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How You Can Heal from Growing Up in a Legalistic Church

How You Can Heal from Growing Up in a Legalistic Church

All of us who grew up in the church have some idea of how varied that experience can be: opinions, styles, and beliefs are as numerous and diverse as the people who hold to them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—unless those opinions are elevated above God’s Word.

Any system that surrounds our childhood can be extremely difficult to escape. After all, it is during those impressionable years of development that ideas and patterns are cemented in our minds for future reference. What if that pattern is one of the stickiest traps of all—legalism?

What Is Legalism?

This is performance-based salvation. It demotes the gospel to occupy some lower rung on the ladder to heaven, below our ability to follow God’s law. If you, like me, grew up in legalism, then you are probably still straining to tug your mind out of those ruts today. They’re deep, filled with thick mud, and pockmarking the road ahead as far as you can see. And though it may seem hopeless, it isn’t.

There is healing to be found in Jesus Christ. That journey is different for each person, but it starts with recognizing the four specific areas where legalism has distorted our perception and then applying God’s truth like a bandage on a wound.

1. Our Perception of God’s Word

Where do I find truth? It is necessary to start here because God’s Word is the foundation for all healing in our lives.

Legalism gives authority to a set of rules—rules that are either cherry-picked from Scripture without context or grafted in from an entirely different source.

So much of what I believed for so long had absolutely no basis in Scripture, but it took me years to discover that because I wasn’t going to the Bible as my authority.

My authority was church leadership, Christians I looked up to, and what was acceptable or unacceptable to them.

But God

These simple yet powerful words appear many times in Scripture, and they always introduce God’s thoroughly disruptive intervention. It seems appropriate to use them to introduce the truth that will bring healing to our lives.

“…‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’” (John 8:31-32).

Not your family’s teaching, not your church’s teaching—Jesus Christ’s teaching.

The first step to healing is carrying your broken self into the presence of God, asking for the healing you need, and then immersing yourself in His truth—His Word.

I know of no greater prayer than the one already offered by Jesus to His Father for all believers: “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17).

2. Our Perception of Ourselves

Who am I? What am I supposed to be doing? These are important questions that every woman has asked herself at some point. Even as little girls, we crave answers, sometimes so intensely that we don’t notice when our questions have been answered poorly.

Growing up, I believed I was a daughter of God…if:

  • If I was kind
  • If I never lied
  • If I performed well in school
  • If I prayed and read my Bible every day

Salvation wasn’t a promise in my life, it was a performance clause. This meant that I had little grace for the imperfections in my life, and even less for the flaws of others.

Do you struggle with pride? Don’t.

Do you struggle with anxiety? Stop, and for goodness’ sake, stay away from everyone else so it doesn’t spread.

I was afraid to talk about my struggles because I expected to be met with judgment. Instead, I fought a solitary war, wrestling with those parts of me that didn’t measure up to expectations so I could be more spiritual—closer to God. Maybe you can relate.

But God…

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5:8-10)

“[W]hile we were God’s enemies…”—that’s a poor performance record if I’ve ever seen one. If Christ’s sacrifice didn’t depend on our performance, why should His life in us depend on it now?

“But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:4-5).

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

After believing for so long that our relationship with God depended on our performance, these words should be some of the most beautiful we’ve ever heard—kindness, love, mercy, grace, gift, justified, saved, reconciled. Nowhere do these words imply that our salvation can be won or lost.

Our actions as believers are important, but they don’t produce salvation; rather, they are the natural product of salvation—the outpouring of Christ’s power in us.

Rest in this promise today. Close your eyes and let God’s truth renew your mind.

woman praying at sunset, a powerful Friday prayer

3. Our Perception of Our Circumstances

Why is this happening to me? Another vital question, and one that legalism provides a false and destructive answer for. After all, if our spiritual condition rests on our performance, it logically follows that the difficulties in our lives are because we haven’t performed well enough.

This is not a new idea. Even the disciples were confused when they met a blind man on their travels with Jesus. They asked, “…‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” (John 9:2).

At an early age, I was convinced that what happened in my life was a direct reflection of how well or how poorly I was performing.

Sickness became a lack of trust in God. Debilitating anxiety was punishment for not reading my Bible that day or for skipping church. Sound familiar?

But God…

In John 9:3, Jesus corrected His disciples: “‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.’”

This man wasn’t blind because he’d done something wrong; he was blind so that Jesus could restore His sight for the glory of God. What a different perspective!

Whatever your why is…

Why is my child sick?

Why do I have this disease?

Why did I lose my job?

Maybe your big why is “Why did I grow up in legalism?” It makes things so hard, why did that happen?

Remember Christ’s words: “…this happened so that the works of God might be displayed…”

That doesn’t mean we’re never facing the painful consequences of our own decisions. But it does mean that, as believers, we are not punished for failing to measure up.

[H]e does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him,” (Psalm 103:10-13).

God doesn’t curse us with pain and suffering if we mess up; He helps and heals us so that our lives can be a testimony to the world of His greatness.

4. Our Perception of God

What is God like? The answer to this question dictates how we relate to God, and once again, legalism distorts it. If we’re performing to earn God’s attention and acceptance and believe that our unpleasant circumstances are the result of failure to perform, then God is a stern judge and a harsh master following behind us applying the white-glove-test to everything we do.

I held this view of God for a long time. And even now, I still have to reject it on a regular basis. He wasn’t someone I could approach for help or comfort or guidance. He was looming with a heavy gavel, ready to slam it down and pronounce a sentence at the slightest provocation.

God is certainly a judge, but we can’t stop there.

But God…

Matthew tells us that God is an attentive caregiver:

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-31).

We read in Ephesians that He has a good plan for us:

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).

And John records a statement from Jesus that makes it wondrously clear that He wants us to be with Him:

“My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2-3).

Does this sound like God is glaring at you sternly waiting for you to mess up? On the contrary, “…he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

Is this the God you know? If not, I urge you to spend more time reading about Him, getting to know Him, talking to Him. Everyone’s journey of healing from legalism will be different. For some of us, a church functioning as the true body of Christ will bring healing. Some might go to counseling, discuss their specific struggles with legalism, and learn to work through them.

But however varied the journey, it must begin with our perception of God’s Word, ourselves, our circumstances, and God Himself. Otherwise, we will view every church, every counseling session, and every encounter with truth through a dirty lens.  

Caroline Madison is a freelance editor and writer with a passion for the written word and a special interest in telling and reading stories that present biblical truths in fresh ways. Through prayer, God’s Word, counseling, and the love of fellow believers, she is finding new freedom every day on her own journey of healing from legalism.

Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Diana Simumpande