What does God want from us?
Legalism is littered with lists of what God wants from us. He wants holiness, so we have to pray for holiness. He wants righteousness, so we strive for righteousness. He wants obedience, so we work hard to obey. He wants service, so we come up with projects. He wants justice, so we judge. He wants mercy, so we let things go.
It’s no wonder that many people in legalistic churches are convinced that God wants us tired, discouraged, and beat up. In fact, the more tired you are, the more beat-up you have been, the more spiritual you must be. If you aren’t miserable, you must not be doing the Lord’s work. Ask any missionary who comes home to drive a new or very nice car. The old car, the one that looks more like a missionary’s car, seemed to fit the image better. The nice car has to be explained away. Ask any pastor who is made to feel guilty because he spends time with his family or has a hobby. God wants you tired.
Micah 6:8 sums it all up for us, doesn’t it?
He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?
There you go. Just do those things and God will be happy. “Do justly” means to do the right things, to avoid sinning. “Love mercy” means to forgive people who are cruel and reach out to people who want nothing to do with you. “Walk humbly” means to take the blame for everything negative, give credit for everything positive to God and others, and never forget that you are an unworthy sinner who deserves punishment. There you go. Legalism in a nutshell.
Legalism is depressing for a reason. The standards, if considered honestly, are unreachable. It isn’t that they have been set too high and should be adjusted. That would just be compromise. It is that what God wants from us is impossible. We are not able to meet the requirements.
Do you think God knows this? Of course. He knew it from the beginning. The moment sin entered humanity, we became unable to fulfill the plan of God for us. We were broken, lost, defeated. We could try to live rightly, but we failed over and over. We could try to love others and love God first, but others sometimes made themselves pretty unlovable and God seemed far away. Sin claimed us as servants and there was no way for us to do what God wanted.
So God did it for us. That was always the plan. He loves us. Jesus lived justly. Jesus loved mercy. Jesus walked humbly with God. Jesus lived the perfect life, the life with which God was “well-pleased.” Now Jesus lives that life in us. His life is ours.
Legalists regularly accuse grace people of lowering the requirements, but the truth is that we are willing to raise them to their true place. We understand that the standards of God are unreachable. Only one Person has ever been able to live by those standards. Praise God that we are measured by His performance!