In the circle within which I used to walk it was popular to express one’s convictions. In fact, we were taught to use the word, “conviction,” rather than “preference,” because it would be stronger when talking with others. A conviction was considered to be a word from the Lord, after all.
You know, the Holy Spirit would convict someone of something. The one I remember best is when one man told me that it was his conviction that he should not watch football on Sunday. (I didn’t quite understand how someone who wasn’t supposed to own a television would have this problem, but I listened.) He told me that he had been addicted to watching football and the Lord revealed to him that his addiction was unholy.
Well, that was fine. If he believed the Lord didn’t want him to watch football on Sunday, then he certainly shouldn’t do it. With incredible ease, however, he added that he believed what the Lord revealed to him should apply to everyone. In other words, since he couldn’t watch football on Sunday, neither could anyone else. His conviction was to become my conviction—even though the Lord hadn’t told me anything of the sort. And that’s how convictions become rules.
Now, most of the time in my experience, the convictions people express are really just preferences they feel strongly about. The Holy Spirit had little to do with them. Certain hairstyles, certain dress styles, reading certain types of books or magazines—these usually had something to do with the personal taste of the one making the rule. No rock music, but country was okay. No slacks, but tight sweaters were okay. No pork, but chocolate cake was okay. These became rules, based on someone’s convictions that were really just preferences.
Oh, I know that there was Scripture behind the convictions. Keeping the Sabbath holy was used to prohibit watching football, but it didn’t seem to prohibit driving 50 miles each way to go to a certain church. No pork because the Old Testament laws were still good for us, but nothing bad about having milk and beef at the same meal. Scripture was handy for support when necessary, but not really taken seriously.
So what should we do when we realize that someone is just promoting his or her own preferences as a “word from God”? Ignore them. If God wants to tell you the same thing, He will. Otherwise, you don’t have to live by their “convictions.” Sure, sometimes the ones making the rules are in authority over us and we don’t really have much choice but to live by what they tell us to do, but we don’t have to live in agreement. We can obey in disagreement. We will suffer much less stress if we allow ourselves to disagree, even while doing what we must.
Legalism is about control. Those who believe they have the right or responsibility to control others use rules and standards to support and enforce that control. Because they ignore the fact that only the Lord has the right to control us (and He chooses not to almost all the time) they don’t really receive instructions and guidance from the Lord. So they come up with their own ideas of what is right and wrong. Then they push those ideas on the rest of us.
But we have a real and living Lord to whom we can go for guidance. He will tell us what He wants us to know. His grace is enough for us. We don’t really need their convictions or their control.