Tuesday, June 30, 2009

My legalistic neck

I have a pain in the neck - literally. For 18 years I've suffered on and off with severe neck pain, and chronic stiffness especially in the morning. Recently it worsened to include my upper back.

It's much better now, thanks to a regimen of stretches, some physical therapy, my sweet husband bringing hot packs each morning, and careful posture. But a recent series of tests and doctor's appointments revealed that the source of this pain and stiffness is not something that can be repaired. My cervical spine is completely straight, rather than curved as it should be.

The specialist I saw yesterday explained that the reason my upper back is affected is that when a baby develops in the womb, the cervical spine develops first and everything else comes off of that. If that area develops incorrectly, it causes problems in the rest of the development - problems that sometimes don't show up until we are fully developed. Bottom line: I have to continue to be proactive to care for my back and neck, and be aware that flare-ups will probably still happen. There goes my dream of being an Olympic gymnast ;).

After I left, I thought about what this could teach me. Other than being disappointed that the condition wasn't something that could be quickly adjusted (oh, how addicted we are to the idea of instant gratification), I began to seek the spiritual truth God might have in allowing me to have this congenital problem.

It wasn't long before I realized that my neck was a picture of legalism.

Legalism - that rigidity that causes one group to think their extrabiblical rules and forms are God's mandate for all people of all times. Legalism - that pride that puts trust in those rules and forms rather than in the finished work of Christ on the cross. Legalism - that killer of faith.

Like my overly-straight, not-as-flexible-as-it-should be neck, legalism has an effect on those around it. Who among us in the church hasn't felt the sting of legalistic judgment -- or been on the side doing the judging. Who hasn't seen the fallout when a group turns inward because no one else gets it, in their own mind ... turns inward, and dies. Yet their rigidity doesn't only affect them - we are the body of Christ, and we experience adverse affects when legalism bring too much rigidity into one part of the body.

I saw a similar picture of legalism in the ice storm we had in January. Surprisingly, the small, young trees didn't experience a lot of damage - most of those are intact or only slightly damaged. The older, larger trees, however, experienced a lot of breakage, losing the treetops and even entire trees. Horticulturists explained that the younger trees had more flexibility; the older ones were more settled and rigid.

So what's the answer to legalism? Contrary to the opinion of some in the early church (and today), its opposite is not license (the absence of any limits). The opposite of legalism is grace. Grace allows for flexibility within biblical parameters; it quickly forgives and grants mercy when wronged; it refuses impersonal judgment and offers a personal touch with a heart of love.

Rom. 5:1 refers to Jesus giving us the "introduction to this grace in which we stand." Grace isn't merely the road to salvation - that's important, but it's only the introduction. Instead, grace is the environment in which the believer stands. It's the ground under our feet.

So grace should be the air we breathe - with each other, with those around us. Biblical grace doesn't ignore changes that need to happen - in fact, Paul teaches in Titus 2: 11-14 that grace teaches us to "renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age". But it's all by grace, enabled by the Holy Spirit. And we should extend that same grace to others.

John Piper's new book on marriage includes this incredible concept: Extend to your spouse the same measure of grace you've received from God. WOW! I don't know about you, but I could never extend more grace than I've received. I'm working on that concept - not only with my husband, but with others. Biblical guidelines are critical to walking in an environment of grace, but I'm learning one thing - if I'm going to err, I want it to be on the side of grace and mercy, not legalism and rigidity.

So - back to my neck. With all this perspective, I've decided that my neck tightness or pain will be a physical reminder to pray for the ability to walk in grace. To never be rigid and legalistic. To always remember that legalism will affect other parts of the body adversely. And to never, ever forget that God has set me in an environment of grace for a purpose. He will empower me. My part is to show off His grace to others.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good blog. A legalistic soul is a
definite pain in the b--- and there
is little about them to attract the
outsider to Christ. Unfortunately,
most of us have have too much tendency towards it, especially with our desire to keep the gospel
'pure'. I suspect that the older
generation is particularly susceptible as we get 'set in our
ways' and decry 'we've never done it that way' etc.