There are three natural responses to people or systems that want to control us: submit, get out, or fight. The thing we must notice is that all of them result in a change in us. An outside force does cause an inside reaction. The principle is called Newton’s Third Law: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” I don’t know about equal or necessarily opposite in the case of legalistic control, but there certainly is a reaction.
Suppose I just want to go to church and worship Jesus who loves me. When I get to the church I realize that I am not wearing the “proper” clothing. People are looking at me and none of them are wearing what I am wearing. I can sit in shame and regret my choice of jeans and a polo shirt. I could leave when I realize that I don’t really fit. Or I could set up my heart to become angry at their pettiness and judgmental attitudes. But I really just wanted to praise the name of Jesus with others who love Him.
Legalistic control changes people, whether they know it or not. I don’t know how many times I have heard people say that they began to believe they were inferior or sinful or dumb. They felt they had to make changes or they would be less than what they should be.
Some of them became angry people. Grace teachers have to be careful not to cultivate the anger that so many already feel toward their legalistic friends or churches. Anger might help us to make uncomfortable changes, but we don’t want to live there. The message of Jesus is good news, filled with great joy.
But legalism rewires the mind. We know this from watching the cults. Ruthless leaders can move people to leave behind good judgment, separate from support structures, and turn themselves over to the manipulation and control of the cult. These people no longer think the way they used to think. They no longer are who they were.
Of course, there is a certain amount of right in this. We expect the message of Jesus, particularly the message of acceptance and love, to make a difference in the life and thinking of those who accept it. That change is part of the process. But that is change brought about by the Lord, not the church. And this is a change accomplished through a loving relationship, not a judgmental system.
Years ago I learned a little saying that I use fairly often: “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” The idea is that we are not truly convinced if we are controlled or manipulated into thinking something. But sometimes the pressure causes little compromises, little concessions, and the inconsistencies nag at our hearts and produce even more pressure. We don’t agree with something, but we feel forced to participate or act like we agree. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it isn’t really who we are. It isn’t long before the hypocrisy feels like a weight on our hearts.
I believe that legalism is designed to do just this. It picks and compares and judges and nags until you feel both uncomfortable and trapped. One at a time, your friends outside the legalistic group have become distant and you are dependent on those who are a part of it. You make one small change after another until your lifestyle no longer reflects who you are but what the group is. The big changes do come, but a part of you hates what has happened.
Once you are off-balance, feeling guilty both for the compromises and for not measuring up to the group’s ideal, then the legalist system offers something to help—and to move you deeper into the trap. This is how cults and narcissists work and it is how legalism works. It attacks the mind.
So, don’t get involved in the first place. You don’t need to go to a strict moralist church that tells you how to think. You need a place where the name and Person of Jesus is lifted up and you are taught to walk with Him in love. If you can, get out of the legalist system. If you can’t, at least trust Jesus to lead you to who you are in Him. Find yourself again by trusting Him and believing that He loves you just as you are. Let your thoughts about yourself and others be led by His love.
How? Just ask Him and believe that He not only hears but answers. He wants you to be free and whole in Him. He is already reaching out to you.