Christian Legalism: People-Pleasing and Performance Traps
Legalism is the bane of religion. It’s the persistent nemesis in all of our hearts. Though we usually discuss legalism as it pertains to our salvation, I’m speaking more here of how it affects our sanctification.
You may want to read:
- Eight Ways to Think about Your Past
- Loving Me: the Hidden Agenda of Self-Esteem
- A Discussion with Daddy and Daughter about Justification and Sanctification
Most Christians that I encounter do not struggle with a works salvation mentality. They fully embrace Ephesians 2:8–9 as the only way to Christ. Their real struggle is how they think about their performance after they are born a second time.
There is a “form of legalism” that tempts us to smuggle a desire for approval into our sanctification. It’s the individual that God has given the gift of regeneration, but people-pleasing and a performance trap has captured him.
These believers live with an internal grading system of pass or fail, according to their most recent behavior, according to how they judge themselves. There are two primary reasons they have adopted legalism in their sanctification:
- Their Adamic nature is legalistic. They were born this way.
- Their shaping influences taught them to perform for acceptance.
Some of the signs of “sanctification legalism” are self-pity, discouragement, fear, worry, anxiety, people-pleasing, perfectionism, boasting, arrogance, fear of man, materialism, criticalness, and unforgiveness.
All of these attitudes are comparison words–either comparing yourself against your self-imposed standard or comparing yourself with others. Two of the more common manifestations of this are self-pity and discouragement.
Let me introduce you to Biff who lives with regular low-levels of self-pity and discouragement. Sometimes you’ll hear him talk about how unworthy he feels. This kind of thinking generally has two sources:
- He consistently rehearses in his mind some of the bad things he did in his past.
- When he is not dwelling on his past, he rehearses in his mind the latest mistake that he made.
At one point in his counseling, he said, “I am unworthy: I have done so many horrible things. How could Christ love me?” Though his past may have been more horrible than yours, we’re all tempted similarly.
If you talk to the average teenager today who wants to follow God, you’ll hear a similar struggle from many of them. The teen has not lived long enough to do the bad things that Biff has done, but they are tempted to fall into the same legalistic traps.
Whether it’s Biff or a teen, can you hear what they are saying? Do you see the heresy in this kind of theological thinking? What if I interpreted Biff’s “unworthy statements” through a theological filter:
I am a terrible person. I am so bad that God cannot possibly love me. If I were not a bad person, God would like me. I need to be a better person. I need to make myself more presentable than what I am so God will love me.
What I have described in my make-believe “self-talk” from Biff is his functional theology, which is what he believes in his day-to-day thinking and practice.
His intellectual theology says, “For by grace God saved me through faith. And this was not my doing; it was a gift from God, not a result of my works, so that I may not boast,” but that is not how he lives practically.
While his Bible knowledge informs him correctly, the freedom he desires the most is elusive when it comes to trusting God. It is hard sometimes for people to distinguish between what they know (Bible truth) and what they are practically believing–their functional theology.
I’m Okay. You’re Okay
Another illustration was when I was talking with my friend Mable, a crack addict. She tried her best to convince me that she was a good person. She said, “I am a good person.” She hoped that when we ended our conversation, I would walk away thinking she was a good person.
I did not tell her what I was thinking. At that moment it did not seem appropriate for me to begin teaching her sound theology because she was stoned and not in any frame of mind to receive the testimony of Paul:
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. — 1 Timothy 1:15
None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. — Romans 3:10–12
Mable does not want to wrestle with the realities of her wretchedness. In her mind, she wants to think of herself as better than what the testimony of Scripture teaches.
Mable hoped to convince me of her excellent qualities so we both would be thinking highly of her. It would be a double-affirmation of her delusional “I’m okay” fixation.
Looking for Bad People
Both Biff and Mable do not want to be unworthy. One is a Christian, and one is not a Christian. They are both caught in the performance trap.
Biff is continuously penalizing himself because he is not meeting his preferred standards. Mable knows her standards are low; she hopes she can deceive herself and others so she can feel better about herself.
The trap of self-righteousness or what our world calls high self-esteem has ensnared them. Biff and Mable’s performances are not meeting the elevated expectations that they have set for themselves.
If they are going to change, it is crucial for them to accept the fact that they are wretchedly unworthy of God’s favor. There is no way for them to work for the Lord’s unearned, unmerited grace.
Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. — Mark 2:17
The problem with Biff and Mable is they have a high view of themselves (self-righteousness), and it discourages them to think they are not as good as they try to deceive themselves into believing.
Have you ever expected to get a good grade, only to get a bad one? In a sense, this is what Biff and Mable are doing. They so badly want to get a good grade, but they keep failing, and their unwillingness to embrace the reality of where they are distresses them.
They have removed themselves from the testimony of scriptures, while developing a practical theology that holds them at a higher standing than what the Bible does.
They persist in convincing themselves and others that their “higher grade of worthiness” is real, though the reality of their lives is not cooperating with their delusion.
When Mable surveys the landscape of her life, she becomes discouraged like Biff. Rather than wallowing in the grips of depression, she turns to crack as a “pick me up,” which helps her escape from her self-judgment.
Because Biff is a Christian, he can’t turn to such “ungodly” escapes. So he puts himself through the cycles of self-pity and despair. In the end, both of them are addicts. One is addicted to crack, and the other is “addicted” to self-pity.
Embrace Your Unworthiness
Both of these individuals need to come to terms with their unworthiness before God. They are putrid through and through. They are the worst of the worst, the lowest of the low.
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. — Isaiah 64:6
Rather than trying to climb out of their human depravity to feel better about themselves by self-effort, they need to embrace the testimony of Scripture fully.
And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood. — Ezekiel 16:6
Without question, you and I were pitifully guilty. We were standing in God’s courtroom, condemned and awaiting sentencing. There was no doubt we were responsible for the greatest crime ever committed. We sinned against God.
The evidence was simply irrefutable. We had to stop talking before God as there was not a thing we could do to extricate ourselves from what He had accused us of doing. Though we may have wanted to think better about ourselves, so we could feel better about ourselves, there was no argument that we could proffer.
God, the Prosecuting Attorney, made the evidence plain, convincing, and beyond any shadow of a doubt. We were guilty before our Maker, and we were at the mercy of someone other than ourselves to save us.
God the Justifier
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. — Romans 3:21–24
In the depths of our despair and unworthiness, we learned about the most incredible news ever told. The gospel story came into view. We saw Calvary. There is only one answer for unworthy people: we are appealed to embrace the worthiness of another. The sick and helpless cry out to the Great Physician.
Biff is a believer who needs to reacquaint himself with the gospel. He needs to understand what the doctrine of justification means practically. God, the Judge, slammed His gavel down and said, “Not guilty!” That was it. Jesus finished the work of salvation.
There is nothing else for Biff to do and there never will be anything else for him to do. He has been declared not guilty by God Almighty, not because he conjured up merit that won over God. To the contrary. Christ “won the Father over” through His sacrificial death on Biff’s behalf. It was the works of Christ that persuaded the Father to accept Biff.
Mable needs to be acquainted with the gospel, too. She needs to hear and embrace the good news about the Savior’s atoning death. She needs to believe His death was for her and she can’t be the “good person” that she currently deceives herself to be. She must find her goodness in the works of Christ rather than herself.
Justification and Sanctification Flipped
Both Biff and Mable have flipped justification and sanctification in their thinking and practice. According to sound theological teaching, justification always precedes sanctification and is not dependent on it.
According to Biff and Mable’s practical theology, they believe sanctification precedes justification, and their sanctification (good works) is what makes them right with God.
If they can work enough or do the right things, they will be acceptable (or justified). They would say it this way: “I would feel better about myself.”
Biff will try to argue with you because he is a Christian and he understands, to a degree, Ephesians 2:8–9. You will have to carefully walk him through how he functionally practices his theology, which is contrary to the Bible knowledge in his head.
He embraces a form of legalism: a person who feels good about himself because of what he has done. I appealed to Biff to reorient his thinking back to the Bible. I wanted him to see three things:
- His ongoing self-pity about his badness was the wrong perspective.
- He must accept his badness to see his actual need for the One who is perfectly good.
- Once he can repent of his “self-imposed-righteousness,” he will be able to receive God’s “un-worked-for” mercy.
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy… — 1 Timothy 1:15–16
Paul did not stop at this badness. Yes, he was the worst of the worst and rotten to the bone, but God showed mercy to him. Jerry Bridges said in one of his books, and I paraphrase, that a diamond is most magnificent when placed against a black, velvet backdrop.
- What kind of “unworthy” are you? The “good kind” that propels you to Christ or the “bad kind,” self-pity, that motivates you to work harder?
- When you do bad things, are you tempted to “balance the scales” by doing good things? Or, when you do bad things, do you run to the only good Person who can make it right?
- Did you know your good works do not make you any more saved? And your bad works do not make you any less saved?
The broader the gap between your unworthiness and Christ’s overwhelming goodness will determine the depth, breadth, width, and height of your gratitude for what He has done on your behalf. Are you working to win His favor or are you rejoicing because of His favor?
Originally published at Rick Thomas.