Living in Freedom

Inri crucifix at daytime

Why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience?  If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?  So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”   1 Corinthians 10:29-31

The term “spiritual abuse” has been coined by counselors for what religious legalism does to people.  Spiritual abuse makes people wear their sins like a scarlet letter, as if shame were a deterrent to future sinning and as though the punishment Jesus endured for sinners wasn’t enough.  Spiritual abuse is one guilt trip after another, designed to coerce people to give or volunteer or whatever a dogmatic leader insists on.  Religious cults are almost inevitably characterized by spiritual abuse.  The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel is a series of lectures delivered by C.F.W. Walther from 1884 to 1885, because spiritual abuse has always been a threat to conservative churches.  (The lectures in book form are available from Concordia Publishing House.)

Spiritual abuse isn’t just something that religious leaders impose on others.  Each of us can be a little legalist, demanding of others what we can’t live up to ourselves in an attitude of self-righteous superiority.  Harsh and demanding parents may use God and the church to compel their children’s behavior, not realizing that they are driving a wedge between not only themselves and their kids, but between God and their kids.  Each of us can be a little legalist, drowning in guilt because our repeated sinning has kept us from taking to heart God’s forgiving love, or beating ourselves up with guilt and shame on the assumption that this will keep us from repeating the sin.  People joke about “Lutheran guilt,” what should be an oxymoron in a church that emphasizes the Gospel.  Lutheran guilt is the religious obligation that won’t allow you to say no when someone from the church asks you to volunteer.  It’s the sense that your life is so much better than you deserve that something bad is bound to happen to you.  It’s the somber “church face” returning from the Lord’s Supper that suggests you received Christ’s blood with vinegar rather than wine.  Lutheran guilt is a subtle form of legalism in which people believe the Gospel but live under the law.

Jesus has freed us from the legalism that defines our faith with religious rules and regrets rather than with our Father’s unconditional love and our Savior’s perfect atonement.  No more guilt trips.  No more “I suppose I have to” approach to worship and service.  St. Paul wrote to the Colossians: “God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.”  The Gospel has set us free to follow Jesus because we want to, not because religion told us we have to.  Every facet of our life becomes a way to thank and glorify our gracious God.  Live free.  (That’s an invitation, not a command.)

PRAYER:  I’m tired, Lord, of dragging around my sins and the guilt they impose on me.  Free me for Jesus’ sake and restore the joy of my salvation.  I’m tired, Lord, of trying to live up to the demands of others and my own perfectionist tendencies.  Help me to rejoice in the identity you have given me as your dear child; and let your love for me inspire a corresponding love for others and for life.  I’m tired, Lord, of the anger and hurt that characterize the culture around me.  Let me bring healing love to those I meet, for Jesus’ sake.   Amen.

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