I Am a Saved Legalist Who Struggles with Depression

How you answer this question will impact the quality of your life on earth. Do you believe God sends people to hell, or do you think hell is the result for people who reject God?

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An acceptable answer to this question is nobody chooses hell, but hell is the result for people who prefer an unrepentant path of sin (Matthew 7:13-14). It’s not the destination that they are choosing, but the path—albeit the path leads to the undesired end. It is like two roads that lead to two different places. One way leads to paradise, and the other leads to hell. Though we do not choose hell, we do pick our paths (Revelation 20:15). It is only because of the Lord, who is rich in mercy, are we able to change paths (Ephesians 2:1-10).

Why is this discussion meaningful? Because how we interpret and respond to life flows out of our theology, and if we have poor theology, our interpretations and responses to life will be inferior to the life that we could have in Christ.

If you believe God sends people to hell, rather than people choosing a lifestyle that leads to hell, this wrong view of God will have immediate and negative consequences for how you respond to the things that happen to you. It is possible that you will try to “please Him” to keep Him from sending you to hell. Let me illustrate.

When the Lord Does Mean Things

Mable is a chronically sick person. No matter what she does, she cannot be better than a sick and suffering person. Though she has not given a lot of thought to her theology, it is precisely her theology that complicates the struggle that she has with her sickness.

As we talked, our discussion eventually turned to God, which is where I learned how she was angry with the Lord. These are my words, not hers. She “loves the Lord” if you were to ask her, and it is accurate to a degree. Mable also tells her friends that she loves the Lord.

I mean, what is she supposed to say? “I’m mad with God.” That is not acceptable Christian-speak. In her view, it is better to stuff the uneasiness she has had with the Lord all these years underneath the covers of her heart.

It did not take a lot of probing to realize there was something that agitated her about God. My first course of action was to release her from this fear of hiding her most authentic thoughts, which is a common trap for people. They say what they believe you want to hear.

Mable has learned to keep her innermost thoughts in the dark. One of those thoughts was her uneasy relationship with the Lord. She praised Him with the lifted hand on Sunday morning, but she was afraid of Him during the week.

Her poor theology held her in bondage. Theology is a Greek compound word that means Theos (God) logos (the study of). Her research and understanding of God (her theology) was faulty in a surprising way. She believed the Lord sent people to hell. Her logic ran along these lines:

  • Hell is a place for bad people.
  • The Lord sends bad people to hell.
  • The Lord is “okay” with this outcome.
  • Thus, the Lord is okay with people suffering.
  • I am suffering.
  • The Lord is okay with me suffering.
  • I am a terrible person.
  • The Lord does not like me.

Mable believed in God, heaven, and hell. She knows that you are saved by grace, not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9) , and she believes the Lord saved her. All of these things are good, but what was running in the background of her theology was how she was one of the lucky ones who was saved from hell, but not one of the lucky ones who experienced healing on earth.

The Lord is punishing her like He is punishing all the people that He sends to hell. It made sense to her. If God punishes a person in eternity, He will punish a person on earth. Mable had received one blessing from the Lord, but not two, and for that, she was angry.

A Saved By Grace Legalist

This discussion is more than a slight theological misstep. It was Mable’s point of departure that fueled her decision-making. Her solution to this problem was if she did good things, maybe the Lord would change His mind about her suffering. “If He sends people to heaven or hell, He may choose to help me by healing me.”

Mable became a “saved by grace legalist.” She knew she did not earn her spot in heaven, but Mable wanted to do all she could not to mess up the possibility of winning the Lord’s good smile for her earthly life. Therefore, she tried to do all the right things, which meant she strived to live a perfect life.

She viewed life in a similar way in which Job did. He tried to be super-good, even to the point of making sacrifices for his children, hoping to earn the Lord’s good favor.

And when the days of the feast had run their course, Job would send and consecrate (his children), and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all. For Job said, “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” Thus Job did continually. – Job 1:5

Mable, in a sense, was a modern-day Job: a person who connected behavior to tragedy, which was the downfall of Job and the major correction the Lord brought into his life (Job 38:1-5). God saves us by His grace, and we live by His grace. Our good works do not merit us anything in this life or the life to come.

Mable was not convinced because God did send people to hell, even good people according to her view. Mable was in a high stakes chess match with the Lord. She was doing all she could to make sure she did not earn His disfavor. Her “unspoken theology” was good works equal good results.

The bad news was that Mable could not be perfect. She failed many times as sin took its periodic toll on her, which led her to despair and even more sinning. The cycle went this way:

  • She could not be perfect.
  • She failed.
  • She was despondent over her failure.
  • She would give up and binge sin.
  • She would “repent” and try to be perfect again.
  • She could not be perfect.

It was an ongoing cycle that kept her in perpetual depression, a loop that her poor theology fed. Interestingly, it was just one tiny thread in her theological fabric: the Lord sends people to hell. I have seen other “tiny theological strands” that have had a similar effect on people.

A Mean Father

The most common one is how an individual’s experience with their earthly father has determined their view of God the Father. Marge is my illustration for this one. She was reared by a distant dad, who only spoke when it was time to yell or slap the children because of their inconvenient mischievousness.

After Marge became a Christian in her early twenties, her dad had etched on her mind what a father is like in practice. While everybody was celebrating her new faith, there was a dark storyline that laced and entangled her thinking.

She was one of those “saved by grace Christian legalists.” If you asked her if she merited (worked for) her salvation, she would give you the right theological answer. There is a difference between a person’s knowledge of theology and their practical theology.

Marge spiraled in and out of depression because she was not sure of the Lord’s good thoughts and intentions toward her. She was like Mable–different story, but the same song.

  • Mable – If God will send people to hell, why wouldn’t He allow bad things to happen to me.
  • Marge – If my earthly father was mean as a snake, why wouldn’t God the Father also be mean.

These are logical arguments that make sense, and if left unchallenged, this small theological tributary will roll into a large river that will flood a person’s life. You must do two essential things to get to the hearts of people like Mable and Marge.

Observe Their Lives

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. – 1 Corinthians 10:13

The grace of God was not working for Mable and Marge. The Lord gives us stabilizing power that makes His children even-keeled. When our lives are more cyclic than linear, there is something wrong with our theology. That is your first clue.

The Lord gives us a way to escape the temptations that can so easily ensnare us, but if we are not regularly avoiding, but consistently falling into snares, the first place to look is our theology. There is something wrong with how we think about and respond to God.

Observe Their Theology

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. – James 1:5-8

Our lives reveal our souls (Luke 6:45). If you are observing unstable behavior, look deeper. What you are going to find are theological entanglements. James said the unstable person lacks wisdom from the Lord. This truth created a problem for Mable and Marge.

They were not able to run to God and jump into His lap because they were afraid of Him. The person they needed to go toward to untangle their theology so they could restore their relationship with Him was the person they feared engaging.

  • Mable believed the Lord sends people to hell. So she walked around on eggshells, always hoping to please Him, but still failing. Thus, she lived in perpetual discouragement or depression.
  • Marge believed the Lord was temperamental and angry. So any false step from her would incur His wrath. She, like Mable, failed many times. Thus she lived under a cloud of His perpetual displeasure.

Both of them were believers who did not believe the Lord. I call this the unbelieving believer tension in the soul, as seen in Mark 9:24.

Preach the Gospel

The gospel is always counterintuitive to our thinking, which is why it does not come to mind as quick as or the way it should. This puzzle was a problem for Mable and Marge. They were using logic, but not “gospel logic.” The gospel, at least at first glance and without a biblical filter, is not logical.

With the gospel in view, they could see how the path to freedom begins with a painful acknowledgment. For Mable, the response is that God does not send people to hell, but people choose hell by rejecting Him. The Lord, in His mercy, is rescuing sinner after sinner by picking them off the path to destruction.

It is us who choose; it is Him who rescues. God is a rescuing God, not a punishing God. This worldview is also the same for Marge. Her dad was her version of hell that she was living, but God chose to pick her out of her destruction and give her a new Father—a loving one.

Here is the hard part of what they must acknowledge and accept: both of them deserved hell, and if it were not for the saving, loving, merciful, and interrupting grace of God, they would have never experienced a divine rescue.

It is when we think we deserve better than what we are experiencing that our souls dip to depressing places, and that kind of thinking is a deeply rooted theological problem that each of us needs to rethink. Mable and Marge need to find a community that is willing and able to come alongside them to begin the theological untangling of their souls.

Call to Action

  1. Step One – Rethink the gospel and how it applies to you. Untangle poor theology.
  2. Step Two – Do not do this alone. Find a caring community that will help you.
  3. Step Three – Make Psalm 40:1-3 your song.
  4. Step Four – Commit to and trust this process.

I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD.

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