more spiritual than a Mohawk. To maintain conformity by shunning and manipulating shame and guilt is practically speaking to be dismissive of grace. To imply that his haircut made him less welcome in and by the church is to forget the meaning of the gospel.
I tell these stories as illustrative of legalism, a plague that infects evangelical Christianity. God’s law is a true “delight” as David said (Psalm 1), but when rules proliferate and when law replaces grace legalism is the result and it is deadly.
Do you have stories of legalism? I’d love to have you leave them as comments in this conversation.