How Context Freed Me From a Comically Ridiculous Trap

My Ridiculous Run In With Legalism

I once actually sat in a Bible study where we focused on learning to have the mind of Christ.

Well, we were supposed to focus on that…I’m sure I wasn’t focused on any one thing for long, and that was the least imposing challenge of trying to change my mind to think like Jesus. Yeah…never going to happen on my own….

I have a friend who is a bartender. One night we were talking about God on the patio and she said, “You know what is so fucked up about Christians?”

I laughed and said, “Well, I know some stuff but what specifically are you referring to?”

She pointed to a tree and said, “You think that there is a God who created trees and that stuff you do impresses him.”

In my romanticized memory of this exchange, I beautifully explained to my friend that I don’t think that at all. I told her that I believe something crazier than that. I believe that God loves me and not just a little, he freaking adores me and her too.

I think that I can never possibly earn this love but because I accept it and follow him, he is constantly making me a better person.

But I know exactly where my friend was coming from. I didn’t always have such a freeing view of following Jesus.

At one point in my life, I believed that God loved me but I needed to be good to stay in favor with him. I read everything in the Bible through a religious lens and because I was doing that, I also read everything out of context. I was always looking for a new rule to apply to my life and more things I could do to be better. I was taking everything out of context and it was making me crazy. But it is so much work trying to impress the Creator of trees and the entire universe. I didn’t have time to read all of that stuff. I just wanted to find hope to get over my anxiety and help to be better.

If you have any interest in following Jesus, I bet you have been misled at some point by verses taken out of context. You may not have even realized that this is what you were frustrated by. But I bet you have been annoyed when you were going through something and church people tried to give you an answer that was a little too neat and tidy. Or maybe you have clung to a verse like “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” or “I know the plans I have for you. Plans to prosper you.” and then when things didn’t work out the way you wanted, you wondered where you went wrong. You tried to cling to the promises of God. You believed that verse you were clinging to, why didn’t things work out the way you hoped?

Well my friends, that’s why we are here. That’s why this program is called Rum and Cola for the Soul. It’s about the hard stuff that’s not neat and tidy, not always positive, but always full of hope if you make the effort.

See,if we want to find what we were missing, in those times when we thought we were clinging to what the Bible taught and life threw us for a loop, the key is digging deeper. The key is reading those verses in the whole context. I promise, the amazing things you will find are completely worth the effort.

To illustrate this, I want to share with you the absolute worst, most ridiculous, time I took a section of scripture out of context…(well, it’s up there)

When I was a new mom, trying desperately to nail this parenting thing, I read Philippians 2:5-11 in a Bible study, the whole study took one section of a letter to the Philippian church out of context. It created a crazy, unattainable demand on my life where I was going to start imitating the mind of Christ.

Let’s just all take a few moments to savor the hilarious, ridiculousness of this. I believed that there is a creator who made trees and not only was I going to impress him, I was going to imitate his way of thinking and have his attitude.

I mean, if you had ever spent a few minutes walking around in my mind, you’d be rolling on the floor laughing at the thought of me, somehow transforming my mind to start thinking like God…

Let’s just start with the fact that I have ADD and years of high level training in self absorbed sarcasm and bitterness that somehow manages to be both arrogant and insecure at the same time.

I’m not just being self-deprecating here. I bet your mind is pretty messed up too, if you are honest…

So, let’s just suffice it to say, Changing my mind to think like Jesus was not happening… imitating...pretending… while having panic attacks: that I could pull off. Having the mindset of Christ, uhm not so much!  But I sat in a Bible study for a few months where that was the intended goal...

Let me just share the passage with you and you will see what I mean:

Philippians 2:5-11 starts out,

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: So yeah, this should have alerted me right here that this was going to be a no-go. my relationships, I need constant validation, so…

6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;  Ugh... so Jesus has the position of ruler of the universe and didn’t use that to his advantage. I don’t even want people to cut in front of me in line. I mean, I was there first that’s my position, you better respect it…

7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, So uhmmm not feeling the servant thing, I just got to tell you. Not about making myself nothing...

   being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, So, this one, I actually could do but I’m not really into cross-dressing, but for you Jesus, I will, I love you that much.

   he humbled himself

I’m so good at being humble. I rock. I mean you should see how many people I hang out with that I’m actually too good to be around. Oh wait...yeah, I hear it...I’m so not humble!      

   by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Uhm...yeah, not feeling obedience to death. How about I give some money or something?

9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

   and gave him the name that is above every name,

10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

   to the glory of God the Father.  Oh yeah, I’m feeling this part...So if I could nail having this right attitude thing, God would raise me up so I could shove it in the face of all those people who looked down on me. Yeah… I am so close to having the exact same attitude as Jesus it’s scary.

And as absolutely, insane as it is, to think I could do this on my own, this is the kind of trap we all fall into when we just pick things out of the Bible and read them out of context.  

I lived in that trap for years. When I finally read those verses within the context of the entire letter to the Philippians,I found a different message. It wasn’t at all about being consumed with trying to live up to an unattainable standard. It is actually the complete opposite of that.  It is an encouraging challenge to grow in my knowledge of Jesus.

I promise, if you read any part of Philippians, and are discouraged, then you are reading it wrong. It was meant to be a letter of thanks and encouragement to a group of believers who had helped Paul and were very sad that he was imprisoned. Also, they were worried about the opposition they were beginning to face.

In his letter of encouragement to these Christians, Paul wrote about imitating the mindset of Christ, but he never meant for it to be a checklist of behaviors to impress the creator of trees

As a matter of fact, in this same letter, right after the section I obsessed on and beat myself up over, Paul calls out how messed up the exact kind of thinking I had and was being taught.

See, In the early church, some of  the Jewish Christians were telling Gentiles that in order to follow Jesus, they had to convert to Judaism and follow all those rules too.

Paul addresses this in chapter 3 of his letter,

He says, “Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh.”

And just to be super clear here, Paul was talking about how the Jews were telling Gentiles, that they had to be circumcised in order to become a Christian. I gotta think that was a hindrance to the Gentile men…

And Paul angrily calls people who demand this from converts evil doers and mutilators of the flesh. That was harsh language back in the day. Like people would have been saying, “Geesh Paul calm down we get it, no need to be dropping the e-bomb!”

And yes, you can laugh at how awkward this is. But for Jews, nothing was a bigger sign for them that they were set apart than circumcision. Because it is for sure that no one in the ancient world cut their foreskin off except Jews. It was a physical sign that they were special to God. And kinda the epitome of religious legalism to expect adult Gentile believers to this before the days of local anesthetics!

Paul then says,  3 For it is we who are the circumcision,

Paul was saying, we who have put our trust in Jesus, we are what it means to be set apart.

He continues,

we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh

And guys if you don’t hear anything else, catch this, “putting no confidence in the flesh” means not getting our confidence from our personal ability to follow the rules.

if I had read this and understood it, when I was in that Bible study taking that one section out of context, I would have been freed. I would have seen that I was called to serve God by his Spirit at work in me and that nothing I do physically is what gives me right standing with God.

The rest of this chapter continues driving this message home. Because it is really, really hard for all of us to get that we can’t impress the creator of trees with our religious rule following.

Paul talks about how before following Jesus he had been as good as it gets strictly following all of the Jewish laws. He, at one time, thought he was in God’s favor because he was so good at following the rules, but as he followed Jesus, he realized all of that rule keeping was worthless, in comparison to knowing Jesus.

Then in the final chapter of this letter, Paul encourages the Philippian church to focus on knowing Jesus as they faced their struggles. He gave them practical tips for doing this.  Things like “rejoice”, focus on the things God is doing.

And to remember that “God is near”, ask God for all that you need as you go through these struggles, and he will give you peace that is beyond understanding.

And then he circled back to thanking the Philippians for supporting him while he was in prison. He reminded them of all the hard times he had faced and then said,

“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

Paul was learning to do all that he was able to do through Christ at work in him. It is really a different picture than what we commonly get from church culture right now. Paul’s life was full of struggles. He didn’t overcome every hardship and gain the American dream. He faced every hardship with Jesus and grew to be more like him.

And when we apply that truth of having the power to change and grow through Christ working in us, to the picture of having the mind of Christ, it is amazing. God isn’t concerned with only our outward behaviors, he wants us to actually become better. He wants us to do good things because we are his and he is teaching us to be good like he is.

All the things presented in that passage about the Mind of Christ, are the kind of person I’d love to be (except I’m not going to lie, still not feeling the obedience to death thing...but I’d like to be free from fear of death, and know that I’d always choose the right thing over the easy). I want to be the kind of person who sees the best in everyone around me and encourages them to rise to their potential. I want to be so confident in who I am as a child of God that I don’t need to be constantly validated. I want to serve others so completely freely that I don’t need anything from them in return. I want to be so secure in who I am that I don’t need everything I do to be a validation of my worth. In other words, I can be humble, because I know my inherent value to God and I don’t need to be defined by my positions of power or not.

Now that I know the context of that passage, it represents a freeing change in the way I think. A change that I can’t make happen but that naturally happens a little more the longer I go through life with Jesus.

That is just one example of the tremendous freedom that comes from understanding the whole story in context. When you read the whole story, the whole book, or the whole letter, you will find more freedom to become more like Jesus.

I hope that you are excited about this.

I hope that you want to grow in knowing who Jesus is and becoming more like him. I hope that we are all freed a little more every day from religious legalism and we relax a little more and find joy in walking through this crazy, amazing life with Jesus.

My challenge for all of us, is to think about some verses, or beliefs that you have been clinging to, things that you have been wrestling with, where did you get those ideas? Look into what Jesus actually said about those things and consider them in the full context. I bet you start finding more freedom too!

I’d love to hear what you find! Check out my website for all my contact information.

As always, I hope that you found this encouraging and calming like your soul just had some rum and cola! Blessings y’all!