How do you recover from a legalistic background? Some verses are still difficult for me to come across without cringing or being hurt. I already know most of the verses have different meanings than what I was taught growing up, but I still have a hard time healing. Even though I don’t believe Proverbs 31 should be taken literally, I still get exhausted when reading that passage. Please help.
My first boyfriend, Chris, was an earnest Christian, a passionate Teen Maniac, a self-declared world changer, and our electromagnetic high school faith was the incubator where that first love lived and died.
Because of that, the soundtrack of my first love was none other than…the Bible.
It was the record that was on while we stared into each other’s eyes, while we made out and then vowed to not make out. While we broke up and got back together. While he hurt me. While he left.
And the songs on Repeat most of the time were the letters of Paul in the New Testament. Chris was constantly quoting the words of Paul. Paul was his favorite. Paul was his spirit animal. And Paul was forever getting in the way of our relationship.
The time Chris gave me that gentle-but-stern talking to about my Old Navy sweaters and their lack of modesty, he read from 1 Timothy. The time he mentioned that Jesus probably wasn’t down with my sarcastic humor, he quoted—you guessed it! —Paul, who admonished Timothy that even though he was young, he should set an example for believers “in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.”
Chris had a lot of angst about living a life that mattered to God, a concern heightened by Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:1: “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” To Chris, a worthy life looked distinctly like a missionary life, an austere life, a self-sacrificing—and girlfriend-sacrificing—life in a village somewhere in Africa.
The first time he broke up with me, it was because of Paul. Because “in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize” and he wanted to “run in such a way as to get the prize.” He donned his running shoes. He left me in the dust.
The second time he broke up with me, I vaguely remember a reference to 1 Corinthians 6:12: “’Everything is permissible for me’—but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible for me’—but I will not be mastered by anything.” But I could be wrong.
Either way, fifteen years later, the NIV Bible version of Paul’s words still puts me immediately on my guard. Even when he is saying lovely things like “I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus” in 1 Corinthians 1:4, I find myself waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the “but” coming next, for the breakup.
It’s a little bit of a problem, particularly because thirteen of the twenty-seven New Testament books are traditionally ascribed to Paul.
In my heart, I believe the Bible is rich and deep, that it’s so much more than all these memories. I believe it is spacious enough for me to leave my baggage at the gate, for me to wander further, deeper, nearer to God.
And yet, I’m also not sure what to do in those moments when words of the Bible itself are the trigger making me shut down.
I read Paul, and I still hear the song that was playing when some boy told me I wasn’t enough. I, too, read Proverbs 31 and sometimes hear the same old song about the woman “of noble character” I know I can never really be.
How in the world do you move forward from that? How do you walk deeper into the Word of God when it feels so barbed, when it cuts you as you brush up against it?
When I first read your question, Megan, I thought about those Magic Eye books with their kaleidoscope colors. Do you remember those? They had no words, just page after page of designs that at first seemed random but revealed hidden images if you knew how to look at them.
It seemed like a perfect metaphor: look at the Bible long enough, or look at the corners instead of the center, or look at it sideways…and something new will emerge.
And maybe that’s so. But honestly? I never could see the mystery image in the Magic Eye books. I have grade-school memories of friends trying to help me—Don’t you see it? It’s a dog! Right there! A DOG! — but optical illusions have always eluded me, and all I could ever see was a mess of colors.
The truth is that once I’ve seen something one way, it’s hard for me to trick my eyes into seeing it differently.
But then I thought about Ryan Adams. I thought about his full-album cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989. Ryan Adams essentially re-recorded Taylor Swift’s entire album in order…in his own particular voice.
Have you heard it? (If not, stop reading this right now and go listen to it. STAT.)
It’s the same album. It’s an entirely different album.
In this article at Rolling Stone, Adams recounts the lonely Christmas when he started playing around with his own take on Swift’s hit songs: “It wasn’t like I wanted to change them because they needed changing, but I knew that if I sang them from my perspective and in my voice, they would transform.”
And when I think about my journey toward peace and wholeness with the Bible and with my faith itself, this is the truer metaphor for me.
I’ve not squinted harder at the Magic Eye book and finally seen the other side. Rather, I’ve stumbled onto some cover artist who sang the words in a way that pinged against my soul like a tuning fork.
My cover artists are pastor-writers like Henri Nouwen and Eugene Peterson and Brennan Manning. Musicians like Audrey Assad and All Sons and Daughters.
And Eugene Peterson’s Bible paraphrase, The Message, is my Ryan Adams full-album cover of the Pauline epistles.
It’s the same song, but when it comes through Peterson’s gentle pastor-voice, some of the jarring harshness is gone. Instead of that language that still elicits that feeling of failure for me—As a prisoner of the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received—Peterson’s version of Ephesians 4:1 makes me feel hopeful:
In light of all this, here’s what I want you to do. While I’m locked up here, a prisoner for the Master, I want you to get out there and walk—better yet, run!—on the road God called you to travel. I don’t want any of you sitting around on your hands. I don’t want anyone strolling off, down some path that goes nowhere. And mark that you do this with humility and discipline—not in fits and starts, but steadily, pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences.
I’ve learned over the years that I am useless when it comes to getting rid of my own Bible baggage. For me, it has never been as simple as just laying it down at the cross or giving it to Jesus or letting go, letting God. Rather, my legalistic load is being unloaded slowly, one bit at a time, through the grace-filled voices of others.
How do you recover from legalism? Find your cover artists.
Find the voices that help you hear the same songs differently.
The Word of God is said to be living and breathing, alive and active, and for all of my angst, I still believe that. Moreover, I think part of that truth has to do with our participation in those words.
When we sing the words of God back to one another, our own unique God-crafted voices transform them. We become one another’s cover artists.
It’s not about changing the Word of God any more than Ryan Adams’s album project was about changing Taylor Swift’s songs. Rather, our cover artists are the ones who peel back the songs and help us see the nuances, the depths, the expansive grace. And when we join in—when we speak the words of God through our own broken, beautiful perspectives—we help others listen differently too.
Legalism and all of its performance-driven hustling is a tough beast. For me, listening to the words in the same way I listened to them in high school is a little like putting my hand on an electric fence again and again to see if it still hurts.
But there is more than one way to sing the Pauline epistles. And there is more than one way to sing Proverbs 31 too.
It’s not your fault you can’t hear it yet. Sometimes it takes a while to find the people who are singing it in the way we can hear.
Keep listening for the cover artists. They are everywhere, singing those words anew.
They are singing the grace. It is filling the skies.
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