Confessions of a Legalist

Posted by on Feb 7, 2012 in Sam | 0 comments


When I was in the business world, I used to meet with various executives to provide them with projects updates. During one trip I met with a CFO one day and with his president the next day.

The CFO told me of troubles he had with the president. The president, he said, cheated other shareholders by bullying; he coerced them into unfair compensation. The CFO told me that it was hard to work with a man who was so abusive and borderline unethical. He said, “I’d never do that.”

The next day I met with the president. He told me of trust issues he had with the CFO. The CFO’s wife was crippled by a chronic illness, and the CFO actively engaged in pornography. The president railed against this man who was emotionally unfaithful to his bedridden wife. He wasn’t sure he could work with such a man. He said, “I’d never do that.”

The Issue

Each of us sees things in others of which we say, “I’d never do that.” Some of us are fit and we see others who become overweight and we say, “I’d never do that.” Or our children are well-behaved, and we see others who let their children go wild, and we say, “I’d never do that.” Or our finances are in order and we see others in drowning in debt, and we say, “I’d never do that.”

What is the real message in our phrase, “I’d never do that?” First we imply disapproval. It’s not good to be unhealthy, in debt, or to cheat.

However—more importantly—the phrase also supplies a sense of self-congratulations, a kind of self-righteousness, and a hint of Pharisaism. It reminds me of the man who prays, “Thank you, God, that I am not like other men, extortioners, … adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). He is really saying, “Thank you, God, that I’m not like them, because ‘I’d never do that.’”

This self congratulation fuels a kind of private applause, a personal standing ovation. We praise ourselves as we contemplate the behaviors we avoid. Saying I’d never do that is an act of other-condemning designed to create a world of self-praise.

The Irony

Anyone who has been a victim of another’s pharisaical legalism knows the pain and shame of condemnation. We don’t want to be out of shape or to be deeply in debt or to see our children out of control. To have another aggravate our wound of failure is to experience double pain and humiliation.

When I think of the pain caused by pharisaical legalists who condemn anyone outside their little moralistic camp, I want to rail against their oppression and self righteousness.

As I think of what they do, I say to myself, “I’d never do that.”

Therein lays the irony. We condemn those condemners and we praise ourselves for being unlike those self-praisers. We happily go about our way, disdaining the bad behavior of others; happy because we’re not like them.

Or are we?

There is a seductive power in saying, “I’d never do that.” The power is fueled by our need for significance, and that need is temporarily relieved in the self-praise we receive by saying it. The effect is to step on others in our need to raise ourselves. We become a legalist ourselves, an anti-legalist legalist.

So what are we to do?

The Answer

We’ll never fully understand the pain and horror of the cross Christ faced, but we can imagine. It’s not just the pain of the beatings or the suffering of nails and asphyxiation; it’s more the loathsome repugnance of our entire guilt and shame placed on his shoulders.

Hanging there, he willingly took all of our guilt upon himself; essentially he was saying, “I did it.”

Picturing this in our minds can lead us to say, “I’d never [be able] to do that” but this time we say it with awe. It creates an atmosphere of praise for another, a thunderous ovation of applause for what he did. It replaces our praise of self with worship of Christ.

Knowing he did this “for the joy set before him”—which is us—empowers us to finally sense we are his beloved.

And that settles our need for self-praise. To the degree we experience awe in his “I did it,” to that degree we’ll no longer need to fill our significance vacuum, and to that degree we’ll no longer need to trample on others with our other-condemning self-praise, “I’d never do that.”

As for thinking, “I’d never do that,” let’s never do that again.

© Copyright 2012, Beliefs of the Heart. All rights reserved.

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