Freedom from Quiet Time Guilt Part II: The Culprit - Legalism

Greg Johnson, founder of the St. Louis Center for Christian Study, has written a very pertinent series of chapters on the modern invention of "Quiet Time", and how the church has turned our devotion to God into an issue of guilt. Each day this week, I will quote a chapter and comment as necessary. Below is part two in the series of six entitled, "Freedom from Quiet Time Guilt: The Culprit - Legalism." Part I can be found here.

The Culprit: Legalism

The root of Quiet Time Guilt is legalism. Often when we think of legalism, we think of the petty man-made rules that have so often strangled the churches—rules against dancing or drinking or makeup or ‘secular’ music. But these legalistic rules are merely an outward sign of a deeper legalism of the heart. When prayer and Bible study are thought of primarily as duties (‘disciplines’) rather than as grace, both prayer and the study of Scripture become unfruitful in our lives. We put ourselves on a performance treadmill and cease relying on God’s grace to sustain us. We trust in ourselves and our consistency, becoming proud if devotionally successful—or despairing because of our inconsistency. Either way, our spiritual self-reliance short-circuits the inexpressible joy of life in Christ. The quiet time becomes a human work whereby we think we gain—or lose—God’s daily favor. When we’ve started our day with Scripture, we presume that God’s blessing will rest upon us because of it. When
we fail in our quest for devotional consistency, we feel we’ve short-circuited God’s grace in our lives. Quiet-Time Guilt.

If this describes you or anyone you know, the situation is far worse than you think. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for this very attitude about Bible study. “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me” (Jn 5:39). Yes, that’s what Jesus said. Bible study can be a sin. The Pharisees assumed the Bible a book of rules or principles for living, but failed the grasp it as a story about God’s love for his people. The quiet time can drive you far from God if you fail to understand that the Scriptures are a story about grace. The Scriptures are a story about Jesus Christ, the man of grace. His works—not our works—are the center of the biblical story. And this Jesus gives grace daily to those who fail him. How you approach the Bible—as needy sinner or as self-reliant Pharisee—says a lot about the state of your soul.

Just like Bible study, prayer too can be sinful. Remember what Jesus said about the Pharisee and the tax collector. The one saw prayer as a work, the other as an expression of need. The one who merely expressed his neediness to God—the expression of our neediness being the heart of true prayer—that one went home right with God.

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 18:9-14).

Often we assume that if we really had it together and could approach God without sin, without failing, with only pure spiritual successes to offer, then God would somehow delight in our prayer more. The opposite is true. If you approach God in that manner, you approach him as his enemy. We are all fallen. If we presume to approach him as something more than needy, dependent sons and daughters, God rightly takes offence. There’s nothing more dangerous than the pride of devotional consistency.

Who knew that studying the Scriptures or even praying could lead us into rightful judgement against God? Since reading this passage I have been on my knees multiple times, before and after prayer and bible study, asking that God alone would cleanse my pride and selfish desires to please Him on my own behalf. This deep rooted legalism especially hits home because I was raised in the World Wide Church of God denomination, the one time cult of Christianity. Since then it has, by the grace of God, turned to orthodoxy. Church members were viciously guilted into a works-based salvation plan stemming from hardlined legalism. "If you're not giving 10 percent to the church, you are a disgrace to our church." "Did you read at least 2 chapters on Sunday morning before church?" "Did you ask for forgiveness because you missed church last weekend?" These were all typical questions being put forth to deminish the "lesser Christians" into an unending guilt trip.

But, as Johnson rightly puts it, "The opposite is true." We often think we should cleanse ourselves before pleading a Holy God. The Scriptures teach that we are "but filthy rags" in His sight. Our heart, mind, soul, and flesh are all fallen. We make God's grace and mercy cheap when we espouse ourselves as achieving righteousness on our own. The Holy Spirit is the means of our on-going sanctification, not ourselves.

What is the next step after coming to grip with the legalistic culprit in the quiet time guilt? There is an idea of two views of Christianity that are being taught. Which two are they? What roles do they play in your life? Find out tomorrow in part III of the on-going series this week entitled, "Freedom from Quiet Time Guilt: The rare beauty of Weakness Christianity."


Cross-blogged at Apologia Christi



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