I was going to call this a review, but it really isn't. It's less of a review and more of my thoughts on and experiences with legalism after reading Becoming Free Indeed by Jinger Duggar Vuolo. Though I will say, I highly recommend this book, especially if you have any past with legalism, however big or small.
Honestly, I don't have nearly the legalism experience or damage that I see in a lot of people I know. Definitely nowhere near Jinger's experience.
My parents were always very careful to not promote legalism. They came from a Catholic background, and so they were wary of things that were about external rules and works-based models. The only things vaguely along any of those lines I can remember hearing from my parents were the purity culture ideas of chaperones and saving your first kiss for your wedding day. And while I heard a decent amount of purity culture ideas from various sources growing up, I didn't even know IBLP/ATI existed until I was in my mid to upper teens.
Even so, my personality and personal experiences primed me to be susceptible to legalistic ideas when I encountered them as a high schooler.
I'm a very literal person. Sure, I like discussing philosophical ideas, but if you're around me long enough (actually, it doesn't take that long), you will notice that I almost always discuss those more abstract things by relating it to a story. I need analogies. I need something more tangible in order to truly understand. It is also very difficult for me to not have something physical and tangible to do. For instance, while I know in my mind that prayer is doing something, and it is doing something very important, I frequently feel as if I'm not doing anything about a situation if all I am doing—if all I can do—is pray. Even if I'm praying about it constantly.
My early experiences also primed me to find purity culture very attractive. When I was very small, my primary experience with boys was a very contentious relationship with my cousin. (Ironically, he's the cousin I get along best with now—and yes, I 100% credit Star Wars with the shift in our relationship because that was the first time we had something to talk about that didn't involve fighting.) But because of that, I labeled all boys as jerks and wanted nothing to do with them. So all the purity culture ideas were a great excuse for me to avoid all males.
The idea of stay at home daughters and being under your father's protection (though I honestly knew very little of what was behind those ideas and how it tends to play out) was intriguing to me because I'm kind of a homebody (though I do easily get stir crazy if I go nowhere for more than 2 or 3 days...try to figure that one out), I like being able to control my own schedule, I'm not a risk taker, I get along well with my parents, and the things I enjoy working at are mostly arts-oriented things, and, well, I've said many times that "starving artist" is a thing for a reason. However, once I was a few years out of high school with no marriage prospects, no sign of ever making a living writing or teaching music, and also no possibility of making enough to pay for my life working at the public library, I did start to reevaluate my plan because I've never thought it was right to expect my dad to pay the majority of my bills indefinitely simply because I'm female.
Finally, I've always known I'm a perfectionist, and I've had to admit finally that I'm also something of a control freak. I like to have my plan, I like to have a say in what happens and how things play out, and I have a really hard time accepting that most of the time I don't. And while I'll say all day long that no one is perfect, practice makes better, God's grace is sufficient for all our mistakes and imperfections—and I have no problem extending that grace to other people—I have a really hard time accepting that grace for myself. To the point I actually had a professor tell me I should just let go about a math homework problem I accidentally skipped and wanted to make up. It was very hard to just let it go, even though bonus points on the tests more than made up for the points lost by that homework problem.
But still, as a child and preteen, I really never thought about rules. I didn't think about all the external things that these legalistic systems promote.
That isn't to say that I didn't want to know God better and serve Him more. Becoming a Christian gave me a hunger for God that wasn’t borne out of rules or fear or other people’s expectations. There was definitely a time when I changed from looking at the maps in my Bible when I was in trouble because I knew my mom wouldn't yell at me for reading if it was the Bible to truly desiring to read the Word. I wanted to please God, but out of love, not out of external rules.
But then things changed, when I was about 15 years old. And I'm only now realizing and unpacking what those harmful ideas were and how they affected me. When a Bible verse triggers a meltdown in Sunday School because said verse brings up all kinds of fears and doubts you've tried to bury but can't leave behind, well, it's kind of hard to deny it all anymore.
When I was 15, we started attending a church that preached a lot of legalistic ideas and sowed a lot of fear. Two passages in particular I remember being used frequently at this church in a manner that seemed designed to scare you into following God: Matthew 7:21-23 and 1 Corinthians 11:27-29. Jinger actually deals with the 1 Corinthians passage in her book, so I'll get to that in a minute. But the Matthew 7 verses were actually the ones that triggered my freak-out in Sunday School a few months ago. My current pastor preached those verses in a way that focused on grace. But for 2 1/2 years as a teenager, I heard them in a manner that caused me to doubt the sincerity of my faith. Coupled with other legalistic ideas at this church—such as strict ideas about Sabbath-keeping and the idea that Nativity scenes were probably breaking the second commandment by containing an image of Jesus, as if we’re worshiping our Precious Moments Nativity scene with the Lincoln Log stable at Christmastime (and yes, I did at the time think maybe we shouldn’t put it up even though previously I was all about the parts of Christmas that focus on Jesus)—I was constantly worried that I wasn't a good enough Christian. I needed to do more things to serve God so that God wouldn't tell me He never knew me.
It's only recently that I put together the (slight, compared to some) anxiety I tend to have over taking communion with the emphasis of 1 Corinthians 11:27-29. I was (and sometimes still am) afraid that some unconfessed or unrealized sin will mean I am taking communion unworthily. This is something Jinger struggled with for years. In her case, she would abstain from communion if she thought there was any chance she could be taking it unworthily. I've never abstained from communion, but not for any better reason than she did abstain. The majority of the churches I was raised in emphasized that anyone who was a Christian could take the Lord's Supper. And so I have always been concerned that if I skipped, people would think I'm not a Christian and since I didn't want that, I would take it anyway, hoping that I wasn't taking it unworthily and condemning myself. This pattern has been in place as recently as this year. What Jinger pointed out is that the whole passage is condemning those who use the Lord's Supper to feast and get drunk. That's not what the Lord's Supper is for. It is to commemorate Christ's death on the cross, to remember that He died to pay for our sins so that we can be free of our sin and someday live with Him forever in Heaven. We literally can't come to Him sinless and without fault. If remembering and confessing and repenting of every little sin we've committed was necessary to take communion worthily, none of us could. No one can actually identify and remember every sin they've committed, and I really don't think God wants us obsessing over all our mistakes. That just leads to constant guilt and condemnation rather than freedom and grace, which is what Jinger covers in her book far better than I am doing now. The point of the Lord's Supper is not to get us to worry and wallow in fear and condemnation, but to remember and celebrate that Jesus' blood has washed away our sins. And I hope that through God's grace, next time my church does communion, I can partake without any worry and guilt about my worthiness.
Something else that Jinger covered in her book that really hit home was on Bible reading. Reading your Bible is a very good thing. It is important to dig into the Word of God, to spend time with Him, learning about Him, growing closer to Him. But it is not supposed to be a burden or an obligation. When I first became a Christian around the age of 9, I remember truly wanting to spend lots of time reading the Bible. I still have wonderful times when I dig into the Word and really enjoy seeing what God has to say. And during my horrible fall semester when I was so sick and overworked, I spent a lot of time drawing comfort from Psalm 46. But I, like Jinger, have also had many times when I felt like a bad Christian if I didn't read my Bible because I was sick or having a migraine or whatever life thing that happened to make it difficult. For Jinger, sometimes it's things like kids getting up earlier than expected, something which doesn't apply to me. But the thing is the same. What she said about it really stood out to me:
"I still have feelings of guilt when I don't read the Bible as much as I think I should....In those times, when guilt wants to rise in my soul and condemn me, I remind myself that the Bible doesn't tell me how much I'm supposed to read it. It does tell me to love it, understand it, and believe it. By not condemning myself when I miss a morning, I'm no longer being stricter than Jesus." (pg. 186-187)
I've spent a lot of time over the last decade feeling like I'm not a good enough Christian because I haven't spent "enough" time reading the Bible on a given day. But Jinger's right, God doesn't tell us how often to read the Bible, how much at a time, what time of day to read it or any of that. It says to know the Word, to hide it in our hearts, to love God, and all that. But honestly, I don't need to feel guilty if the first thing I do when I wake up isn't open my Bible. Because it's really okay that I'd rather not be half asleep when I read it. And it's okay if I miss a day because I had a migraine for hours. Or if I can't keep up with a read-the-Bible-in-a-year plan because that's just a lot and there's a lot on my plate now. But it is hard to not feel guilty about it.
That church wasn't the only place I found legalistic ideas that were harmful to me. Around that same timeframe I was a part of a Bible study that was based on material by Sarah Mally. I want to be clear that I do not hold the Bible study leader responsible for any of the legalism I experienced from Mally's materials. That leader is a very dear friend of mine who has been an incredible influence in my life and I still respect and look up to her tremendously (literally and figuratively, lol). I also still do not feel as if the lessons she actually taught pushed legalism. But the fact remains that it was through that that I received Mally's materials and I dutifully read all of it. There was one handout in particular that I really remember, one on polluting influences. In it, Mally discusses how her family got rid of their TV. She also discusses the bad influences of rock music and romance novels, things which I now recognize as being quite reminiscent of ATI teachings. When I read about how her family got rid of their TV, my first thought was that it seemed a bit extreme. But then worry and guilt crept in. Did I only think it was extreme because I was too attached to TV? Maybe it was a sign I wasn't actually willing to cut out polluting influences. What other things might I have in my life that I should get rid of?
The handout actually encouraged a TV fast. And I legitimately considered it. Ultimately, I didn't do it, because I had a feeling if I suggested it to my parents it probably wouldn't fly. I still don't think it would have. My mom cautioned me against legalism as a teen. But it did plant seeds of doubt about if I was a good enough Christian. If my family was doing enough to be Christlike. If I was holding onto things that were pulling me away from God by watching television. And honestly, the stuff I watched when I was in high school wasn't anything anyone should have worried about. Honestly, if 17-year-old me knew that 25-year-old me would watch The Office and enjoy it, well, to say I'd have been horrified would be putting it mildly. But that fear does still sometimes crop up. Should I have watched The Office as an adult?
This, and Understanding the Times by David Noebel, caused me to start to even question the acceptability of speculative fiction. Yes, I questioned whether I should be reading Narnia and watching Star Wars. This was honestly, looking back, probably what pushed me into sorting out where I stand on writing fantasy magic. I do think it was a good thing that I sorted that out. I needed to know what I believe on it, and it was important that I do that research and prayer and soul searching. While I don't feel like I did a fabulous job articulating where I landed back when I was writing Time Captives, I haven't really changed where I ultimately landed. But it was a rough time for me, filled with guilt and worry.
It's pretty commonly known what the oppositions are to magic. I've already written about that. But I didn't really write about the fact that Understanding the Times made me think for years that it was probably sinful for me to watch and enjoy Star Wars. That book had frequent "pop culture connections" that used pop culture to illustrate different worldviews. Star Wars and The Lion King, I remember, were always cast in a negative light, used to showcase the dangers of cosmic humanism. My small comfort was that at least Narnia and LOTR were always in the Christianity section, so maybe at least those were okay. Now, I will admit that my initial Star Wars obsession was excessive and I badly needed to take a break. But I finally came around to the point of view that it's not inherently sinful for me to like Star Wars. Was Understanding the Times correct that there are some things in it that are incompatible with Christianity? Absolutely. But what I didn't get then, and by God's grace do now, is that it's actually helpful in developing your worldview to be able to sort out the good from the bad, to see the things that are true and helpful, and discern the things that are not. None of us will ever be able to read or watch things that we 100% agree with, and I did see that back when I read the "polluting influences" handout. But what I worried back then was that that meant I shouldn't be enjoying any of these stories that weren't 100% biblically accurate. Maybe I shouldn't watch anything secular. Maybe I shouldn't read anything with magic. And let me tell you, the idea that I possibly shouldn't read The Chronicles of Narnia, even knowing how many scriptural truths it illustrated for me, was one of the hardest things I ever had to work through. I definitely should have discussed it with my mom more than I did because she would have steered me away from this legalism, this worry that all these stories I grew up on were actually polluting and dangerous.
I am very grateful that speculative fiction is one issue I have fully (or at least I think fully) worked through and put behind me. But writing about it, remembering that time, is making me tear up because it was hard. It was a heavy burden. But as Jinger pointed out in her book, God didn't put us under a burden. That burden is manmade. Stricter than Jesus. Because what Jesus actually said is that His yoke is easy and His burden is light. Come to Him, all who are weary and heavy laden, and He will give you rest.
I’m a checklist person. And while this is incredibly helpful in making sure I turn in my school assignments on time, it’s very unhelpful in understanding Christianity. It makes me feel the same as when I put too many things on my to-do list and can’t get them all done in the day: unworthy, guilty, ashamed, a failure. That’s not what God wants for us. It says in Galatians that the law is a tutor to point us to Christ; in other words, it’s there to show us we can’t be perfect, but that we don’t need to be because Christ did it for us.
This is why the “you are enough” thing is such a pet peeve of mine. I do personally struggle with thinking I should be enough, that I need to do more to be a good enough Christian. And like Jinger says, we should want to be more like Christ. But we’re never going to be able to follow enough rules to earn God’s favor and that’s not how He does it anyway. God in His perfect love sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Not because we loved Him, but because He loved us. We don’t have to clean up our lives before we go to Him. We don’t have to fear that we’ll mess up and cause Him to turn away from us because His perfect love casts out fear, He died for us while we were yet sinners, and any that come to Him, He will not cast out. It’s not ever anything we do, it’s what God does. His love is perfected with us that when the day of judgment comes, we can have confidence and not fear.
There are so many verses about God’s love. Yes, God hates sin and He is very clear about what sin is and what the punishment is. But the Bible isn’t a rule book, something Jinger explains in depth. The Bible is God’s story, a book that tells of His character and His love for His children that is so great we really can’t even begin to understand it. God gives good gifts to His children because He is good and He loves us. So there is no need for us to be stricter than God and place extra burdens upon ourselves and others. Jesus died for us so that we could be free of the burden and punishment of our sins, and so that we could be with Him forever. And in Him, we are free indeed.