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Saved out of antagonistic atheism into an amazing life of meaning and purpose, my husband and I were ready to do absolutely anything for our Savior. Salvation was so profound, liberating, joyful – and certainly unexpected! Our lives and marriage had been restored, peace was a deep new reality, and our direction had changed 180 degrees. We spoke for Him whenever the opportunity arose, confronting friends, family, coworkers and even strangers with the glorious news of hope beyond this pale existence. We even disrupted a fraternity party – at their invitation. Hearing we ‘got religion’ they dared us to come. Our fervor far outstripped our wisdom at that point, as talking to drunk people about the meaning of life was more entertaining than productive.

We were fanatics – in the best sense of the word. At just the moment we were looking for a new church, we were introduced to a subculture non-denominational gathering of serious disciples like ourselves. We joined them in weekly Bible study, worship (where all could participate), prayer meeting, fellowship. We went out into the parks to share the love of Christ with people. We jumped in with both feet. It was beautiful, though rigorous – until it was slowly suffocated by the insidious fingers of legalism.

Hindsight is brutal as one finally connects the dots. One man wielding undue control in the various churches while preaching individual autonomy; the installation of his sons on the denominational dime (one of whom worked hard while the other was pompously domineering); insistence on enormous time investments into the leader’s preaching, even when it became dull and lifeless; authority given to the leadership which superseded the conscience of the individual; guilt inducing pressure to conform to church standards. Etcetera. One wonders in retrospect how we could have been so blind.

But consider for a second the book of Acts. They got saved, spent a lot of time meeting for worship, prayer, fellowship, Bible study, turned over their goods and property to the apostles for the needs of their brethren, and were the sheer definition of subculture while simultaneously serving those who dismissed and even persecuted them. They took direction, uprooting their lives at the request of their leaders, and rejoiced at the prospect of suffering for their Savior. My husband and I filtered our experience through that prism. At first it was very much like a New Testament church , refreshingly different from the disappointing mainstream experience we had left – more real, engaging and satisfying. But imperceptibly the precept of power unchecked by the reins of the Holy Spirit corrupted the system. In a few short years, by the time my children were teenagers, there was this unsettling undercurrent that one could not quite identify – something was definitely wrong although we were doing the same things. Vague symptoms made diagnostic efforts fragmented and ineffective. We were at stage four before we really understood the nature of our disease.

It was difficult to pinpoint the issue since the preaching was, for the most part, dynamic. Gift obscured sin. The form of fellowship was scriptural. Our spiritual immaturity, fervor, and goodwill were exploited. Only later did I learn that a crucial teaching for a healthy church was predominantly omitted – grace. That one principle applied to all our doctrine could have beautified and sanctified it. Keeping rules makes one a condemning judge, both of yourself and others. It makes you forget that you were saved while a meritless enemy. Your blind spot distorts your thinking so that coercion passes for care. Knowing the truth supersedes doing it. Condescension and condemnation are cloaked as doctrinal superiority. After all, we are called to walk in truth. That emphasis overshadowed the importance of walking in love. Rule-keeping dampens compassion and promotes performance based worth – for ourselves and others. So God in His mercy judged us.

This is painful to recount – embarrassing that we missed it for so long, discouraging to see the wreckage that cannot be undone in so many lives. Practices that are wonderful spiritual disciplines in the toolbox of a godly servant of God became oppressive legalistic drudgery in a law-keeping system. I submit that legalism is a snare to every believer and I tell my story so that the reader may guard against it in his own heart and fellowship, and to bring hope that there is forgiveness and freedom.

Extricating judgmentalism from one’s soul is a lifelong journey. One will ping pong from “whatever people think and do is fine” to “I am so despicable God will never use me again” to “how can we really know God’s perspective” to “it doesn’t matter” to finally just saying “God, I repent! Cleanse my law-loving heart and bid me get out of the boat into unfamiliar territory ”. Everyone involved in legalism is a victim, the perpetrators and followers alike. Thankfully God’s grace is measureless, and forgiveness is freely offered if we will receive it. Our hyper-keep-the law-to-be-ok consciences can be cleansed by faith, all the lint of legalism and guiltism will be power-washed out by a merciful God. Once you have experienced a purging that rearranges the core of your being, you are forever changed. Forgiveness is sweet, prayer is fervent, grace is cherished and offered to all. But one must go to the heavenly gym of humility every day so as not to be ensnared by the pride of overcoming legalism, for even that can turn into a law-keeping accomplishment. Legalism lies dormant, waiting to reemerge and snare the careless soul.

So there is life after legalism. We come back to where we started in the first place with God – desperate, forgiven, and grateful. The recognition of failure, the humility of receiving forgiveness, the discipline of obeying, the joy of receiving unearned rightness, the desire to share His love as we did at first is like deja vu. So I continue to walk with God, but now with a limp.