The Legalism Trap- A Missionary Case Study


I was talking to a missionary couple the other day, who we are going to call J.D. and Marissa, and asked how they were doing in ministry and their church plant. They exchanged some niceties and typical greetings with me. But then I pressed a bit further about their personal perspective on how things were going. Both of them, in turn, admitted to how burnt out they felt, how exhausted they were from all of the expectations placed on them by their senders and the unrealistic expectations they put on themselves. They admitted that some of the passion and fire they used to experience had died. They were now living day to day feeling like they were always under a microscope, afraid that they would be called back or reprimanded if they “failed” in some way in the ministry God had called them to do.


J.D. confided in me that the first thing to be a real issue was the immense amount of guilt and shame over “not being good enough (in ministry or as a husband)” he heaped on himself and felt like others had as well. Marissa said that she struggled with deep seated resentment toward others who had no idea how hard mission work where they were located actually was for their family. People weren’t magically coming out of the woodwork to give their lives to Christ and be baptized. And this was one of the major expectations that their sending churches placed on them…conversions and baptisms.

The Glaring Hypocrisy of Legalism

Rules and regulations, merits and demerits, laws and principles were at stake, according to the churches and individuals this couple talked to. And it seemed like they started to believe they were unsuccessful as “sent out ones.” The very next thing this husband and wife team told me was that their personal devotion, intimacy, and prayer life with the Lord was deeply impacted by these events. They felt as though their relationship with God was strained and that they had “failed” Him too. Joy and enjoyment weren’t on the docket anymore. Making sure there was something to show for the countless hours they put into their mission work ruled their hearts now.

So, here’s the question I posed to them and now will pose to you, “When did you first realize joy was gone…not only in your horizontal relationships but more importantly in your vertical one with the Father?”

I can remember certain times in my life when there was literally NOTHING I would have rather been doing than being in the Father’s presence with Bible and notebook in hand. I figured something out this evening in my car driving home from the gym. In 7th grade English class we had silent reading time for usually the first 20 minutes of class. I looked forward to that every day and during that pocket of time, I truly felt and knew complete contentment. Not because I was following the rules of the teacher or class, but because I enjoyed that obedience, that structure, the books I was reading. And, if memory serves me correctly, the book I most often read was the Bible…in that very class.

Fast forward a few years to my senior year of High School. I remember getting to school almost an hour to hour and a half before school started so I could get a good parking place in the senior lot…or else I’d be walking a half of a mile to class every morning. That’s not the point!

The point is that during the hour I had before school started, I would sit in my warm, familiar car and do my devotions. It was some of the most satisfying and closest times I have ever been connected with God. I was happy…joyful…prayerful…content. The doors were locked, nobody bothered me. I would turn the radio off and it would be just me and God. To be honest, life didn’t seem simpler for me even back then. I was going through some really tough stuff. But I looked forward to my time I got to spend with the Lord and it grew my faith and my attitude toward others in significant ways. Not to mention, grew my intimacy with Christ.

How do I really find lasting joy, peace, purpose, happiness, contentment in the life I have now? This is a BIG question. Because things didn’t turn out the way(s) I had expected they would turn out! I have had some pretty sizeable health problems over the span of my life. And, even over the 7 major surgeries I’ve had, the past 2 ½ years have ushered in prolonged periods of pain and suffering. My body isn’t working too swiftly and is certainly not the way I had thought it would be at 38. And through the last few years I have, at times, slowly lost my joy and fervency in Christ.

In my attempts to be a “good Christian boy” I have struggled, at times, deeply with legalism, perfectionism, and an overall need to control certain things in my life. In fact, I have wrongly thought that those very things I just listed were my responsibility in “working out my salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12).” I figured that is how obedience looks in my Christian life…to try to do and be better, to pick myself up by my own bootstraps, to look like I had it all together.

Are You a Prisoner or a Freedman?

At times, I have felt like a convict let out of prison to live as a free man. The only problem is, the convict lived so long in prison he no longer knew how to live as a freed man. This newfound freedom he experienced didn’t bring joy. Instead, it brought increased anxiety, loss of decision-making skills, and a complete loss of belonging. As weird as it sounds, in prison this man had identity. He longed to go back into the prison/slavery he knew because he thought he had a place there.

You see, this convict was trying to find his identity by worldly standards. A system of checks and balances, merit and demerit. And this is the way we sometimes go to God. We have a method of measurement and effort because it makes us FEEL better to be “helping” God out by cleaning ourselves up, or even punishing ourselves in some way. Mine is holding on to guilt and pain and not fully comprehending and accepting God’s limitless grace.

When we hold on to the legalism trap, though Christ has set us free, we don’t know how to live in the beautiful freedom He provides. Legalism as it relates to Christianity is: the rules and regulations of religion. In specific seasons of my life I have attempted to earn God’s favor. And when that doesn’t work, I do my darnedest to control different aspects of my life which leads not to freedom but slavery, not to transformation but to frustration, not to life but death. Yet, there is the most amazing news; Jesus sets us free from all of this!!!

Somehow, I don’t just want to get back to THAT time in High School! I want to have such a joy-filled life in Christ that those other happy, content times will pale in comparison to the joy I will experience.

First things first, I need to simplify my time with the Lord…go back to the essentials of the gospel. Remember what brought excitement, joy, and enjoyment to my relationship with God. It wasn’t a huge prayer list, tons of prayer requests, an impeccable prayer journal, or studying 6 passages in Scripture a day. I looked forward to my time with the Lord because I came just as I was without all my faulty presuppositions, legalistic mindset, and tarnished worldview. It was simple, direct, consistent, varied, practical, and FUN!

Somewhere along the course of all the troubles of life I’ve faced I forgot what it was like to have fun, to be goofy and laugh with other people and laugh at myself. Lord, please help me recover these great qualities.

When we hold on to the legalism trap, though Christ has set us free we don’t know how to live in the beautiful freedom He provides. Holding to the letter of the Law provided a status/stats sheet for those in the Old Testament and in the Old Covenant. But the divine origin of the gospel brought forth in Jesus Christ trumps ANY other false gospel we are told in society or make up on our own. The gospel is demonstrated by a new and transformed life. We no longer have to measure righteousness by a set of rules and regulations. Christ has made us righteous by His finished work on the cross (The New Covenant), and it is only by His merit that we are transformed.

The sets of checks and balances, wherever or whenever they come, have NO grip on us who are forgiven in Christ. We are new creatures, made in the image of our Creator, God. We find our identity, our life, our fulfillment, our calling, our work, our ministry objectives solely due to the righteous acts of Christ Jesus. We have been given more grace than we could ever imagine and the Holy Spirit residing in us tells us as much, as many times as we need to hear it.

Maybe you know some missionaries like D.J. and Marissa spoken of at the beginning of this article, or maybe you yourself can relate to this legalism trap of checks and balances. Either way, the fight for joy and delight in Christ is at stake for this couple. They need to be greatly encouraged, on a daily basis, to find their worth, identity, hope, and overall reason for their work in Christ alone. This is easier said than done when you’re fully immersed in a different culture and have people breathing down your neck for productivity and validity of your overall ministry.

This couple needs to remember what it’s like to have fun and rejoice in life and in their ministry roles…regardless of what kind of man-made stipulations have been heaped on their shoulders. D.J. will never be rid of guilt and shame if he is constantly beating himself up or believing that he MUST meet all the expectations of his supporters and sending churches. Marissa has to get past people-pleasing thoughts and expectations as well, finding lasting joy in her God-given role as wife, mother, and friend. Resentment and bitterness are stilled when we focus on our position in Christ and who HE says we are and the calling that HE has placed on our heart and life.

It’s not as complex as it really sounds, I assure you. The more time we are able to spend rehearsing gospel truths of who we are and whose we are in Christ, the more intimacy with the Father we come to enjoy. And THAT, my friends, is true freedom!











Clayton J. Elliott
Director of Pastoral Ministries and Prayer, KMUSA

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share This