I have found that there are some important topics that nobody wants to talk about. I went to all my regular websites and found an entire category suspiciously missing. It goes by several names – temperance, moderation, abstinence, self-control, balance …
Part of my problem, I think, is that a couple of those terms have taken on very specific meanings even though they can be applied in lots of different situations.
Temperance, for example, has come to be used almost exclusively in relation to alcoholic beverages. Actually it means not going overboard with anything.
Abstinence seems to be used only when discussions involve premarital sex, rather than abstaining from any number of things that could be harmful.
When some talks about finding balance in their life, it seems to be most often used in the context of some new New Age practice, although having a balanced life is important for all of us.
All of these words have gradually taken on almost negative meanings because they deal with denying ourselves – which leads to my next issue.
These words have gotten kind of wrapped up in a perception of legalism. Why is that, do you think? Let’s take a minute and talk about what legalism is.
“le•gal•ism – noun 1. strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, esp. to the letter rather than the spirit. 2. Theology. a. the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works. b. the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.”1
Well, no real surprises there, I guess. Something that did surprise me though, was that there is no synonym for the word legalism. Did you know that? Also surprising is that it was coined as a word in the 1830’s or 40’s. Why, that is right in the midst of the Temperance Movement here in the United States. Go figure.
The thing is, legalism isn’t about behaviors, it’s about motives. So, temperance, moderate living, abstinence, finding balance and so on, are not legalism in and of themselves.
We can’t tell by looking. We’d have to know a person’s motives, and only God can do that.
“Many acts which pass for good works, even deeds of benevolence, will, when closely investigated, be found to be prompted by wrong motives. Many receive applause for virtues which they do not possess. The Searcher of hearts inspects motives, and often the deeds which are highly applauded by men are recorded by Him as springing from selfish motives and base hypocrisy. Every act of our lives, whether excellent and praiseworthy or deserving of censure, is judged by the Searcher of hearts according to the motives which prompted it.” (E.G. White, -Mind, Character and Personality, p. 348)
Do you think it’s possible to live an honorable, temperate Christian life for the right reasons? Or is everyone who tries a legalist? I guess we could have a long discussion about how to make sure you have the right motives, but then we’d kind of be making ‘not being legalistic’ into legalism. Ouch!
We’d also be focusing on the completely wrong thing. As long as we focus on what we’re doing and not doing, and how we’re feeling about what we’re doing and not doing, we’re not looking at Jesus.
“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matthew 6:33
Before we worry about anything else, we have to get our focus on Jesus. Whatever we do or don’t do before that is actually legalism. Anything before giving our lives to Jesus is worthless. It is impossible to live a truly healthy, balanced life without Jesus.
As it turns out, the one area of our lives in which we don’t have to be temperate, balanced, or abstemious is in our relationship with Jesus. We can throw ourselves completely and totally into that relationship – holding back nothing – and Jesus promises to direct our paths and make sure we will want for nothing. Mary did that. She forgot everything else when Jesus was around and just sat at His feet to learn from Him. And Jesus said that she had chosen the good part which would not be taken away from her.
Peter tells us how it actually works.
“His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
“For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 1:3-8
Whatever we call it – temperance, virtue, moderation, balance – it is worthless in any other context but one that centers on Jesus Christ. In fact,
“If you can start the day without caffeine; if you can get going without pep pills; if you can always be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains; if you can resist complaining and boring people with your troubles; if you can eat the same food every day and be grateful for
it; if you can understand when your loved ones are too busy to give you any time; if you can overlook it when those you love take it out on you when through no fault of yours something goes wrong; if you can take criticism and blame without resentment; if you can ignore a friend’s limited education and never correct him; if you can resist treating a rich friend better than a poor friend; if you can face the world without lies and deceit; if you can conquer tension without medical help; if you can relax without liquor; if you can sleep without the aid of drugs; if you can say honestly that deep in your heart you have no prejudice against creed, color, religion, or politics; then, my friend, you are almost as good as your dog.”2
So, is a dog legalistic? Or does a dog love his master so much that he lives to please him?
Do we love our Master so much that we live to please Him?
Temperance, obedience, whatever we name it, is not our ticket to heaven. It is a demonstration to the people around us that Jesus is in complete control of our lives and an illustration of what He will do for them if they invite Him in.
Will you invite Jesus to be the center of your universe?