Ice cream comes in many flavors, but regardless of the taste, it’s still ice cream. In the same way, legalistic religious rules based on denomination or personal preferences have many different flavors, but no matter the type, they are still religious rules.
Here’s an exercise to help identify when you might be living by religious rules. Consider these ideas to be like a warning light on your car’s dashboard telling you something is wrong with your vehicle.
1. You feel afraid of God’s punishment.
When you fear God’s punishment, tell Him you remember that you are no longer under law, but under grace. Thank Him that He loves you and is not going to punish those He loves.
2. You feel condemned.
You can spot that feeling of condemnation by remembering that condemnation always attacks your identity. You get messages that something is wrong with you as a Christian because of some far past or recent failure. When that happens, stop and pray, asking God to show you what religious rule you are living under. Then remember being under grace is being under no condemnation (Rom. 8:1).
3. You find yourself thinking, “I should be doing ________” (fill in the blank).
Using the word should is almost always about obligation. It’s a strong sense of duty that feels like a burden. When this happens, tell God your only obligation is to Jesus and not to any kind of “should.” I once heard of a woman who placed a banner behind her desk that said, “Thou shalt not should on thyself today!”
4. You believe perfection must be the goal and any mistake is a failure.
This belief is usually about self-acceptance. It means you have yourself under some kind of religious rule that you have to do everything perfectly. You don’t. When you see this in your life, tell God that you realize you are free to make mistakes. You don’t have to do everything right or perfect, because you are under grace.
How do you break the pattern of living under self-imposed religious rules? The answer may feel wrong at first, but here’s the best course of action to break the stranglehold on your life. When you identify a rule you put on yourself, make a conscious effort to “skip it.” For example, based on the list above,
- Skip reading your Bible for a week and instead do an activity you really enjoy.
- Skip church attendance one week to spend genuine quality time with your family.
- Skip giving money to your church one week and give it to someone else God shows you who is in need.
- Skip being nice to someone for the sake of trying to get good karma.
- Skip thinking that God will punish you for skipping the activities on this list!
Skip following your religious rules and do something that makes you feel free. For instance, instead of praying before a meal, tell the people with you that God knows you’re thankful and enjoy eating. Read a book not specifically Christian. Listen to music that is not Christian music for a week. Go to a movie you are interested in and see if God might speak to you through it.
I must warn you, however, to be prepared for the false guilt Satan (and other people) will try to make you feel when you decide to skip a religious rule. Satan will try to make you think the guilt is from God. Stand against this lie. Don’t give in to it. Talk to God and remind yourself that you died with Christ to the law, including all religious rules and every kind of law-based mentality. You are now under grace instead. It may take a while to get used to the feeling of freedom, but you can do it through Christ in you!
When God first revealed to me this liberating part of the New Covenant, I spent a few days struggling with some anxiety. This thought would go through my mind: Maybe I should just go back to the way I used to live under religious rules. It feels more godly. But in those moments I remembered how living by religious rules had almost destroyed me—producing inner struggles and an inability to love as a result of stunting my spiritual growth. Since then I’ve never entertained the idea of going back.
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