legalism is easier than belief

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor? – Luke 10:29

Typically when I meet with a small group of people for Bible-study, prayer, support, and encouragement, something profound works its way to the surface. There always seems to be that “aha!” moment, where someone receives deep insight. It’s a given.

Wednesday evening my men’s group was loaded with such moments. We were somehow saturated with an extra measure of grace, and the men were all listening to the whispers of God.

One comment concerned belief. We had been talking about the way Jesus set up his Good Samaritan story in Luke’s Gospel (I used the scripture in yesterday’s post – When You Don’t Keep Score You Score Better).

We started our conversation at the juncture that was not only a question but also a challenge, a subtle legal maneuver, an attempt at self-justification: “So I believe I still have some wiggle room here, Jesus. You say I should love my neighbor; but who exactly is my neighbor? Let’s be clear on that before I waste any love on the wrong kind of person, shall we?”

I can just see the lawyer combing through the law in his mind, noting exclusions, exemptions, exceptions, and examples of those kinds of people – the people he didn’t have to love.

  • So I asked my Wednesday night crowd how we try to justify ourselves to God?
  • And I asked how we might have phrased the initial query, “How do I inherit eternal life?”
  • And I asked what the lawyer might have meant by “eternal life” given that life after death wasn’t widely accepted or talked about in First Century Jewish culture?
  • And I asked how we would answer such a question (not if we were Jesus, but as ourselves)?
  • And I asked why is it that we feel so compelled to be rule-keepers and list-checkers, when Jesus makes it so clear that legalism is a snare?

And that is when – among probably a dozen moments of insight, my friend said this:

“It’s just so simple, and we can’t believe it.”

Belief is just too difficult:

Can’t believe… don’t believe… won’t believe… It’s as if belief is too much to handle, or too difficult, or that we would rather retain the control inherent in the rule-keeping approach.

“Jesus frequently points to the cost of unbelief,” I said. “It’s a recurring theme in his ministry….”

So we find ourselves worried about eternal life, unassured of salvation, wondering if we ever do enough to earn God’s love.

And Jesus points out what really counts. We hear his winsome invitation, and instead of falling to our knees and accepting in humility, we try to justify ourselves.

One of the men said that it’s actually easier to try to keep the rules than to trust God. It sound’s absurd, I know, but we’re a bunch of prideful men, and we would rather point to our achievements, and our good works  – justifying ourselves.

Maybe our problem is that in order to believe in Jesus we have to stop believing in ourselves?

Wasn’t that – isn’t that – the original sin? Believing in ourselves and walking right by the invitation Jesus so graciously extends?

Coming across another burning bush and – again – failing to turn aside?


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