I suppose before we begin this discussion you should know what I mean by “legalism.”
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For the purpose of this discussion, legalism is obeying the instructions God gave in the Torah, but not because we want to do what pleases God. On the contrary, legalistic obedience is when we obey because we want to earn God’s acceptance; in other words, faithfully and respectfully doing what God says because we recognize his authority and only want to do what pleases him is NOT the motivation behind legalistic obedience. Legalistic obedience is doing what we are told to do in order to earn salvation, and to be a “good little Believer.”
Obedience is also something that we need to identify. I wrote about obedience recently, and if you haven’t already read it, I suggest you take a moment or three and read it now before we go on. Here is a quick link to it: obedience message.
Now that we have these definitions out of the way, the question I want to discuss is this: Can our faithful desire to be obedient mutate into legalism? I believe it can, and it does once we become more interested in the details of how to observe than the reason why we observe.
As an example: I have seen many people who are absolutely infatuated and obsessed with the lunar calendar. They are asking which lunar cycle to observe, and when a festival or Shabbat really begins. This is, in my opinion, a form of legalism because the moon phases aren’t what God wants us to observe- he wants us to observe the festival that the moon phases initiate.
In the ancient days, they didn’t have ABC news and weather to tell them the exact moment the new moon begins. They didn’t have the Internet or even a set of walkie-talkies so that the northern tribes could know when the moon was seen over Jerusalem.
What they had was a system of lighting fires on the tops of selected mountains as a signal to the other parts of Israel. Once the new moon (Rosh Chadosh) was officially spotted over Jerusalem, the word went out to the other parts of the country by means of these alert fires. And if the night sky was cloudy or they had bad weather, the new moon might have been already a day or two in that phase before the word went out that the festival started. Yet, we don’t read about God denying the people rains and making them infertile because they were a day late when celebrating Sukkot, do we? No, we don’t.
God, himself, tells us that legalistic obedience means nothing to him. The best place we see this is in Isaiah 1: 11-17 (CJB):
“Why are all those sacrifices offered to me?” asks Adonai. “I’m fed up with burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened animals! I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls, lambs and goats! Yes, you come to appear in my presence; but who asked you to do this, to trample through my courtyards? Stop bringing worthless grain offerings! They are like disgusting incense to me! Rosh-Hodesh, Shabbat, calling convocations — I can’t stand evil together with your assemblies! Everything in me hates your Rosh-Hodesh and your festivals; they are a burden to me — I’m tired of putting up with them! “When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; no matter how much you pray, I won’t be listening; because your hands are covered with blood. “Wash yourselves clean! Get your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing evil, learn to do good! Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, defend orphans, plead for the widow.”
God is not looking for the type of obedience that is performance-oriented. He wants us to do what is right! He wants us to treat each other with love and compassion, and understanding…just as he does when we try to do what he wants from us. That is why if your observance is a day late, or based on the Gregorian calendar instead of a lunar calendar perfectly oriented to Jerusalem, God doesn’t care. What he cares about is that you do observe the festival.
Remember that a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like a day to God (Psalm 90:4); do you really think he is so nick-picky that a couple of hours or starting your celebration half-a-day or so off from Jerusalem will make it unacceptable to him?
I don’t think so.
Other legalistic activities that I have seen deal with God’s holy name, which is the four letters we call the Tetragrammaton. Too many people want to use his name as often as they would use anyone else’s name. They justify it with the improper interpretation of the biblical terms that are similar to “call on his name” or “proclaim his name”; the proper meaning of those types of terms, given the cultural usage at that time, was meant to proclaim who and what God is, with regards to his renown, his authority and his reputation. To call on the name of the Lord doesn’t mean to pronounce the Tetragrammaton; no, it means to look to God for salvation, help, and guidance. To call upon his name is to pray to God. It doesn’t mean you have to know how to pronounce his name, and it certainly doesn’t mean to use his name whenever and as often as you want to. In my opinion, those who we would label as “Holy Namers” are being legalistic and missing what calling on the name of the Lord really means.
There are other versions of legalism, and there is probably at least one version of legalistic observance for every commandment God gave. The difference is not in what you do, but why you do it.
If you are really into details and want to be as perfectly observant as you can be, there is nothing wrong with that SO LONG AS your heart is set on pleasing God and doing what he says because he says to do it. That is faithful obedience. Even when you miss the mark, forget a festival, eat a Hostess pie during Hag haMatzot (by accident, of course) or go out to buy something you need on Shabbat, God understands. I am not saying that to sin is OK, but being perfectly obedient to earn God’s acceptance will not be accepted.
God knows the heart, and he knows who you are praying to when you seek him. Don’t get so involved in the details of what you are doing that you lose sight of why you are doing it. Be obedient because you love God and your obedience is the result of your trust in his judgment, your desire to please him, and your faithful belief that whatever God says to do, it is for your own good. Don’t try to understand why, don’t make excuses why you don’t have to, just be honest with God and with yourself and do what you can because God said you should.
Anything more than obedience from love, thankfulness, respect, submission to his authority, or desire to please him will lead you to legalism, and then no matter what you do or how well you do it, it will be a waste of time.
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Until next time, L’hitraot and Baruch HaShem!