Although I have made a lot of progress toward grace, I must confess that I have not been able to free myself completely from some of the legalistic “rules” I was taught as a young believer. I suppose I am somewhere in the middle in the tension between authoritarian legalism and liberty of conscience based on grace. I try to follow scripture in a spirit of willing obedience, but it has taken me a lifetime to learn that God’s heart toward me is always loving. He does not demand that I (and everyone around me) be perfect in all things. He loves me as I am, and is helping me move toward the goal of being conformed to the image of Christ ~ but He understands that I am not there yet.
As a young learning believer I was occasionally judged by some who chose to live super-legalistic and burdened lives in Christ. I am also a divorced woman, and my ex-husband was also a believer. I know how it feels to be on the receiving end of judgment. In spite of this, recently I found myself looking in judgment at the life of another believer. I was doing to someone else exactly what had been done toward me. Suddenly, I felt a ping of warning. Don’t go there, I heard in my heart of hearts…
I am not speaking here of sinful things in the life of this other person. No, I was looking casually at the life of another committed believer and feeling condescension because they were bound up in rules and regulations instead of grace, and I felt patronizing. It is amazing how the Lord has a way of peeling back the masks we put up to shield ourselves from the knowledge of our own need to exalt self. I was being guilty of a worse thing than excessive legalism; I was being guilty of spiritual pride.
Paul addresses one aspect of this problem in one of his letters to the Corinthians. They were struggling with the issue of whether or not they were free to eat meat which had been offered to idols. He told them that it depended on conscience. Since they knew that idols are merely man-made objects and that we worship the only one true and living God, idols were really powerless over them, and of no consequence. Meat is essentially meat, and they could view it as such. However, he suggested that, in love, they should respect another’s conscience. Even if they had no qualms about eating this meat, if they were with someone who did have a conscience about it, it would be more loving to respect their conscience and refrain for their sake rather than give offense. His point was that we have liberty, but while all things are lawful, all things are not advisable or helpful.
It has taken me a long time to learn that there is a big difference between scriptural knowledge and spiritual wisdom. In the past I have known some who felt subtly superior toward other Christians because they believed they understood certain scriptures better, or followed certain scriptural patterns more closely than other believers. Although they would have denied it to themselves, they silently looked down on those who did not share their interpretation and zeal for the Word, or who did not follow certain liturgical patterns. It may have been true that they knew scripture better. It may have been true that they followed those patterns more closely than some others. However, their subtle spiritual pride and attitude of self-satisfaction often invalidated their witness to unbelievers and even to other Christians. Of what value, then, was their greater knowledge? Any pride which belittles others is unworthy. On the other hand, I really don’t have the right to judge them either. Judgment is the prerogative of God. This is why I knew that I didn’t want to go down that road in my own assessment of the spiritual life of another.
We need to be careful of these pockets of pride, whether it is about our strict adherence to the “rules”, or in our supposed enlightenment of grace. We are not superior to unbelievers, and we are not superior to other believers who may interpret the Christian life differently from us. I am not speaking here of heresies and false doctrines. When we find genuine error we need to challenge it. All things that sound religious are not equal. Satan is very clever about taking even God’s word and twisting it so that it comes out being about self rather than Him. That is a whole other thing. We need to exercise discernment.
Instead, I am speaking about custom and taste issues which come from someone’s interpretation of scripture but which may really only be an opinion or tradition. Some may try to make these opinions into law. Those who are learning about the liberty of grace may find some customs excessive. However, they may be a matter of conscience to others. An extreme example might be those who take up poisonous snakes to show their faith in God’s protective powers. To take up snakes is based on one scriptural reference which is not reinforced by other passages. It may not be a doctrinal directive from God for today, but there are those who interpret this as a literal way to prove God’s protective care. I might feel superior because I believe that this practice is questionable, naïve and extreme… but which is spiritually most dangerous ~ the foolishness of taking up snakes in genuine faith, or my pride in feeling myself superior? Whether those snake handling folks are right or not, my pride is unquestionably wrong.
It is easy to develop an attitude of cynicism toward things we don’t believe ourselves, but see in others. Isn’t this the attitude the world has toward Christians? They don’t really understand our message, so they mock us and ridicule our beliefs. They may feel themselves superior and enlightened and see us as naïve and emotional weaklings, unable to face life alone so we “invent” a God Who will care for us. They are proud of their own self-perceived intellectual superiority. They don’t believe what the scripture says: The fool has said in his heart there is no God. (Psalm 14:1) It is part of what the Bible calls the old nature to think like this. If our attitude toward unbelievers (or even other believers) reflects the same smug, self-satisfied pride in our own better judgement, then we are no better than they. Our attitude should be one of loving concern rather than self-satisfied superiority.
Over and over again we are taught by scripture to love God and also to love each other. This is how we show that we are God’s own. This is “the mark of the Christian”, the true identifier.
We are called to unity of spirit. I have many friends who are very different in their approach to the Christian life than I. Yet, they know my Lord as their Lord. They love Him, and want to honor Him by their lives; whether they put all the emphasis on doing good works, or by living uptight legalistic lives, or whether they see the life in Christ as one big party of exuberance and noisy proclamations of their faith. If we are truly saved, we are all part of the Body of Christ, the Bride, the Church and, if my friends genuinely know Christ as their Savior, they are my brothers and sisters. We each bring something of ourselves to the mosaic of the Church, and we each have a ministry. We are all partakers of the life in Christ only because of the love and grace of God, not by our own wisdom or works.
Pride was the first and root sin of everything else that comes along. It is self-will, the desire for autonomy, the glorification of my thought, my action, my wisdom which takes me away from the goals of the sovereignty of God and the submission of self to His will. We need to get our priorities straight. Anything which puts the self ahead of submission to the will of God is counter to what we learn at the foot of the Cross. Anything which breaks the unity of the Spirit in relation to my fellow believers is dangerous ground.
We are all never going to agree on the details of how to live our lives for Christ. Yet we can agree on this as we love our neighbors as ourselves: Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. (I Corinthians 13: 4-8 NLT)