Kathy said it so well in a comment the other day:
“Legalism kills. It kills relationships, marriages, father-daughter bonds, family bonds….everything. It just kills.”
It really does, you know. It has no choice. Legalism has no life to offer.
Paul understood this. In a long section about the Law of Moses, Paul writes, in 2nd Corinthians 3, “…the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” He goes on to tell us clearly what that letter is and what it has to offer: “the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones.”
Now, if you go and read that chapter, you will see that Paul is not disrespecting the Law. In fact, he refers to it as “glorious.” It’s just that the Law was given to kill us. Its purpose is to bring us to the end of ourselves so that we see how much we need a Savior.
It’s a simple message: You can’t do it yourself. When God even begins to show you what kind of life is required, it should be very clear that you won’t be able to do it. Legalists come up with all kinds of loopholes and caveats, but God doesn’t accept anything less than perfection—and He doesn’t expect you to be anything more than what you can be. Once sin entered humanity, the opportunity for perfection was gone.
So the legalist lives with the idea that he can, if he works hard, do enough to please God and God, on His side, is never pleased with the small accomplishments of the legalist. The legalist knows that he deserves nothing good from the hand of God, yet he has worked hard to make it seem like he deserves something. His system of performance will never accomplish his hopes, so he takes a perverse pleasure in pointing out the errors of others. That way he, at least, looks like he is better than someone.
Yes, legalism kills. It kills because it is supposed to kill. It is supposed to kill all human hope of self-salvation. It is supposed to kill any pretense of human goodness apart from the Lord. It is supposed to kill the idea that we can be better than others by our own spirituality.
But, sadly, legalism kills other things as well. When the legalist refuses to accept defeat, when he just tries harder and harder to be good enough, he enters into an obsession that kills his heart. Relationship is a matter of the heart and,when the heart is dead, no real relationship is possible. Here is the tie between legalism and narcissism. The legalist is no longer able to see others as persons with life and value. He sees them only as tools to help his quest or obstacles in the way.
Pray that the legalist will come to the end of himself quickly. Pray that he will see the death inherent in his system. Pray that he will stop and see that he has accomplished nothing. Pray that he will, in his terror of death and destruction, cry out to the Lord who loves him and allow the Spirit to give him life.
And pray for Kathy, and her family, and so many like her.