Freedom from Legalism

Freedom from Legalism

As 2016 turned into 2017, there were several blog posts floating around the internet that introduced the concept of picking a “word for the year.” As the “My One Word” website explains, you are to “Choose just one word that represents what you most hope God will do in you, and focus on it for an entire year.” Many of my friends shared beautiful calligraphy versions of their 2017 words on Instagram and Twitter, words like “trust,” “peace,” or “inspire.” My church even offered a two-week class on picking your own “word” for the year.

The cynical side of me thought that the “one word” concept was a little cheesy, or a fad that would quickly fade for most people. Similarly, I’m not one to usually make New Year’s resolutions, as I am realistic enough to know that I’m probably not going to keep them. Yet another part of me was intrigued by the idea of living out my year focusing on one specific area of growth in my spiritual life. I wondered what word I would choose if, you know, I were to buy in to the “one word” trend.

As I pondered this, the word freedom kept coming back to me. I just couldn’t get it out of my head. Although I didn’t share it with anyone or make an Instagram post about it, “freedom” became my de facto word of the year for 2017.

While I didn’t grow up in a home that would be classified as “fundamentalist,” at times my church and upbringing tended toward legalism. This legalism came about in many forms: I couldn’t wear shorts or jeans to church, because that’s just not what you did. Skirts always had to cover my knees, and shirts couldn’t be too “low cut” or “revealing.” We never missed either Sunday school or church unless we were out of town. We didn’t “drink, smoke, or chew, or run with those who do.” Cussing or swearing of any kind was definitely off the table.

My denomination was known for our long-held rules on dancing (don’t do it), movies (going to the theater was frowned upon, but for some reason renting movies was permissible), or music (I attended many teen events where I was told to throw away my “secular music” cds). Throughout our one-hundred year history, the Church of the Nazarene has also held strong stances against jewelry (as it is immodest and greedy), playing cards (as it looks like gambling), and tattoos/piercings (based on a poor interpretation of an obscure verse in Leviticus). None of these things were strictly forbidden in the Bible–unless you completely misconstrued the meaning and intent behind a few, select verses–yet they were treated as “sins” nonetheless.

In our attempt to remain a holy and set-apart people, we turned ourselves into the Pharisees and religious leaders that Jesus so often condemned.

And here’s where freedom enters my story.

This Easter morning, as we sang the song “This is Amazing Grace” in church, my eyes welled up with tears with the line,

“You would lay down your life,
That I would be set free.
Jesus I sing for all that you’ve done for me.”
(“This is Amazing Grace” by Phil Wickham)

I was grateful and full of joy in singing those words, because I’m not sure that I have ever experienced true freedom in Christ until very recently.

Over the past four months, I have been learning to live into the freedom Christ offers us, instead of the legalism I was raised within. I’m leaning into passages that call believers to true freedom: “For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17); “So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free” (John 8:36). I’m re-thinking what it means to live out of my liberating relationship with Christ, instead of the constricting, binding rules of legalism. Just as the Jewish followers of Christ began to shake off the weight and constraints of the Law shortly after Jesus’ ascension, I too am removing the burdens of legalism and putting on the yoke of Christ, which is easy and light and gives rest to the soul (Matthew 11:28-30).

And as I’m living into this newfound freedom, the fears and guilt of my childhood are fading away.

I no longer feel terrible about missing church due to a migraine or sickness; I’m free to take that Sunday to rest and heal. I do not try to cover my tattoos around “good church folk;” I use my body art to tell the story of my faith. I do not stress out if a new pair of shorts meets the “fingertips rule” or not; I am purchasing my clothes based on whether or not they make me feel comfortable. I am not worrying (as much) about being the “perfect church girl;” I’m trying to be more real, vulnerable, and honest to those around me.

After 28 years, I am continuing to discover what it means to be God’s beloved daughter.

Because God loves me whether I wear jeans to church or a ball gown.

God loves me even if I use profanity to express my pain or frustration.

God loves me if I spend 30 minutes a day studying the Scriptures, or if it’s been a few weeks since I picked up my Bible.

God loves me whether I rock out to the latest radio hits or sing along to Hillsong worship music.

God loves me when I break my Lenten “just water” fast to share a coffee with a friend.

Despite anything I’ve done or will do (or won’t do), God loves me.

After a lifetime of following man-made religious rules, I’m finally hearing Jesus say to me, “Daughter, where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you? Then neither do I. Go in peace.” (John 8:10-11).

And that is liberating.