The Sad Signs of Legalism
Legalism masquerades as zeal for God. It substitutes the application of Biblical principle, as being righteousness itself. Every Christian is susceptible to the seductive sickness of self righteousness - since I have battled this sickness in my own life, and encountered it in the lives of others, I've learned to discern a few of its symptoms:
Clever: a legalist is often quite bright. And she always, always sounds right, but there is always, always something wrong with her arguments - they lack depth and they lack a genuine care and concern for people as they are. A legalist loves people insofar as she thinks they "should be". She loves her idea of Christian maturity, without loving her flawed brother, sister, friend, mother, or husband.
Comparison - a legalist will compare herself to others, and compare people with people. She is habitually measuring herself and her spouse, and everyone else.
Coldness - a legalist is incapable of sustained personal warmth in relationships. To be warm is to be pliable. To be cold is to be rigid. A legalist is rigid, and therefore ultimately an emotionally cold person. It may take six months, or it may take years and years, but if you "cross" a legalist in any significant way, you'll discover that her warmth quickly fades, and a cool demeanor replaces it.
Conversation - a legalist's primary topic of conversation is herself (or himself...but since I myself was once a legalist, and still struggle with the tendency, I use the female pronoun). So long as you remain in her fan club, and make it "all about her", you will have her as your friend. A legalist's second favorite topic of conversation is "this person or that person"(see the first symptom of legalism: comparison). Remember - great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people. Since the legalist is ego-centric, her world is a small one. She will primarily discuss herself, her problems, her life, her job or her children....and she will then discuss certain people. If you attempt to steer the relationship to a broader horizon, and engage her in an honest discussion of great ideas, she will withdraw (see the second symptom of legalism: coldness).
Cutting Ties: a legalist will cut ties with you, eventually. Wherever legalism exists, you will find a string of broken relationships. You will encounter the slow, progressive separation from even a significant relationship, if she perceives that the relationship is not in her control....which brings me to the next symptom:
Control: A legalist cannot help but manipulate. She doesn't mean to, and may not even consciously try to. But she does it. She will attempt to control you by giving or withholding her approval. Giving or withholding her attention or affection. Giving or withholding gifts - because if you cut the "string attached" to the gift, the giving will cease. Giving or withholding love itself. A legalist will begin to act irrationally whenever someone close to her actually lives in a revelation of their gift of righteousness. Why? Because when you begin to believe the gospel, a legalist loses her leverage in the relationship.
Cloying: a legalist is a cloying person. She's happy only when she feels you are admiring her, or her possessions, her ability, or her status. She will assist you time and time again, she will help you more than you need to be helped, so long as you admire her for it. She will take what otherwise would be healthy and pleasant, and she will cling and cloy the joy right out of the experience or the relationship. Every relationship starts well, but almost none stay well. Since most legalists are insecure, they end up maxing everyone else out - no one can prop up their damaged ego consistently enough.
Conditional Contentment: most legalists are ever-so-slightly depressed people. (Ask me how I know!) Their contentment depends on being better than most everyone else ("I thank thee Oh Lord, that I am not like this tax collector..."), and since there is always someone who has a better home life, or house, a better marriage, car, or has more talent than they do, a legalist consequently suffers from constant, low-level unhappiness. Her contentment is conditional, and relative to her ability to control circumstances, or to feel superior. Thus, you don't find a legalistic woman laughing freely and often.
Christian - most legalists are Christians. The very recipients of such amazing grace, often do not know just how amazing it really is. You have to know that you need grace, to understand grace. You run to a throne of grace in time of need. Most Christians are chronically un-needy. These un-needy believers are also unaware that they are miserable, poor, blind and naked, and ever in great need of great grace. Subconsciously, a legalist relegates grace to be the solution for non-Christians, the unfortunate, uneducated or immoral. Meanwhile, the proud need grace the most, and yet perceive their need the least.