I used to be homeschooled. Now, if you’ve ever watched “18 Kids and Counting” on TLC, you have a pretty good idea what I mean by a “conservative homeschooled Christian environment.” (Say that 10 times fast.) I’ve been to purity conferences. I’ve read all the “courtship” books (see this post). I’ve been told over and over again my entire life how much of a sinner I am. I’ve even been publicly humiliated by people in the church, because I’m open to admit the things I struggle with. (More on that later)
It seems like our churches, more and more, are cultivating an environment of intense legalism. You know what results from legalism? Judgement. Scorn. Shame. Exile.
Of course, our churches would never admit this is happening. They LOVE Jesus. They LOVE God’s Word. It’s not their fault that you’re not showing how much you love Jesus by being perfect and blameless.
It’s not their fault that you’re going through depression, since you don’t have the “joy of the Lord” as you must be in sin.
It’s not their fault that you feel like you’ve never heard from God, because of course God always talks to the ones He loves.
It’s not their fault that you don’t follow sayings like, “Modest is hottest.” Don’t you know there’s a dress code here?!
It’s not their fault that you didn’t “wait for God’s Best.” Don’t you know you’re supposed to wait?! Don’t you know your body is a temple?!
Am I painting a pretty good picture here?
Listen. Not all churches are bad. What I’ve also learned is that sometimes, it’s not even the pastor or leadership’s fault that there are some bad eggs going to their church. Yet, this doesn’t dispute the fact that we are cultivating legalistic environments, which are damaging to those who are struggling.
I’ll give you an example. Last year, while I was still at my old church, I was leading my Junior High girls through the Women’s Ministry Bible study. We came to the part where Paul talks about the inner war between our flesh and the Spirit, in Romans 7:14-25. I told my girls, “Look it. I struggle with my flesh. We all do. There are so many times I want to be a ‘good Christian girl,’ but then there are things I want to say or do that are contrary for what God wants of me. It’s hard!” The girls nodded their heads. I had obviously struck a cord in these girls. Later, one of the moms told me that her daughter was so relieved that I – a much older girl who she saw as her mentor – struggle, too.
A few weeks later, I was sitting down with two other staff members from the church. I don’t know why this came up, but I told them about what happened during the Bible study. The guy sitting there looked at me with such disgust, saying, “You think it’s OK to tell people you struggle with your flesh?!” I stood there flabbergasted. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Sympathize with one another that we are all sinners, and that’s why we need Jesus so much? I explained to him that I just wanted to let my girls know that even as an adult, you don’t have life “figured out” and you still struggle with sin. Isn’t that what it means to be human?
He replied that I was setting a bad example for my girls by telling them I struggle with sin. (What?!) So, I explained, “Ok, look it. Right now I’m in a spiritual dry season. It’s really hard. So, it always feels easier to do something of my flesh than the Spirit, because right now, God is just silent.” He again looked at me in disgust, “Well, are you reading your Bible?” (Yes.) “Are you praying?” (Yes.) “Well how can you be praying, when you just said you don’t hear from God?!” (Because I am praying, He’s just not responding to me. That’s what I mean that He is “silent.”)
Guys, I don’t think I’ve ever met such harsh (and unnecessary) judgment before. It was terrible. I remember crying later, because I couldn’t believe someone would be so mean about something so horrible happening to me. If you’ve ever experienced a dry season spiritually, you know that it’s not something you can just wish away. It’s not something caused by a lack of prayer or Bible study. A lot of the times, it’s not even caused by sin. God is causing you to rely on HIM, not the FEELINGS of Him. So, although God is doing something incredible, it sucks in the midst of it.
That job really changed me. That conversation really changed me. I realized after that conversation that I never, ever wanted to judge someone for something they couldn’t control. Heck, I didn’t even want to judge someone for something they could, within reason, control.
For example, a lot of people struggle with drinking, drugs, sex, cussing, anger, depression, hatred, partying, impatience, lack of self-control… The list goes on.
What I realized is this: the sin is NOT the struggle.
Let’s say you tell me, “I struggle with lying.” Well, the fact that you struggle with lying isn’t a sin within itself. It’s only when you choose to actually lie that you are sinning.
The fact that you really want to sleep with your significant other, while not being married, is not a sin. The sin is if you actually slept together.
So, instead, the sin is the REALIZATION of the struggle.
OK, I’m going to get really real here… I really wish I could have sex. THERE. I said it. I really wish I could. I’m not married, nor am I dating anyone. Heck, I’m not even interested in anyone. I’m the pinnacle of singledom. Yet, there is a longing in me to experience the highest kind of intimacy with a man I love. Now I understand why people slip into pornography, masturbation, one-night stands, anonymous sex, etc. Sometimes, the desire is so strong, you just need some kind of relief to get rid of it.
So, when married couples tell me they didn’t wait to have sex before getting married, I really don’t blame them. I totally get it. I also understand why Paul said, “for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:9). Guys, it SUCKS.
You know what also stinks? Purity conferences. Has anyone ever noticed that the people speaking at these things A. Are married, and B. Were married young? So, for them to get up there and make judgments on people who really desire sex is dumb. They’ve never had to struggle with it!!! And it’s easy for them to say, “Wait for God’s Best!” when they didn’t even have to wait that long!
Yet, my love for God is stronger than my desire for sex. So, yeah. I am a virgin begrudingly. I get so mad that God is keeping me single, when a lot of my friends have boyfriends and husbands already who they can make out with or sleep with. I want some way to just get rid of these feelings somehow, but any kind of relief is considered sin. So I just have to wait around and suffer. (‘Cause, let’s be real – our bodies were programmed to want sex. If we don’t want sex, we can’t make babies. If we can’t make babies, our world dies out. And guess who designed us this way…?)
But the point is, even if I am not “OMG I LOVE GOD AND I WILL DO WHATEVER HE ASKS, YIPPEE!”, as most churches want us to be – I would still rather please God than displease Him. So I do as He asks, even if it’s obeying something I don’t like.
In the last few months, I realized what was happening in me: authenticity. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t trying to be a “good Christian girl.” (See this post) I wasn’t trying to come across as perfect, pure, and innocent. I was just being open to God, like, “Yeah God, I want to do this or that which are wrong. And that’s that.” I was being honest with Him. More importantly, I was being honest with myself.
That’s why I call authenticity the “Legalism Killer.” If we tell God about all the junk in ourselves, we no longer can put on a false show that we are perfect Christians – we know too well that we are not. Self-awareness is a very humbling thing.
Now, look: In order to be authentic with yourself, God, and others, you do NOT have to tell everyone what you struggle with most. Instead, you admit freely to God all the things you feel, think, and want. You talk to Him about the struggle, even if it feels embarrassing to tell Him. (Of course, He already knows all about it.) You do not have to sit down with your roommates, friends, family, etc., and tell them everything. Just the fact that you are authentic with God will pour out into your relationships with others.
I’ll give you another example. One time, while I was at my old church, I kept running into this particular family that has caused me a lot of grief in the last couple of years. I couldn’t get away from them all day! I called my mom in a storage closet, feeling a panic attack coming on and not being able to stop the tears. I needed to be working, but dang it, I couldn’t keep myself together for two minutes! She told me to get into my car and wait it out. I rushed to my car, sat in there, and let out a huge cry. I began praying, even though I knew I probably wouldn’t hear anything from Him.
Suddenly, it dawned on me – these people upset me so much, because all of these years, I just wanted them to love me. For me.
I knew it was the Holy Spirit who caused that ping! in my brain.
After that, it didn’t really bother me to see them. I didn’t want to see them, but I no longer had panic attacks. I realized what I wanted from them, and I also realized I would never get it. Just the fact that I finally admitted to myself (and God) what I had wanted for so long, helped me to get over it. I had named it for what it was.
I hope you can get to this point, too. I hope you will be able to just say, “God, this is where I’m at. This is what I think. This is how I feel. This is what I want.” And realize, that’s OK. That’s not sin. It’s human. It is only the realization of those struggles that is sin. You know what? Not only is that realizing God gives you grace in your struggles, but you’re giving grace to yourself.
What do you guys think? How do you feel about legalism versus authenticity? Where’s the line? Tell me – I’m listening.
P.S. Read Romans 7. It’s good.