The Appeal of Legalism

I had an epiphany this morning in Starbucks while discussing the book The Life of a God-Made Man with my good friend Aaron. I’ve enjoyed the book and our discussions together, but today I was mildly frustrated with a paragraph in the chapter “A Man and His Wealth.” Here’s what the author, Daniel Doriani, writes,

“Being rich towards God means [seeing] that an old car can be viewed as an embarrassment or as a gift to the kingdom. If you have $40,000, which is the nobler use – to purchase one ‘cool’ vehicle or to provide a century of food, clothing, and Christian education for impoverished children overseas (ten children for ten years at $400 per year)?”

I certainly agree in substance with what Doriani is saying, but where do you draw the line. Should I choose a $5000 clunker of a mini-van or a reliable and comfortable $15,000 mini-van? It could certainly be argued that using the extra $10,000 could be used for more noble purposes? Ok, what about a $10 movie (which is really $20 because I never go alone)? Can I justify going to a movie or should I find a nobler use for the money? In my conversation with Aaron this morning I was pushing for a line, a clear black and white – this is how much you can spend without feeling guilty. Then it hit me (thanks in large part to my friend). I want the line, the rule, the clear black and white, so that I won’t have to wrestle with the heart issues involved. Ouch. That’s pure and simple legalism of the Pharisaical variety! I wanted to say, ‘There, I followed the rules. I’m good, go away guilty feelings’. (By the way, I refuse to feel guilty for going to a movie on occasion! How you spend your money isn’t the point of this post really.) We’re all drawn, by our nature, to legalism. In part, I think, because it allows us to dodge tough heart issues (and in part because it fuels our pride). Steve Brown just might be right when he contends, “I believe that we show our depravity less by the bad stuff we do than by our reversion to Pharisaism” (A Scandalous Freedom: The Radical Nature of the Gospel (See all Religion & Spirituality Books).