Keeping the Joy
The joy we have received from God does not depend on circumstances. Nothing or no one can ever take it away from us because its foundation is Christ. Unless of course, we let in a robber to steal it. In chapter 3 of his letter to the Philippians, Paul warns us against legalism. This does not only steal our own joy, but also that of others.
Philippians 3:1-3 (NIV)
Whatever happens, my dear brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord. I never get tired of telling you these things, and I do it to safeguard your faith. Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.
Ok, it is clear that Paul means business. Who are these people?
There were groups of Jewish Christians who didn’t agree with Paul’s teaching. They were convinced that non-Jewish people coming to Christ would have to keep the complete Old Testament law and be circumcised as a sign of their commitment to meet this list of requirements.
They traveled in the footsteps of Paul, trying to mess up the Gospel understanding of young Christians that had just come to faith in Christ through Paul’s ministry. Those poor Philippians! They were young in their faith, but doing so well! They didn’t have a Bible yet, or theological education – they could only rely on what they had heard from Paul. These people confused them and robbed them of their joy.
Modern day legalism
Legalists are still around today, but they have different arguments now. No one is going to try and circumcise you, luckily. But, the tendency towards legalism is still very strong in certain movements and in certain people.
They are the people making YouTube videos with short fragments of well-known preachers and then word-arting bible verses on it that disproof a point they’re not even making. They distrust anyone that doesn’t look and think exactly like them and love to hide away in their little corner of being right.
There is this weird combination of self-righteousness and self-condemnation going on though. Even though they steal the joy of others, somehow, they are still joy-less. There is no such thing as a joyful legalist.
Legalism feeds off our pride and self-righteousness, and abides when we fail to trust grace
On the one hand they look down on others for not keeping the standards they set out to keep, yet, on the other hand, they realise they cannot keep their own standards and it’s depressing them! And so, they are stuck in an ongoing cycle of striving and failing, trying to meet their own high standards.
Legalism feeds off our pride and self-righteousness, and abides when we fail to trust grace. Let’s look at what Paul has to say about it.
Philippians 3:4-9 (NIV)
though I myself have reasons for such confidence.
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
Paul admits that he is a recovering legalist himself. Paul’s legalism and zeal led him to persecute Christians! He killed some of them and put others in prison! That, until he met the Lord Jesus.
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.
Paul admits that he had to throw all of the things that he thought were privileges – the things that he took pride in – overboard when he started to pursue Jesus. He had to consider his self-righteousness – his own efforts to ‘deserve’ the presence of God, or to ‘be favoured in God’s eyes’, any prideful desire to be applauded, any thought of being better than others, any hypocrisy in him – as worthless as garbage.
It is impossible to hold on to self-righteousness and embrace Jesus at the same time.
Paul understood it was impossible to hold on to self-righteousness and embrace Jesus at the same time. We have to realise that we come to the foot of the cross empty-handed. We have nothing to lean on, except our faith in what Jesus has done for us.
Our best – which Paul calls confidence in the flesh – is not enough. Jesus died for our unrighteousness, in order to make us righteous in the eyes of God.
I think it is time for a quick legalism-check. I mean, let's be honest. When I talk about 'they', this sometimes means 'I'. There is a tendency to legalism in all of us because the deepness and wideness of God's grace doesn't fit in our religious boxes.
There is a tendency to legalism in all of us because the deepness and wideness of God's grace doesn't fit in our religious boxes.
Here's the check. Spend a minute contemplating this well-known statement of Jesus.
John 14:15 (ESV)
If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
How do you read this verse?
Is the command-keeping a test, or a result?
Is the emphasis before or after the comma?
Jesus doesn’t say: prove to me that you love me by keeping my commands. Jesus says: the more you love me, the more you will keep my commands, because you will learn to trust me and understand that what I have for you is good.
Essentially, what legalists do, is presenting a twisted version of the truth. They take something true, isolate it and twist it into something half-true or untrue. That’s why it is confusing. Because what they say is often true-ish. It sounds true, but it really isn’t. They emphasise on certain things, but without capturing the heart of God.
Correction is a beautiful thing. That’s how we learn. There have been a lot of wrong patterns in my life I’m happy someone had the courage to address. Correction in love and humility, is a beautiful thing. Paul corrects in his letters all the time – but always towards something.
To a legalist, correction is putting someone in their place. Showing them how wrong they are. It’s not meant to build up but to tear down!
We are called to lay down our own desires in obedience to Christ. That’s difficult, but very powerful. We believe that the Holy Spirit is shaping our character to become more like Jesus, helping us to let go of some the things we may cling to.
But through the eyes of legalism, if you are not completely holy, you are filthy. It doesn’t matter that you are growing, what matters is that you are not there yet! Come on! Hurry up!
We are called to serve God in many different ways. It is good to pray and read Scripture daily. We teach tithing, and serving in church, and other things the Bible is clearly teaching about as fitting a life of devotion to God.
Through the eyes of legalism though, if you are not doing these things, are you really a Christian? How can you call yourself a Christian and not pray every day for an hour?
The strategy for change in legalism is not working on the heart, but forcing behaviour through rules and regulation.
How can we keep the joy in following Jesus and gracefully dismiss the legalism in us and the legalistic lies that come our way?
Keep your eyes on Jesus
The track that the Spirit has set us on starts with this one priority – knowing Christ.
Philippians 3:10-11 (NIV)
I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
At the core of our faith there’s not a set of rules, or a life philosophy or religion, but a person: Jesus Christ. And so, at the heart of your life as a Christian is your relationship with Christ.
Christianity is not a religion but a relationship.
The more we get to know Christ, the more we get to love Him, and become like Him. A change in the way we live doesn’t start with abiding by a set of rules, but by following a person. Loving Him leads to living for Him.
If you have lost the joy in your journey as a Christian, then return to Christ.
Matthew 11:28-30 (The Message)
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Keep running the race
Philippians 3:12-14 (NIV)
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
We are all a work in progress. Understanding this is an antidote to self-righteousness, because we admit we haven’t got it all together yet. It’s also an antidote to self-condemnation, because you understand you are moving in the right direction. It’s okay that you haven’t arrived yet!
The point of the race is not that you win, but that you and your team mates get to the finish line!
As followers of Jesus, we can be at different points in our growth. The thing that you may have all figured out, may be the thing that I’m confused about! We are at different points in our journey, and the one grows faster than the other – but as long as we are moving in the same direction – Jesus! – we are on a journey together.
We are all learning and growing and becoming more like Jesus every day. And those that are a bit further in the journey, will help others to get to where they are. The point of the race is not that you win, but that you and your team mates get to the finish line!