A legalist never met a rule he didn’t like. Well, not exactly. But it is true that legalists are always on the lookout for more standards. Call them rule collectors, if you like. There’s good reason for it too: rules are addictive.
Now try not to swallow your tongue with this analogy, but sadly, it bears out. Just like pornography is addictive and, like most addictions, requires more and more in order to provide the same amount of pleasure or the same depth of experience, legalism is addictive and requires more and more rules and standards to provide the same depth of confidence that you are godly and the sense that you are growing spiritually.
Let’s try it another analogy: smoking. Greater supply of the stimulant equals diminished capacity and pleasure, right? So with the keeping of rules. What used to make you so happy that you were so godly, now isn’t enough. You need more rules to keep to make you happy again that you are getting more godly.
Legalism is subtle; it is powerful; it is captivating.
Instead of a focus on growing in grace, love, and wisdom, with every passing year the baseline for measuring your spirituality gets ever higher. Because remember, the measurements are external ones. What was once sufficient to cause you to consider yourself as “godly” is soon insufficient; what was once a visible mark of being “totally committed” is soon overcome with the need to add more rules to keep progressing higher and higher.
This often happens when legalists are introduced to other legalists who have a few rules they hadn’t thought of. And, boy, it’s irresistible to not collect some more rules for yourself! You can’t let them out-do you. Then that would mean that they are more “godly” than you are; and that would mean you’re not as godly as them, and you’re not as godly as you could be.
So the vicious cycle continues. All because godliness is measured by external obedience, by degrees of strictness, by comparison with others (either the world, “carnal” Christians, or more strict legalists – depending on the point of reference.)
Two passages of Scripture (among others) speak to this mindset:
Jesus: (Matt. 23:4) – For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.
Paul: (2 Cor. 10:12) – For we dare not class ourselves or compare ourselves with those who commend themselves. But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.
For more in this series: Part 1