Needed: A certain amount of legalism (for myself, at least)

“He who is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much….” (Luke 16:10)

“Let him deny himself and take up his cross….” (Luke 9:23) 

Legalism is a bad term.  It implies someone is living by a list of rules even though violating the spirit and intent of those rules.

Years ago, a lady in my church told of a conversation she had with her sister-in-law.  They were Baptist (my member) and a Pentecostal of some type (the SIL).

The kids were off to school and they were sharing a morning coffee in one of their homes.  The Baptist lit up a cigarette.  The Pentecostal said, “Did you know that one cigarette will send your soul to hell?”

The Baptist: “Are you serious?”

She was.

The Baptist said to her Pentecostal SIL, “Then explain something to me.  How is it you can hate your mother–I’ve heard you say it!–and you’re all right, but smoking one cigarette is going to send me to hell forever?”

She had no answer.  (Note: We do not intend to imply all Pentecostals are this way, or that all Baptists approve of cigarettes. We do, however, approve of morning coffee with friends.)

I suppose it’s safe to say we all need some rules. And, the first of those rules should be, “While obeying the rules, don’t forget to love, stay humble, and walk faithfully with your God.”

A hard legalist, we’re told, says, “I know God didn’t say this, but He would have if He’d thought of it.”

On the other hand, we need to impose some rules on ourselves.

That’s the burden of this piece:  I need to be firm in matters of integrity and honesty, to hold myself to higher standards than I might hold others.

Some instances….

At a silent auction recently where we were raising money for a ministry,  I traveled four hundred miles in order to spend the evening sketching for donations.  Then, my wife and I made a sizeable financial contribution.  But when I placed a bid on a painting, the page indicated the opening bid should be $15.  I struck through that and wrote  in”$25.”  Later, since no one else had bid on the painting, I got it.  For twenty-five dollars.

Now, analyze that for a second.  I had already contributed–let’s say, for the sake of discussion–five hundred dollars.  So, was it really necessary for me to fork out another $25 for that painting?  Couldn’t we simply say, “I paid for that in the $500 I contributed?”

Answer: Maybe so, but it wouldn’t have been right.  Since I had bid on the painting, I  opened my billfold and pulled out a twenty and a five.   I now own that lovely framed print of a train engine.

It’s the principle of the thing.

Another instance….

I call myself a tither.  That means I give ten percent of my income to the Lord through my church.  But I’m the only one who knows a) how much I make in a year, b) what my tithe should be, and c) what I actually contribute to this and other ministries.  No one ever asks, no one cares, and yet, I freely say that I am a tither.

In truth, I give far beyond a tithe to the Lord’s work through my church as well as beyond it.

It’s the principle of the thing.  If I called myself a tither and gave less than ten percent, no one else would know. But I would know.  And I would be in trouble with my conscience.

In Hobby Lobby or Michaels’–one of those good stores–I was looking at sketchbooks and planning to buy one or two. Suddenly, a teenager poked her head around the display and smiled.  I recognized April, the daughter of Michael and Tuesday Simmons whom I had married many years earlier. We all greeted each other and I did a quick sketch of the lovely teenager.  As they left, I went back to browsing the sketchbook display–and noticed something.

The store had a two-for-one sale on a different brand of sketchbook. So, I replaced the notebook I was holding–yes, the one I’d used to sketch April–and purchased two of the others.  I left the store, and drove home, some 15 minutes away.

All the way home, my  conscience was standing on tiptoe inside, insisting that I had done a no-no.  When I walked in the house, I told my wife Margaret about that.  She did not hesitate. “Go back and buy the sketchbook you tore that page out of.”  And I did.

I could have made a feeble argument against it. After all, I might have reasoned, what sketchbook ever gets completely used up?  It’s rare when one of mine does.  When I toss them away, almost always  a few pages are still left.  But still.

It’s the principle of the thing.

When my high school class had its reunion–40th? 50th? I’ve forgotten–I paid a debt long overdue.  I sought out Dixie Baldy, who was attending her first reunion after graduating in 1958, to say, “I need to give you this $20 bill.  When we were in the seventh grade, I stole some money from you.”

She was aghast.  “No! Not you, not Joe McKeever.  You did not steal money from me!”  She was not making this easy.

I told her what had happened.  For a time, I was running with Ray Spain, an older boy who was always playing hookey and doing questionable things.  Once, in the seventh grade classroom, Ray pointed out Dixie’s books and billfold in the space underneath her chair.  He said if I would move the billfold to an empty chair nearby, when the bell rang she would gather her books and leave.  Ray would linger after class, get the billfold, and later divide the money with me.

I said to Dixie, “I think my share was three dollars. Dixie, that has been on my mind for all these years.  I want you to forgive me and take this $20 bill.”

She said, “I will not!”  I said, “Yes you will.  So I’ll have peace of mind about it.”

A week later, she sent a note from a northern state where she lives to say she had bought Bibles for a ministry with that twenty.

It’s the principle of the thing.

It’s so easy to hold others to one standard and to go easy on ourselves.  But no serious follower of Jesus Christ is going to play that game. That’s the way of the Pharisee.

When a disciple of the Lord Jesus figures his taxes, he always opts for accuracy and right.  When he turns in his expenses for reimbursement, he works very hard to get it right.  When he sleeps in a hotel alone in a distant city, he is as faithful to his Lord and his family there as if he were at home.

Character, they say, is what we are in the dark.  If so, it’s also revealed in the light.

Lord, give me a heart of fire toward Thee, a heart of flesh toward others, and a heart of iron to myself.  May I not go too easily on myself, but be strong and firm and faithful.  Amen.

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