In every stage of my life a particular kind of anxiety never fails to pop up – the anxiety of legalism. I’m not talking about the “legalism” we typically discuss in Christian circles – like the pressure to read your Bible at 5AM every morning or have perfect attendance at a small group.
I’m talking about a legalism that comes from our culture, burdening our conscience and our ability to enjoy God. It’s the legalism of people-pleasing.
Opinions outside the Word of God become rules that we (often unknowingly) bind ourselves to and compromise our heart’s peace in Christ.
In high school it was the “need” to wear all the cool clothes and do the popular activities.
In college it was the “need” to have the respected major, aced exams, all-nighters of studying, the high-profile internship and established career path.
In marriage it’s the “need” to have a consistent date night, romantic gesture, and storybook relationship.
And motherhood – the list could never end with that. The “need” for organic snacks, zero screen time, the best educational activities, strict nap schedules, self-care, 30 minutes of quiet time, essential oils, work outside of homemaking…
As a woman, there’s so much to worry about! Or is there?
In a sense many of those things are “good.” Wise to pursue. Proper stewardship. But often earthly goals can crowd out focus on the heart.
Our outward appearance and actions may appear impressive, but our souls remain frantic that we’re not doing enough and out of focus on what eternally matters.
The Pharisees fell into this trap to the extreme, and Jesus called them out: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others…For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” Matthew 23:27
We may not be at the same level of the Pharisees, who pridefully made outrageous rules and imposed them on others. However, how often do we harbor unnecessary guilt and unrest because we failed to follow healthy choices, fashion, and mothering trends? How often do we expend so much energy pursuing society’s version of perfectionism that we lose joy in Jesus? Forget to live simply and obediently in His Word, out of trust in Him and service to Him?
Legalism of this nature quickly becomes a matter of submission.
Are we submitting to Jesus or our culture? His Word or the world?
As much as women today resist the biblical concept of submission, we are always submitting to something or someone. So we have to ask not if we are submitting, but who we are submitting to.
Writer Abigail Dodds brought this to my attention in a paradigm-shifting way. In talking about the controversial idea of submission Dodds says of Christian women, “The biggest problem with women and submission is too much of it in the wrong places.”
Wait what? She goes on to clarify – instead of submitting in the way the Bible directs, we abandon the amazing freedom we have in Jesus and revert back to the prison of cultural peer pressure.
She speaks from this Scripture: “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations — “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” . . . — according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom . . . but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” Colossians 2:20–23
God commands us to honor His authority – and the authority of others like parents and husbands – because this leads to faith and peace (Ephesians 6:1-3, Colossians 3:18, Ephesians 5:22-29). When properly obeyed, it naturally builds order in our lives and offers liberty to our hearts. As we submit to leaders God has placed in our lives, we can shed the “need” for control or approval and be freed from the temptations of comparison or over-complicating life.
When we don’t adhere to God’s principles, we can end up submitting to the wrong rules, wrong ideas, or wrong people in desperate effort to do what’s “right” for our bodies, reputations, families.
We build our own kind of legalism, our own expectations, that distract us from nurturing godliness in our hearts and the rest to be found in God. And this is tiring. It leads to unnecessary striving. It’s a pride in our performance that may have some temporary satisfaction but leaves us constantly insecure.
Jesus, however, said those who come to Him will experience rest. That His yoke is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)
How is does that work? In context, He spoke this to Jews who were burdened and hindered in their faith by the Pharisees’ endless rules outside the God’s Law. He was inviting them to find freedom from societal rules through genuine worship and dependence unto Him.
Likewise, we experience serenity in Christ when we delight in His power and His sovereignty, instead of pretending to have our own. When we work from love for Him, not for love from others.
And when we leave worldly legalism we can stop agonizing over what perishes and have energy to pursue what’s imperishable – Christlike character. We can spend our money and our days storing up heavenly treasures. Whatever we eat or drink, we can glorify God by doing it with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (1 Corinthians 10:31, Galatians 5:22-23).
Not too long ago I experienced this “submission problem” in a paralyzing way. When my daughter was diagnosed with leukemia, I became paranoid with every lifestyle decision we had made. I quickly attempted to transition to non-toxic cleaning products, special diets, all-natural remedies, googling every expert I could find. Nothing is wrong with this! I wanted to better my home, live cleaner, and help her body in the treatment journey however I could.
The problem was that this kept me up at night. There was nagging (false) guilt that my failure to do this in the past caused my daughter to get cancer. There was a desperation that if I didn’t do such things, I was failing her. In these strict new regulations I was grasping for control that wasn’t mine.
This false thinking, while focused on her physical salvation not spiritual, reminded me of Paul’s issue with the Galatians:
Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— 6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? Galatians 3:2-6
The truth is God was and is always in control. No matter what I do or do not do, my soul is still saved and my daughter’s life held intact by His grace alone. I could remain in my self-condemnation – my self-made legalism – or walk in His already promised love.
As an added example, my husband graciously supported whatever measures I followed to help our daughter, but ultimately he wanted me to pray and trust. He by no means felt the pressures I did, and by following his lead, my heart repented of this legalism and relaxed. I was able to do whatever I could without shame of what I couldn’t. I could walk in wisdom but not in guilt.
Sister, I invite you to do the same. To forsake perfectionism and see the beauty of biblical submission, which is really humble surrender.
Godly submission is hard, but in the best way. It asks us to entrust God with our lives, to honor Him and let go of pride, to flex our spiritual muscles of faith. But when we choose His Word over submission to the world, we will reap blessing every time. We’ll see Him work like never before, with confidence in our hearts.
“The result of righteousness will be peace; the effect of righteousness will be quiet confidence forever.” Isaiah 32:17 (CSB)
This post may be helpful for further reading: One Question Christians Don’t Ask Enough – Gray Areas of Scripture
Want to learn more about what submission means? Need to replace anxiety with God’s truth? Check out my studies!