The Stealth of Legalism


One time we were visiting at another church and the Sunday School class teacher was speaking about legalism.  I found some of the statements interesting.

The teacher said things like, “Legalism is about a checklist instead of reaching the heart.  You bristle under conviction.  You have rules rather than pleasing God.”

One of the class members spoke up and she said, “They never talk about love, grace, or forgiveness.  They just sit there heartless.”

We tend to think of the Pharisees as if they were hardened machines, and any legalists today are following in their footsteps.  While sometimes that is true….I think that a lot of times legalism can look a lot more innocuous.


Sometimes legalism is because you are trying to reach your heart.  Sometimes legalism is because you are under conviction.  Sometimes legalism is because you are desperately trying to please God.  Sometimes it is because you are so desperate for love, grace, and forgiveness.

I think that legalism can originate from right motives.  It isn’t always a pious, haughty “holier than thou” type of thing that is in your face.  I also tend to believe that legalism and judgmentalism don’t always go hand in hand.

Looking back I realize that I was legalistic.  All of my trying so hard to be a good Christian….that was legalism.  I was so desperate for the truth, so desperate to honor God, so desperate to do the right thing…..that I was legalistic.  Trying to maintain my right standing before God = legalism.  But just because I was trying so hard does not mean that I was looking down on other people or judging.

I desperately wanted a clean heart before God.  When communion time came I would feel so guilty and scared because what if there was some secret unconfessed sin? I would wrack my brain to try to think of everything and worry that there was something I was missing or something that I wasn’t even aware of that I couldn’t confess.  I would apologize over and over for the same things, waiting and desperately hoping that I would feel forgiven.

Sometimes it translated to other, smaller things, like in college when I was attempting to do the assigned reading.  I would read and re-read each page.  If I knew my mind wandered, I would read and re-read again, just to make sure I soaked in every word, thereby doing all the reading so that I could mark off in good conscience that I completed it.

It was terrible.  I hated it.

I apologized frequently to my husband for things.  “I’m sorry.  I’m sorry.”  And I don’t know how many times he told me, “Stop apologizing for things you didn’t do.”  I was so used to assuming that I was at fault and in the wrong because I spent so much time thinking and analyzing.

It was bondage.  It really was bondage that I was under.

After I had started to come out from this burden I placed myself under, I read this post.  It is beautiful and absolutely amazing.  Please take the time to read it.

Part One  Part Two




14 thoughts on “The Stealth of Legalism

  1. Great blog post!!! It feels like you read my heart! I also used to say “I’m Sorry” all the time, and his response was the same as your hubby’s 🙂 I keep discovering how much we are alike! I think if we lived in the same town, now that we’re both older we’d hang out! 😉

  2. I can so relate! The first few years of marriage was me always saying I’m sorry for things that I really didn’t need to. Thankful for husbands that help us see we don’t have to live that way.

  3. I grew up in a legalistic house as well. I’m not sure if it was all my parents or just my interpretation but for years I had a hard set of rules. All black and white. I’ve since come to see the shades of grey, to show others the acceptance I’ve been shown. Maybe it’s a part of growing up, to move beyond the rules that created a sense of safety to see the reasons for the rules. 🙂 thanks for sharing.

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