Legalism is a bad term. It implies someone is living by a list of rules, 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 sister-in-law).
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?"
The Baptist said to her Pentecostal sister-in-law, "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: I 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, one 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 some to impose some rules on ourselves.
That's the burden of this piece: I need to be exact in matters of integrity and honesty, to hold myself to higher standards than I might hold others.
Here are some instances.
At a silent auction recently where we were raising money for a ministry, I traveled 400 miles in order to spend the evening sketching for donations. Then my wife and I made a sizable financial contribution. But when I placed a bid on a painting, the page indicated the opening bid should be $15. I struck that out and wrote in "$25." Later, since no one else had bid on the painting, I got it. For $25.
Now, analyze that for a second. I had already contributed—let's say, for the point of discussion—$500. 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 we could have, but it wouldn't have been right. Since I had bid on the painting, I opened my billfold and came up with a $20 and a $5. I now own that lovely framed print of a train engine.
It's the principle of the thing.
Another instance: I'm a tither. That means I give 10% 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 and b) what my tithe should be. 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 10%, 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 some 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 sketchbooks. 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 tiptoes inside me, yelling 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 probably have made an 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 very 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!"
I told her what had happened. For a time, I was running with Ray Spain, an older boy who was always playing hooky and doing questionable things. Once, in the seventh-grade classroom, Ray pointed out that Dixie's books and billfold were 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 think my share was $3."
I said, "Dixie, that has been on my mind for all these years. I want you to 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 some northern state where she lives to say she had bought Bibles for a ministry with that $20.
It's the principle of the thing.
"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."
Joe McKeever is retired from the pastorate but still active in preaching, writing and cartooning for Christian publications. He lives in Ridgeland, Mississippi.
For the original article, visit joemckeever.com.
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