Conviction vs. Guilt: From Legalism to Freedom

When I was younger, I found that I compared myself to those around me. Being quiet, reserved, highly impressionable and a devout perfectionist, I was left feeling inadequate, a failure, and ultimately guilty more often than not.

Why guilty you ask? Well because I couldn’t live up to my own personal expectations and the expectations I thought others had of me.

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Growing up in a small Christian community, life was seemingly perfect. At an early age, I understood and grasped the concept of deep love and what it means to love. This, by the grace of God, was due to being nurtured and raised by incredible God-fearing parents. Our home never lacked this kind of love, the kind that isn’t based on conditions or expectations – no, it was pure, true, and real.

When I went to my private Christian school, that’s when I noticed a difference. Let me first preface that this school was very instrumental in the development and cultivation of my faith, and I am honestly very blessed to say I received a quality education there. It felt safe, it felt nurturing, and those are things I will not disregard.

However, it was my first taste of legalism.

Legalism, once I got older, could be best defined as, ”a doctrinal position emphasizing a system of rules and regulations for achieving both salvation and spiritual growth. Doctrinally, it is a position essentially opposed to grace,” (gotquestions.org). At the time, I had no idea what to call it or how to identify it.

Largely due to my personality, I took the strict rules and regulations of the school to heart, upholding them like I do the Bible. I feared disappointing my teachers probably more so than disappointing my parents. I felt like I was walking on eggshells, terrified of receiving any form of detention slip or even a word of reprimand if I was talking too loudly. I quickly developed a system of “perfectionism” that I felt safe to hide behind, a place of constant smiles and sugarcoated sweetness. This became my Salvation.

Because of this persona of perfectionism I grew to develop, I was often termed “angel,” “perfect,“ “everyone should be like you,” and my personal favorite, “the Lord has a special place right next to His throne for you.” Barf. I ate these words up because they fueled and nourished my need for validation, and I thought that this made me a better Christian. If I could become as close to perfect as I could, then nothing could go wrong.

But everything did go wrong when I hit the 5thgrade. That was when I had my first encounter with this thing called anxiety, which led to guilt. I had no idea what it was at the time, but it made me feel gross inside, unsettled like a slow boiling pot of water, unsure as to what temperature it should be at. I was overwhelmed by my uncontrollable fears, scary thoughts, and gut-wrenching feelings. This was all so new.

I found myself going to my teacher to tell her my fears, seeking validation of my normalcy and needing to be told that I was still okay and good and “perfect.” But unknowingly she crushed me. She did not give me the validation I sought, nor did she realize the depth of my struggle.

Let me preface another thing really quick. It was a GOOD thing this teacher did not validate my “perfectionism.” Praise the Lord. But, she did not know how to properly handle someone with anxiety. I continued to struggle through all of these emotions and feelings of guilt as the years progressed. It wasn’t until the 7thgrade where I felt I had my first taste of freedom.

“Just let go and be who I made you to be. Stop trying so hard. Trust me.”

I felt these words uttered in the core of my being by an in-audible voice. Jesus.

He was saying I was enough. I didn’t have to uphold this sheen of perfectionism nor did I have to slave over the approval of others. Their words of misplaced encouragement didn’t matter anymore.

This was not an overnight change, no; it is actually something I still struggle with. But through this process of shedding my perfectionist tendencies, I have found freedom in my identity with Christ.

Looking back, I see the trends of legalism splattered throughout the course of my younger years. Dress code – the length of skirts, how many bracelets on each hand, earrings can only be certain lengths, no dyed hair, no excessive makeup, no this no that. The list was endless. There was not much forgiveness, mostly disapproval and scowls if not followed. In my mind, these rules were the heartbeat of the school, drowning out the truth I so desperately needed to hear.

Isn’t that true of our churches today? Sometimes we can get so caught up in our legalism, our own self-righteousness that we become a stumbling block to others. We can create large chasms of division based upon spiritual preferences rather than using our differences to create a more unified body.

Now there is a huge difference between conviction and guilt. Conviction is from the Lord and guilt is from the enemy. It was not the Lord who was trying to tell me I was a failure if I messed up with the dress code or I was inadequate when I made mistakes. No, that was the voice of lies and guilt. The Lord’s presence is found in the small whisperings of the heart, the gentle nudges done in love. Yes, sometimes He moves in grander and bigger ways, but oftentimes, I find He works in the subtlety of the everyday.

All this to say, the Lord has taken me on this long journey from perfectionist-seeking to Jesus-seeking. He is enough, and when we look to Him, all of our differences in how we worship the Lord, the rules of legalism, and the temptation to be more and do more than we ought – it all falls away. That gets rid of the guilt piece, for it is the Lord’s voice and Word we must seek for direction. If we need to repent or turn away from something, He convicts us, not guilts us. For guilt ushers out a voice of lies, disapproval, anxiety and comparison. Conviction ushers out a voice of truth and the desire for change is prompted by the loving guidance of our loving Savior.

We don’t need to compare our spirituality with other believers. The Lord works and uses us in unique ways all to grow His Kingdom, and that should be celebrated, admired, and encouraged. We are the body of Christ, and each part serves a different function. That being said, when we follow Jesus, he dismantles our legalism, our perfectionism, our self-righteousness, and the temptation to fall into guilt. And He simply beckons us to Him – saying,

“Just let go and be who I made you to be. Stop trying so hard. Trust me.”

Be blessed ❤

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