I just came back from a ministry retreat where we were challenged to embrace balance in our lives. In America, we don't know what that means. We have an epidemic of obesity, but also anorexia. We tend to be "all-or-nothing" about everything. We either grit our teeth and white-knuckle our way through, or we give up and completely indulge, even when we know it's destructive.
Why we do destructive things.
When we think of sin, it’s easy to come up with a list of self-indulgent behaviors that negatively affect ourselves and other people: lying, stealing, sexual immorality, addiction, etc. These actions are, no doubt, tactics of the sinful nature. One reason we give into these behaviors is to drown out the pain and problems in our lives. Another (bigger) reason is because we are selfish.
In the early church, Paul often had to teach new Christian congregations how to live the gospel. Some abused the grace of Christ in order to excuse themselves sinfully. Paul warns against this in Galatians:
“It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom” (Galatians 5:13, MSG).
This abuse of grace is called licentiousness, claiming that you have the license to sin. In reality, this is against God's desire for your transformation and life change. We have been saved by grace, but living out God's commands are for our own good. His commands aren't just barriers, but guardrails that keep us from going over the edge. They keep us from destroying our lives and hurting those around us.
The opposite extreme.
Sometimes, we become too obsessed with "doing the right thing." Even an earnest desire to serve God can get distracted by perfectionism. Adding extra standards and rules to grace is called legalism.
Legalism was also a problem in the early church. False teachers spread their influence over others in the church through fear and control. They taught that you couldn't be a true Christian unless you also held strictly to Old Testament laws. Paul warns against this other extreme, by stating:
“Rule-keeping does not naturally evolve into living by faith, but only perpetuates itself in more and more rule-keeping, a fact observed in Scripture: ‘The one who does these things [rule-keeping] continues to live by them’” (Galatians 3:12 MSG).
Giving into legalism and religiosity only perpetuates a cycle of shame and shuts true grace out. It is a desire to trust in your own ability to be righteous. This of course is impossible, and will only keep you on a treadmill to nowhere. If perfectionism goes unchecked, it starts bleeding into your relationships with other people. If you can't rest in grace, you won't be able to extend it to others. This controlling spirit can infect families and entire churches.
Examples of being too extreme.
Legalism and licentiousness are two extremes that are equally sinful, and both are tactics of Satan and our own sinful nature. They can negatively affect how you view yourself and how you interact with others. What are some examples of being too extreme on one side or the other? Here are some cases in point:
What is the solution? We are called to focus on Jesus and walk by the Spirit:
“My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness” (Galatians 5:16, MSG).
And that is the root of it all—self-centeredness, trying to serve ourselves, rather than love God and other people. Rest in Christ—He's the one who enables you to love and to live well in the first place.
Where are you on the spectrum? Do you struggle more with licentiousness or legalism?
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