I used to think that I was better than everyone else...
The quote above perfectly describes my sentiments about legalism. Of course, I didn't grow up under the teaching that my good deeds were "more important than God's commands" anymore than I was taught that I was better than anyone else. But, growing up in a world of Christians and Christian rules (specifically rules given by places I went outside the home ie: school and church) fostered that thought without them even knowing that it was happening.
From infancy I've been faithful in church. I not only went, but I was one of the "pastor's daughters." There was always this higher expectation on me and my sisters than for any of the other young people in the church. Once again, it wasn't anything my parents or anyone else really told me, it was just clear that we were expected to behave differently... better.
One time, when I was in middle school, my Sunday School teacher asked who had been reading their Bibles regularly. I remember her shock when I DIDN'T raise my hand. "WHAT? I can't believe that! You're the PREACHER'S daughter!" ...just pushing me a little more to act the part even if I wasn't actually living it.
To make my "better than everyone else" complex even worse, I attended a Christian school where the rules became the very laws I thought were as good as "Bible." They didn't tell us that following those rules would bring us closer to Christ or make us in any way "better," but there was a definite sentiment of looking down on certain behaviors. This made me feel like I must be above, if people who didn't live like me were beneath.
I don't blame the school, the church, or my parents. My greatest hope is that others who have the privilege of raising their children in church, and possibly in a complete world of Christian community, understand that sometimes this ideology can be a symptom of that lifestyle. I'm sure not every child that grows up like that will end up with my mindset, but, it can happen easily if you don't make a conscious effort to work against it.
My idea of myself began to break down when I hit college. It was the first time I really had to give an answer for why I believed what I believed, and, to be honest, I didn't really know. On one hand I was breaking all the rules I never understood, and, on the other, I was keeping rules (and expecting others to do the same) without any real understanding of their purpose. I remember a conversation I had in my first English class that went something like this...
Guy - ...talking to someone about smoking a cigar...
me - Opening my big mouth when it wasn't even my conversation to have... "You smoked a CIGAR?"
Guy- "Yeah! I'm legal. What's the big deal?"
Me - "Well, I don't believe Christians should do that."
Guy - "Why? It doesn't say in the Bible that I can't"
Me - "Of course, there weren't cigars when the Bible was written..." (I don't even know if that's true, so I could have just told a lie.) "...But the Bible does say that our body is 'the temple of God,' so I believe that people shouldn't do things to their bodies that are bad for them. It serves no healthy purpose."
Guy - "Well, a sucker is bad for you. Do you eat suckers? Or cake? Or anything else that 'serves no healthy purpose?'"
I'm a little bit mortified to this day that I ever opened my mouth. It should have been the last time I did, but, sadly, it took many more feet in there before I finally started reassessing my salvation. Thankfully, I did start to reassess. I began finding out about life and culture and differences and began realizing that I had given myself this idea that the rules I followed made me a good Christian. But worse, that the people who didn't follow them were either uneducated (spiritually speaking) or were just bad Christians. Once I realized that my view was very flawed, it gave me a lot of room for change.
Interestingly, it was the many amazing benefits of growing up in a Christian home that gave me a lot of the grounding I needed to work through that. I recognized that skirts to your knees and mission trips could be sin if done to please man and tattoos and secular music could be great opportunities to lead people to the Lord if He chose to use them. I figured out that sitting in every service didn't mean I was close to the Lord any more than missing a few meant that I had strayed.
It's not that I don't believe that there are definite black and white sins. Believe me, I've broken enough of the rules to know that there are lines never meant to be crossed. But, I've also learned that reading my Bible and voting Republican can look great to all the right people, but I can be an utter mess on the inside. I found out that mission trips can do more damage than good... especially to the neighbor across the street that I'm avoiding witnessing to. And, I now know that church attendance is wonderful if I'm there to worship, but, sometimes, community outreach is better if I'm there to serve.
All of the things that I used to do thinking I was "better" only caused me to lose my testimony with a lot of people because of the manner in which I did them. I spent more time judging the lost person than sharing the love of Christ with them. So, yeah, I used to think I was better than everyone else, but now I know I'm just a sinner saved by grace.