Love over Legalism

Alcohol and Gluttony

I have a dark history with legalism. I would argue that most people genuinely committed to the church of God have encountered legalism. To be clear, when I state this, I am not encouraging you to walk around breaking rules or disobeying God. Following God is a joy. Doing what he asks is good.

But legalism can strip the beauty from the gospel, and life from the church. Most people know that breaking rules can lead down a dangerous path, but few understand the perils of keeping them.

Imposed on us in great numbers, they can become soul crushing.  Followed meticulously, they can become paths to self-righteousness.

This series is my attempt to grow love towards legalists, recovering legalists, or people who see the legalism in their own environments and want to think through how to navigate it well.

I may end up exposing a legalistic blind spot you have not considered. You may not agree with me. You also may feel the need to go talk to your pastor about how we need to be free from legalism in a certain area. I want to ask you to refrain from that. As we enter this series, consider how difficult it is for a pastor to deal with all the different sinners in your congregation, at various degrees of strengths and weaknesses. Take that knowledge and use it to refrain before you jump to tell anyone how they are a legalist or what they should do about it. In fact, that mentality would be against the purposes of this blog.

This can be dangerous territory in the church, because every tradition has areas they believe their rules are ordered or sanctioned by God. How do we deal with legalism? What rules are added? What rules are extra? Am I even going to be able to provide you with concrete answers to that based on your religious background?

The ten commandments summarize the essence of the law of God. These are the commands that teach us what loving God and others looks like.

As we begin this series, my desire for you is to listen, think, question, and then consider what you will or will not embrace as being of God. We also consider that the moral law of God includes honoring parents. Which means, as young people mature in their faith, they still honor their parent’s faith and belief.

I do not confess to be the perfect one to tell you. I do not confess to have it all correct. But I do come from a place of deep theological reading and a variety of backgrounds which have led me directly to the place of holding up so many things that have been taught or are being taught so that I can question, and honestly try to follow God away from extra rules, or any belief that following rules makes someone better than those who do not follow or have not followed those rules.

At a Bible Study the other night, I had a conversation with a lady who gave me an idea. She encouraged me to take each areas of imposed legalism that I have encountered and one by one intentionally cross those lines that man has drawn that God has not.

Recognizing my own sinful heart and tendencies, I am treading this ground lightly, because I do not desire to fly in the face of God or overcorrect errors by running in the opposite direction. Children often over-correct for the sins of their parents. We tend to fall into categories of following our parent’s mistakes or running in the opposite direction. My desire is not to run towards destruction, but to carefully walk towards deeper freedom in Christ.

The heart of obeying or breaking a rule should be love

Rather than starting with some of the more difficult issues, why not start with drinking? Is drinking alcohol a sin? Some people believe it is wrong to drink. They look at passages about drunkenness and create the largest boundary. This giant boundary must make us holier, right? No one could possibly suspect that I am a drunkard because they have never spotted me with a drink.

Yet, often the unhealthiest form of alcoholism is said to be getting drunk alone.

If we do not drink with someone, let it be because we understand their weakness and choose not to lead them to stumble, not because of our legalism. If we drink with someone, let it be in a manner that is honoring to the Lord.

This is one classic example of Christian thought where love can show us the right action among different people. It may be the right thing for a person who has a family history of alcoholism and has recognized that flaw in himself to abstain entirely from alcohol. It also might be the right thing for friends of this person, in love, to find other activities to enjoy with the man and create a wide boundary around him. It could also be that they should limit his drink intake when going out. Legalism says, “This is the right answer.” Love says, “This is what we need to address and work through.”

In practice, one man may be able to listen and limit himself when you go out and drink. However, would you know if he began to drink privately to excess? Would you know if he is prone to take a sip and then get caught up in something that he does not know how to stop?

People who deal with such sin struggles must be honest with themselves. Without self-honesty and a desire to overcome, no one will be able to help with imposed legalistic rules. Personally, I believe AA groups have been so successful because they require people to meet and be honest about their struggles and where they are in the journey. They are committed to overcoming a problem.

Moving on to the socially acceptable sin of gluttony, which no one wants to talk about, people often find help in groups like weight watchers. Yet, unlike AA, these groups end, and people tend to regain the weight. Rather than continuing in fellowship with one another, they discontinue and try to resume habits on their own.

On the other side of things, some people who are overweight are not gluttons. If we assume everyone who looks as if they need to drop a few pounds is sinning terribly, we might be a legalist. We must account for thyroid issues and medical conditions. Perhaps the person you are talking to lost ninety pounds last year and has been living close to the Lord. Maybe this was a stronghold in their life, but they have so far to go in a weight and health battle that you do not really know their heart unless you are in their life closely.

Do Christians want to separate these things out, and secularize them? Do we have to deny the help and support that a secular group can offer someone in their battle against sin? I think the biblical principle remains no matter which group helps us in our sin battles. These groups encourage a Christian to humble themselves, recognize the truth of where they are, and seek help from others in their growth. These are biblical concepts.

Nonetheless, we can also lack Christian love in the way that we approach people who have strongholds. We must be honest with ourselves about where we are and making the necessary decisions and life choices to deal with our sin.

The closer relationship we have with another individual, and the better we know their sin struggles, the more we become accountable to speak into them. But the Bible expresses that this always must be done with humility, looking to ourselves first. If you want to, or need to, help someone with their sin I encourage you to first ask yourself the most encouraging and rewarding way that someone approached you to deal with a sin issue. My guess is, that they did so with grace and humility.

If you are not able to do approach with grace and humility, it probably is not the right time to approach someone. If necessary, you might need to ask others to approach on your behalf. Godly leaders will see why this is sometimes necessary and will not allow you to hurt one another in conversation.

Honestly, I believe in walking a long time with someone before ever mentioning a sin struggle they might have, unless it is so pressing that it must be dealt with right away. You would be surprised that when you safely share your own struggles, people often begin to share theirs with you. This opens conversation to talk to that person about their sin in honesty and humility. This often leads to good fruit but is not always the case.

When we speak of loving people and overcoming legalism—one main principle should be held onto firmly in how we begin:

How God loves us.

God loves us while we are sinners.

He pays for our sins.

He accepts us as part of his family.

Then he sanctifies us.

God lets us know that he fully loves and accepts us as we are, and that because we are a part of his family, we are not going to stay where we are.

He grows us.


Through his word.

Through eating well, and resting well, and being loved well we gradually grow into something beautiful that resembles Jesus more each day.

It is in this type of environment of gospel acceptance and love, a grace-filled atmosphere, that we begin to feel safe. And as we feel safe and loved as we are, we also feel permission to acknowledge what we are not. We can look honestly at the sin that remains in our hearts and lives and take it to Jesus each day to receive his righteousness in our place. To be made new.


My heart’s desire in writing this, is that you would feel the love of God deeply in your life. That you would gradually feel so loved that you can look at yourself and see what you look like. And bit by bit that God would make you more beautiful.

Rabbit Trail: Am I allowed to use the word “alcoholism” in my blog—or is that a “worldly” substitute that has no business being here? (answer: some legalists would say that I may not use this word in a biblical post. I must not change the biblical word drunkenness to the worldly term alcoholism. Just disregard the fact that the entire Bible was written in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic and must be translated into modern terminology.

I Choose Love


Sharon, Aaron, and Joy Naik went to be with their Lord and Savior the evening of December 23. This free verse poem is written in their memory.


I want to be alone.
But I don’t want to be lonely.
Is there a way to make the pain go away without giving in?
The world of numbness is already overpopulated.
In the world of the hard,
We soft ones stand out as targets to be trampled.

We are soft but not weak.
They entice us when we hurt,
But they are envious in our joyous moments.
Today that joy is far away.
I must remember lest I crumble
That a life without pain is barely living,
This life lives in the shallows
It abandons the depths of joy, hope, and love.

If I did not feel this sorrow, it would be because I had not loved.
Would I trade it?
For one moment would I forsake the beauty of lives intertwined?
Would I give up laughter?

I would not.

Neither will I give up crying now.
The salt in my tears will escape and bring healing in time.

I choose love.

Advent: A Time of Expectant Waiting

Advent is a time of waiting. As an adult thinking of Christmas, it doesn’t feel like it’s that far away. I have seen it come and go each year, and I fully expect it to come shortly this year as well.

For a child, it may seem longer, but often the entire season of lights and songs and the knowledge that Christmas is coming is lovely enough. In the Chronicles of Narnia, we see the concept of a time of expectancy beautifully described. The snow starts melting and Spring finally arrives after years of only winter and never Christmas. This is a sign to the children that they will see Aslan soon.

When I think back to Jesus’ arrival in this world, I wonder how many people were in this frame of mind. How many knew that he would be there shortly?

As I wrote about in my last post, The World Jesus Enters, things looked a bit bleak. The people were expecting a savior, but I wonder how expectant many of them really were.

Years ago, I was a part of a Bible study and going through an incredibly difficult time in my life. The difficulty in my life in that period was so real that I do not even remember what book I was studying at the time, but I do remember the author mentioning that as a Christian waiting was to be with an expectant attitude.

As I sat in the Bible study and we discussed the author’s definition of hope, I remembered that the word for waiting in Spanish is “esperar” and it is the same word used for hope. I thought about the loveliness of a culture in which waiting was equivalent to hoping. At that time in my life, waiting and hoping were nowhere near the same thing. But, as I began thinking through the concept during my Bible study and afterwards, I realized that this is the Christian culture.

We can certainly wait or hope for the wrong things, and if we do we can be disappointed. But if we are living out the faith of the Bible, then we are supposed to be expectantly waiting for the right things—things we are promised in his word.

So, going back in time to the world Jesus entered, I wonder about the different people during that day. How expectant were they? We know Simeon was expecting him to come soon as it says in Luke 2:26 that, “it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” Perhaps Anna knew, too. But I must deduce from the way the Bible points to this special revelation, that most people probably did not know.

I imagine most people were going about their daily business in a broken world, some with hopeful expectancy of God fulfilling his promise of the coming Messiah, but many less expectant. Many, after centuries of waiting might have had only a smidgen of hope left. They may not have seen waiting as synonymous with hoping. While a part of them may have believed and trusted God was sending a savior, another part may have been a bit numb to the idea—a bit callous after long years of waiting.

The counting down of advent can be comforting to us, because it points to a certain day when we can celebrate reality. Each year it follows the pattern of the calendar with certainty.

From a human perspective, the first and second advent are not like this. From God’s perspective, these events happen with absolute certainty. But as we anticipate the second advent of Christ, we know that “concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” (Matthew 24:36)

The celebration of advent is a comfort to us, a reminder of the period of waiting mankind experienced before Jesus’ first coming. It is a reminder that this period of dark waiting had a hopeful and celebratory end.

Now, we follow suit. As we experience this time each year, we remember that Christ came, and our hopes have been fulfilled. At the same time, we are also pointed forward to his second coming, because in some sense we are still waiting.

Some are not joyfully celebrating advent right now. Some may not be in a place of recognizing that we can wait expectantly, because it seems so dreary. Some may be in a dark pit like I was several years ago when the idea of tethering waiting and hoping together seemed odd.

I want to encourage you today, to rest in God’s word. As we await Christ’s second coming, we have more to look forward to than children awaiting Christmas day. We know that after the presents are opened and the lights are taken down and the feasts are digested that many people will enter post-Christmas blues as they see that what they have been anticipating is now over.

We who await the second coming of Christ are awaiting a celebration of perfection that will never be over. We are awaiting Christ making all things new. We are awaiting a time of no more sorrows or tears. We are awaiting the never-ending Christmas feast that will satisfy every longing of our hearts for eternity.


I won’t ever forget standing in the darkness of the catacombs in Kiev, Ukraine, my thin wax candle flickering. I felt something in my coat pocket. Looking down, a child of 3 or 4 stood with a jacket several sizes too big. I barely caught sight of the dirty face under the toboggan and am still uncertain whether the child was a boy or girl.

Asking questions, I learned this child lived in the streets and was probably looking for food or something of value. A junior in high school at the time, I had relegated situations like this to Charles Dickens’ novels of long past.

In the United States, my family was not well off. At the time, I was living in a second-hand single wide trailer in Mississippi. Neighborhood families had often brought us their cast-off clothing, and to me this was just normal life. I had my first steak at age 18 when I visited my aunt, and she was appalled when I tried to slather ketchup on it because that is just what we did to make meat palatable.

But I had never faced starvation. I certainly knew that if you did not eat the food you had you would not get more, and I had forced down my share of canned vegetables to get better things. Leftovers were to be eaten until they were gone, and nothing was to be wasted.

But this small child had no one to provide meals. Scrounging on your own as a toddler? How could that be?

At that moment, my heart for orphans took root. Whether girl or boy, that face will forever be etched in my memory.

In college, I studied International Business and Economics. At the time I was learning the GDPs of countries worldwide I ended up in an expensive formal shop on the coast. I couldn’t help but notice that the dresses cost more than an average person made a year in many of these places.

When I think about things like this, it’s tempting for me to numb myself to it. It’s tempting to turn back to the world around me and deal with the things I can handle, knowing that I can’t fix this.

But I hope I never do.

Yes, it’s painful to look at the brokenness in this world head-on. This weekend, I feel assaulted by it. Reminded of the plight of orphans, the poverty in the world, the wars our veterans have fought, the incivility of politics, not to mention the hurts of those near me it can be tempting to harden yourself from it all.

But I refuse to do it.

I keep reading the messages online from various places that, “I am enough.” I look at all that I just mentioned, and I admit quite honestly, “I am not enough. I will never be enough.”

So, how do I keep standing, keep walking, keep eating, keep breathing each day? How do I keep going seeing the deep need of our world?

I take it all—all the pains near and far to the God who is enough. I don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. I don’t look away. I don’t pretend I can handle it. I look at it and I let it drive me to Him.

I cry on my bed and I intercede for the orphans, those treated unjustly, those who are persecuted, and the persecutors.

I put my trust in God, and believe he is at work.

I don’t always understand his timing. Why does he sometimes answer quickly, and at other times help seems so slow? His ways are beyond me, but he is at work.

I saw babies packed in cribs, but I have also seen some brought into a loving home.

I have seen girls left unattended in an orphanage, but I have also heard reports of 70 being adopted by their heavenly father.

Joseph never knew why he was hurt and abandoned by his family, enslaved, betrayed and imprisoned—until years later when he could say:

You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.
Genesis 50:20

I am so thankful I am not in charge, and that I can confess my own inadequacy. It leaves me free to be used in the hands of my maker in the capacity he has for me. The burden of the world is not on my shoulders—in fact my own burden has been lifted by the one who can bear it all.

I can’t do everything, but I can do something. I can give, write, encourage, teach, love. Not everyone. Not as well as I would like to. But when the needs of the world and the people of my own home face me, I am so glad that I haven’t left them thinking I am the one who can satisfy all their needs. I can give a drink of water, but you will be thirsty again. Thankfully, I know where you can find the never-ending spring.


Sitting in the middle of a congregation of Africans, Asians, and other Americans, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia I could not help but think of how our worship of God in heaven would consist of every tribe worldwide. The pastor taught on the parable of the talents, a text I had taught to my own children so many times. I have always believed it important to be a good steward of my time, money, and talents.

But today, as the sermon ended we sang the hymn “Take My Life and Let It Be” by Frances Havergal, I couldn’t help but notice that in addition to the usual verses, a verse had been added that began, “Take my intellect.” As I sang those words, tears streamed down my face.

I have never been one to be swayed by emotionalism and that is certainly not the case this morning. No one else had an emotional response to this sermon, but it convicted me. I may be giving in many ways, but this hymn reminded me of the way God had gifted me and how I should be using that gift.

I saw great things happen because of that trip. In less than a year through connections from that trip, he has provided money to help an amazing ministry to orphans, a grant to help build a new home to bring children out of extreme neglect and into a loving environment and partnered with an organization that will bring continued help to this ministry.

God is at work.

His work in me during that trip encouraged me to restart my blog and use everything I have at my disposal for his glory. God has gifted me with words and my job is to speak.

Returning home, desiring to share the great need of these orphans, I re-entered blogging in the middle of a Christian conversation on social justice. Who knew helping those in need and loving others was such an issue?

I am not going to define social justice and argue for or against it. I see that those concerned with this term are looking at how it has been used historically and ways they may fear that movements around the term are headed. Some people are wrestling with the idea of a social gospel that is replacing the gospel.

Let me be as clear as possible: I am 100 percent pro-gospel. I am also 100 percent pro-loving others.

If we ever hope for real justice in society it will come through the gospel. We are all sinners, in need of a savior, Jesus Christ. Without his atonement, none of us could ever hope to stand before a Holy God.

I hope that none of us who proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ will get lost in arguments that would detract us from following Christ in obedience. My concern is that those who are against the term social justice would leave Christians confused, and perhaps lead some to be less concerned about loving our neighbors as we ought.

If we look at Acts chapter six, we see that the widows in the church were not receiving the food they should be receiving. Men were chosen to serve these women, so that other men could remain focused on teaching the Word of God. From the very beginning of the church, we see that there was a focus on both physical and spiritual needs. The elders focused on the teaching of the word, while the deacons focused on acts of service.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it-not forgetting what they have heard but doing it-they will be blessed in what they do. Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:22-27

While the gospel does show that what we do will never earn our salvation, we see in this passage in James and in countless other places in scripture that obedience to the word is of utmost importance, and obedience to the word means loving God and others, since that is the summary of the law that Jesus gives. In this passage, it shows that love ought to include caring for the orphans and widows—those who were vulnerable in society. We see countless places in the Bible where we learn that our God cares about those who are vulnerable (Psalm 68:5, 82:3, 146:9, Exodus 22:2, Isaiah 58:7) In addition to the orphan and widow, these and other passages also include foreigners and the poor. As Christians, we are certainly called to look at the distress of others and act accordingly in love.

Jesus himself repeatedly showed his concern with the whole individual. His miracles included providing food on multiple occasions, healing from a fever, lepers, the paralyzed, the blind, deaf, and mute, the demon-possessed and the dead. Jesus cared about others physical needs, as well as their spiritual needs. He preached the sermon on the mount, but he also fed the 5000. In fact, in the sermon on the mount, he warns against practicing righteousness for others to see, and the example he uses is about giving to the needy. He instructs to do it privately rather than publicly, but he certainly does not say it does not matter.

In fact, in the well-known passage on suffering in Romans 8, we learn that God is using everything to conform us to the image of Christ. If his goal is to sanctify us, shouldn’t we like Jesus be concerned with the physical and spiritual well-being of those around us as Christ was?

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”  Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii[a] and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
Luke 10:25-37

Obviously, we know we cannot love perfectly like this parable describes. This is why we need the gospel. This man could not be justified by loving God and his neighbor perfectly. None of us can be. And yet, while we cannot be saved by our good works because we all fall short, God has not saved us for us to continue living sinful lives. Our hearts are to be transformed by the gospel so that more and more, this is the way we live.

We have all failed at God’s justice. We all have failed in our task of loving God and others. We all need Christ’s perfect atonement. We all need him to stand in our place, so we can stand at all. And once he has rescued us, we should all cherish his justice so that we increasingly love others as Jesus did.

So my plea to my brothers and sisters in Christ is, please don’t pass others by out of confusion. Please don’t use arguments as an excuse. Our world is full of both physical and spiritual needs. Jesus ministered to both, and Christians are to minister to both as well.