Legalism or Laziness
For every article or book you read praising the practice of spiritual disciplines, you’ll find another decrying a regimented spiritual life for fear of legalism. It’s true that legalism—thinking we can attain a righteous standing before God by our own works—is possible at any point in a Christian’s life. Our enemy the devil is always looking for ways to deceive us, so even the good things in our life are candidates for his perversion. He would like for us to believe that we must do more and be more in order for God to love us. Think of how “religious” the Pharisees were when their hearts were spiritually bankrupt!
Anything we do in obedience to God we could certainly do with wrong motives—to feel superior to others, to keep a nicely checked column of boxes to display our holiness, to prove to ourselves that God didn’t waste his grace on us, to try to continue in the flesh what the Holy Spirit has begun (see Gal. 3:3).1 If we’re reading our Bibles daily so that we have a page of perfectly checked boxes on our yearly reading plan, then we are missing the point. If we flaunt that perfectly checked plan to others, then we have received our full reward in that moment of pride. If we read our Bibles hoping God will love us more, then we’ve forgotten that he loved us while we were yet sinners and sent Jesus to die for us. Legalism is a real concern, but we address it by regularly examining our motives. Are we seeking the Lord in his word to be loved by him or because we already are? The answer to that question matters.
I understand the fear that building habits might make us prideful, but I’ve found that the fear of legalism is rarely the real reason for prayerlessness or a lack of commitment to regular Bible reading. Nor is it the reason for poor attendance at church. Usually, we neglect our habits of grace from plain old laziness.
Those years when I repeatedly confessed spiritual negligence to my accountability partner (which ironically coincided with that half marathon fiasco) were not a result of legalism but of laziness. I knew God wanted me to read my Bible and pray. I could list many reasons why I resisted: I was busy, I had a job, I was tired, I was “training” for a half marathon. But the truth is, I was lazy. I didn’t want to do the work of study. I would rather read fiction than the Bible, sleep than pray, and watch my favorite show than memorize Scripture. I wanted to be faithful to Christ, but I didn’t want to follow his path to get there. My laziness revealed a refusal to submit to God’s design for growth.
My resistance to exercising the spiritual disciplines was also fed by my misunderstanding of spiritual growth. I wanted instant gains for minimal efforts. I didn’t want to put down slow-growing roots; I wanted to be a chia pet. I wanted to add water and see growth immediately. But think about the stability of something that grows overnight. How deep are those roots? We can’t live as chia seed sprouts! We need long, sustained growth that is strong enough to uphold us when trials come, that’s sturdy enough to withstand illness or busy seasons or broken relationships. And that takes time.
A couple of spurts of Bible reading, prayer, and church involvement are certainly better than none, but real fruit can’t grow on a loosely anchored vine. Jesus was clear that life and growth come only from abiding in him: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (John 15:4). Earlier, Jesus says that loving him means obeying his commands (John 14:15). As you and I stand on this side of the gospel story, we have an entire book of those commands. We can demonstrate our love for God by our obedience because he first loved us.
Practicing spiritual disciplines may feel like work at first. Establishing new habits always presses against our apathy in uncomfortable ways. But one day your heart will catch up to the regimen. One day you’ll look back and see growth. And one day, you’ll find great joy in these daily expressions of faith. You’ll discover that the benefits of being rooted in God’s word reach deep and wide.
Rooted by a River
The practice of reading and meditating on the word of God is nearly as old as the written word itself. When God gave the law to Moses, he commanded the people to keep his words before them at all times, to talk of the law often, to teach it to their children, to think of it morning and night (Deut. 6:4–9). God’s people loved God with heart, soul, and mind by keeping his words wrapped around their every waking thought. Reciting the words of his law helped the people remember who God is, what God had done for them, and how to live as his people.
We have so much more than the Israelites did! We have the fully revealed gospel story. We can read Genesis through Malachi with an eye on Jesus. We have eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. We have the beginnings of his kingdom, the early church, and the promises about his return. God’s word is a true feast! Both the church and the world need you to be faithful in your spiritual disciplines.
Psalm 1 is a helpful analogy for what treasuring the word of God looks like—the practice, the purpose, and the benefits. We’re introduced to the happy or blessed man who avoids sin by delighting in the word of God. He meditates on it daily (and nightly). The psalm compares him to a tree that’s planted by a river. When the roots of a tree feed off a continuous stream of water, the tree receives sustaining nourishment no matter the season or scarcity of rain. It’s not a difficult metaphor to decipher. If we are sustained by God’s word, we’ll be nourished in every season no matter the obstacles to growth that we encounter.
But that’s not all the tree does. The tree bears fruit, and the man who feeds his faithfulness with the goodness of God’s word prospers in all he does (Ps. 1:3). But think about bearing fruit for a moment. Does a tree pick its own fruit? Does it enjoy the bounty that grows from steady nourishment? No, the fruit is for the benefit of others. And here’s where the analogy between the tree and the man who loves the Bible really reaches beyond our own personal benefits. When we are equipped by God’s word for every good work, the other people in our life get to enjoy the fruit.
The people in your church need you to be devoted to the word and to prayer. Our spiritual disciplines don’t just benefit us. We don’t follow Jesus in isolation. Our growth and our perseverance also encourage growth and perseverance in our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we are suffering or living through a dry season, the perseverance of other believers who invest in our spiritual well-being helps us. We do the same for others when they struggle. Developing a habit of prayer provides a way for us to keep our promise to intercede for others who are hurting. Regular Bible intake strengthens our faith so we can help a friend who is fighting doubt or temptation. Your faithfulness to hold fast to Christ will encourage the members of your church to do likewise.
The effects reach beyond the doors of our church buildings, too. As we study God’s word and pray regularly for unbelievers, we’ll find that the words of the Lord are readily on our lips. When the truth of the gospel is firmly entrenched in our minds, we’ll look for opportunities to share Christ with them.
Both the church and the world need you to be faithful in your spiritual disciplines. As Christians we depend upon one another—to uphold one another when we’re weak or discouraged. And the world needs the hope of the gospel that we experience every single day.
This is a guest article by Glenna Marshall, author of Everyday Faithfulness: The Beauty of Ordinary Perseverance in a Demanding World. This post originally appeared on crossway.org; used with permission.
- Christine Hoover has written a helpful book about depending on God’s grace after salvation rather than good works: From Good to Grace: Letting Go of the Goodness Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).
Glenna Marshall is a pastor’s wife and mother of two energetic sons. She is the author of The Promise Is His Presence and Everyday Faithfulness, and writes regularly at GlennaMarshall.com on biblical literacy, suffering, and the faithfulness of God. She is a member of Grace Bible Fellowship in Sikeston, Missouri.