I was recently blessed to have some sweet conversations this week--one with a friend who has weathered her share of trials and heartache in the last few years and has gained great wisdom and faith because of it. The other conversation was with my husband as he was talking about a topic that the Lord has placed on his heart and has given him a passion to preach on soon. Interestingly, both of these two separate conversations were about the same thing—the fact that any act of “obedience” done apart from love for God and love for people is hollow and meaningless legalism.
I wonder what your reaction to that statement is--- any act of “obedience” done apart from love for God and love for people is hollow and meaningless legalism. Perhaps you wholeheartedly agree with this statement and can even quote the Scriptures that teach it. For me, it is easier to understand this concept with my head than it is to live it with my heart, as legalism creeps into my heart in such subtle ways. Submission to my husband has been one way that this has shown itself in my life—often early on in our marriage (and sometimes still), my “submission” to my husband was more of a resentful resignation and the performance of a duty rather than act that flowed out of love for God or my husband. I knew I was supposed to submit to my husband—so I tried to do what he asked and I tried to hold my tongue. This was such an unfruitful exercise—it inhibited the oneness and unity between us and it caused resentment and bitterness to grow in me. Neither of these things honored or blessed my God or my husband (or me, for that matter). Yet somewhere in my head, I thought it was better to walk through the motions than to not do anything. But Scripture tells me, nothing I do apart from love counts for anything:
Galatians 5:6 “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision (THINK: any act of outward obedience) counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”
1 Cor 13:1-3 “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
Matthew 22:34-40 “But when the Pharisees heard that he (Jesus) had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’ 37 And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.’”
John 15:12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
Romans 13:8-10 “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Something God has taught me and continues to teach me in practice daily is that when I don’t feel like loving God or loving people, I should pray! When I don’t feel like submitting to my husband, it is more fruitful to pray for love for him and for God. After all, my submission to Kristian is an expression of love for God and for him. Ephesians 5:22 tells me “Wives submit to your husbands, as to the Lord”. Just the verse before talks about “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ”. Colossians 3:8 says “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” 1 Peter 3 talks about how submission to our husbands reflect our hope in God. The mere act of submission has no value apart from loving God and loving our husbands.
Now, this does not mean that if I am not “feeling love” for God or for my husband that I should not submit. This is where our legalist and self-serving hearts tend to go. What it does mean is that I ought to still act and pray with faith in the God who places love in our hearts!! I cannot muster up this kind of love in myself, and I know I am called to have sincere love--not "love" as the world defines it, but love that is sacrificial and returns blessing for reviling. Fortunately, God has never failed to answer my prayers to create love in my heart. Sometimes I must pray and pray and pray—but He always does this miracle. Sometimes I must open my Bible and read of God’s character of scandalous love. Sometimes, I must go to a trusted friend who can pray with me and counsel me from the Word. Sometimes I must just tell Kristian that I am struggling to submit and ask for his help. Sometimes I must ask for his forgiveness--for being bitter or resentful. But as I seek to be filled with God’s love, God is always faithful to fill me with His love (the love that loved me while I was dead in my trespasses!!!). He enables that very scandalous love to flow through me to others who, like me, do not deserve God’s love. As God has been slowly growing me in the area of submitting to my husband out of love, our marriage has been so blessed—we have grown in oneness, we have both been edified, and I believe that God has been glorified.
I used submission as just one example of an act of “obedience” that is meaningless without love. There are so many things though that we can “walk through the motions” on without love for God or others. When many of us think of legalism, we think of “religious people” and we do not consider ourselves one of “them”. We think of legalists as people who arbitrarily make rules against things like tattoos or drinking or watching television or movies. Or we think of people who do not interact with non-Christians, who listen to cheesy music, and who wear ugly clothes for the sake of “holiness”. But the truth is that we all have our propensities toward legalism. Any act of “obedience” done apart from love for God and love for people is hollow and meaningless legalism. We can steward our money. We can steward our health. We can steward our time. We can give to the poor. We can attend church or Bible study. We can lead. We can submit. We can care for our loved ones. We can pray. We can read our Bible. We can listen to a friend in need. We can speak the truth. We can volunteer in the community. We can serve in church. We can preach the gospel. We can be faithful to our spouse. We can lead people to Christ. We can do many good and even necessary things—but these things lose their meaning without love.
If you are wondering about the ways in which you might be living in hollow and meaningless legalism, pray about it…ask your trusted loved ones who know you and know God and His Word. Ask yourself where there might be bitterness and resentment in your life and examine your action and inaction in these areas of your life—where is love for God and others in all of this? Ask yourself where your heart is plagued with condemnation (which does not come from the Lord).
Another big clue is to ask yourself, in what areas of my life are my “acts of obedience” joyless?
As you are reflecting on your own life, remember that God is gracious! He remembers that we are dust. He has promised to transform us and conform us to the image of His Son. He is the God who forgives and redeems, and in Him there is every hope!!
Lord, teach us to love you and to love others!! Show us how we are not doing this. Open our eyes where we are blind and show us grace! Forgive us for how quick we are to judge others for legalism or for failed obedience, and open our eyes to soberly assess ourselves. Teach us to remove the plank from our eyes. Help us not to live a life of dead works. Nothing we can do can bring us to you. You have done what needed to be done—you gave your life for ours. You give us faith, you keep us and transform us. Help us not to settle for hollow acts of joyless obedience. Father, you want so much more for us and for those you have placed in our lives! Give us the joy of serving you and others out of your pure and delightful love!! Help us to meditate on your love. Teach us of your love through your word and through interaction with your people! May your love be so real to us that it naturally flows from us to you and to others. In Jesus name, Amen