Historian Randall Balmer tells a story about the time he and his wife took ballroom dancing lessons. They learned to count out the patterns of steps and tried to coordinate their feet, while at the same time remembering the sequence of steps for each dance. For beginners, learning the form of a dance can be more stressful than relaxing.
After a few weeks of lessons, the Balmers were in a grocery store pushing the cart down an aisle when a song that was particularly meaningful to them began playing over the sound system. Caught up in the emotion, Balmer and his wife began to dance in the aisle. It wasn’t a dance that the dance instructor would have recognized; the dance was their own expression of the love they shared.
Skilled dancers can perform a graceful dance without any music. They simply keep count in series of threes and follow the steps. While I imagine that a perfectly executed waltz is a thrill to perform (I wouldn’t know), the dance that Balmer and his wife preferred was the one in the supermarket. In their dance class, they had been trying to keep track of the beats. In the shopping aisle, they were following the music.
This illustrates the difference between legalism and faith lived out. The first sees a list of rules and tries its best to conform to those rules, to keep in step, and to avoid mistakes. Legalism is often deeply sincere. It may not spring from a desire for superiority, but from a genuine desire to learn the dance.
The alternative to legalism–I’ll call it “living faith”–may produce results that are nearly identical to the fruit of legalism. People who live by faith will conform to many rules and perform all sorts of righteous acts. But while legalism is the imposition of external behaviors, living faith springs from the Spirit.
Does your faith feel like an exhausting effort to keep up with an impossible beat? If so, you might be living with a legalistic mindset, forgetting the love that is meant to be at the heart of the life of your soul. God is not waiting around for us to get our act together; He is wooing us, and He wants us to experience His love. If we don’t really know or taste His goodness, our attempts at righteousness will bring us nothing.
The psalmist entreats us: “Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music” (Psalm 98:4). God doesn’t want outward conformity; He wants us to be so full of his glory and goodness that we can’t keep still. If you’ve learned to dance without music, slow down and listen. Let God’s promises guide your steps, and you will find that a dance will spring to life.