Monday, February 22, 2010

Lent and the Temptation of Legalism

Each time I approach the season of Lent, I approach it with either goals of relinquishment or goals of addition. This year I am trying both. Each year, as I go through my Lenten journey, I struggle with some sort of legalism.

When most of us think of the struggle of legalism, we often really think of judgmentalism. We think of someone who spend all their time attempting to live by the rules, and looking down on those who do not. With Lent, we might think of the danger of legalism as being too hard on ourselves. This is not the kind of legalism I struggle with during Lent.

The kind of legalism that I struggle with during Lent is the kind of legalism that looks for exceptions and loopholes. For instance, for years in the past I would give up fast food for Lent. Then, for weeks I would struggle with which restaurant counts as "fast food" and which does not. Did Panda Express count? What about Chipotle or Qdoba? Subway? Or is fast food really just McDonalds and Taco Bell?

When I attempt to fast, I start pondering after about 12 hours whether a milkshake is a food or a drink. What about a candy I do not chew on, but just suck on, like Jolly Ranchers? Is that a break of the fast? Whenever I set a rule, it is not long before I look for loopholes and exceptions.

I think this form of legalism is kind of sad for two reasons. First of all,I think it quickly moves me away from relationship. Instead of getting closer to God, I work on being good enough and not disappointing God and myself. And when I get in the position of a child trying to earn love from my Heavenly Father I miss the love God is reaching out to me with.

Second, it exposes my lack of willingness to embrace the spirit of the discipline I am working on. I wish I were a person who was not tempted to quit so much. I wish I was a person that avoided the hard and painful stuff so much. But often I leave myself open to these temptations through my weakness.


  1. Ah, this is an excellent, excellent post. I'm going to have to re-read this and think on it some more.

    I had similar thoughts today (although not precisely in this vein... more questions, I guess). It will be good to think on this and post later.

    I will say, in response, that this is why some of my friends struggle wiht the idea of Lent. It reminds me, as always, of the "Prodigal God" book. How does a person do good without becoming a person who does good? It's a hard place to be, because it's almost as though as soon as you're aware you're there, you start trying to stay there. And that's when you're not there anymore.

  2. I've been thinking about this for the past week or so. Well put.

    I'm still balancing and wrestling with thoughts and ideas. Thank you for putting it into these words for a bit of clarity for me.

  3. I appreciate you articulating this... it's really easy for me to get caught up in the nuts and bolts of lent so make sure I am "following the rules" rather than remembering why I am doing it in the first place. I'm not so good with seeing the big picture, but I am great at the details. which usually gets me into trouble. (just call me a Pharisee!)