Reins of Legalism

our family riding horses

Riding with family

When I first started riding horseback, I viewed the reins as the controls used for steering and stopping the horse.  To steer the horse one moved the reins to right or left, much like the steering wheel of a car.  To stop the horse one pulled back on the reins much like the brake of a car.

Funny thing though…the more I used the reins to steer…to control the horse’s direction…the more he tended to wander off from the direction I wanted him to go.  So, I had to correct.

It was sort of like driving a car in need of a front end alignment.  Get the horse pointed the desired direction and lower the reins.  The horse wanders to the right.  Use the reins to tug him back to the desired direction and lower the reins.  The horse wanders right, again.  Tug the reins to the left of the desired direction.  He drifts right, again.

I decided the problem was too much slack in the reins.  I would have to take tighter control to keep him from wandering off.  When the steering mechanism has too much slack, make adjustments to remove the slack, right?

So, I shortened my grip on the reins and rode with both hands rigidly holding the horse’s head position.  The horse stayed on track.  Problem solved!

Except for one little problem…

I could only be confident of holding our direction by rigidly holding the reins in position.  Micro-managing the horse’s every move does not make for a relaxing ride.  Both horse and rider have more tension and stress than necessary.  Watching more experienced riders I could see they were much more relaxed and usually rode with a loose rein.

“Maybe it’s just a matter of time,” I thought.  “I have to keep tight control for a while to let the horse know I’m boss, then I’ll be able to loosen the rein a little.”  But every time I loosened the rein, the horse started wandering off track again.

Then I started riding a horse trained to foot prompts that had not yet learned neck reining.  That was even worse!  I fumbled to remember the foot prompts…the horse over-responded…I over-compensated…and we zig-zagged along wherever I tried to go.  “Keep at it,” my trainer suggested, “You’ll get it figured out.”

It was horribly frustrating!  My horse and I could not walk a straight line.  I knew it was my fault but felt helpless to correct it.  The horse promptly over-responded to my every foot nudge just to have me immediately over-correct him back the other direction.

Finally, one day I made an amazing discovery.  Every time I turned my body at the waist my horse responded by going the direction I was turned.  “Hey, this is just like snow-skiing!” I thought, “Turn and look to change direction.”

That moment of epiphany, though just the beginning, became a major turning point in my understanding of horseback riding.

Today, I view my reins and boots not so much as a means to control the horse’s direction as a means of telegraphing my body language to the horse.  I see the horse not as a riding machine to be controlled, but as a partner to be communicated with.  I am still a very inexperienced rider, but the paradigm shift has definitely helped me progress.

Lately, I have thought about these riding-lesson truths while pondering Paul’s words about the roles of law and faith.

But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:23-26)

Scripture is to us as reins are to a horse. Click To Tweet

In early training, the reins are used to teach the horse to yield direction to the rider.  Later, the reins are still in place to serve a similar function.  However, as both horse and rider gain experience and trust, the reins are used less and less as a means of directing and more and more as a means of communicating.  For a very skilled rider on a superbly trained horse, the reins become superfluous and are no longer needed.

In the same way, as immature Christians we start out studying God’s word to learn how we are to behave, and we sometimes use scripture to micromanage one another’s lives.  One person finds a scripture indicating Jesus drank wine while another finds a scripture indicating alcohol consumption is to be avoided and they beat each other up with their disparate understandings of scripture.  But they are both showing their immaturity by missing the whole point.  Both are still viewing the reins (scripture) as being for the purpose of controlling behavior.  The real purpose is to facilitate communication…to lead us to Christ…to teach us of God’s heart…and to train us in understanding and following the Holy Spirit.

Following the law (as legalists), we hear of a fellow Christian going thru divorce and immediately feel the need to learn every detail of their very personal marital relationship so we can discern (judge) whether or not their divorce is biblically permissible (as legalistic a term as ever was) so we can provide sound biblical counsel (verbally beat them up) to aid them in their Christian walk (control their behavior).

Under grace, we simply ask how we can pray for them and what we can do to help, trusting that as mature Christians they are able to hear and follow the Holy Spirit’s leading in their personal lives.

See the difference?

In what areas have you learned to loosen your grip on the reins and trust God’s grace?


[Linked to Messy Marriage, Wild Flowers, Wellspring, Redeemed Life, Tell His Story ]


20 thoughts on “Reins of Legalism

  1. “The real purpose is to facilitate communication …” That is such a good truth, Joe. I love this analogy. I haven’t ridden a horse for a long time but your words bring back memories of how our bodies communicate with the animal’s. And how scary and uncomfortable it can be if we aren’t careful! Very good thoughts!
    laura recently posted…Playdates with God: Spirited AwayMy Profile

  2. I shared this on my FB wall, and it will be interesting to see what kind of responses I get.

    The whole issue of law vs. grace and how all “the rules” in Scripture should be applied is a tension within the church that will continue to spawn all types of battles. It is tough for us Christians to find the equilibrium between the seemingly opposing sides and to let God’s Spirit deal with each other on individual beliefs and behaviors. If I had a dollar for every argument I have seen over divorce, alcohol, tattoos, etc., I would truly be a rich man!

    When you lean toward grace, then you are accused of having a loose theology and not being faithful to Scripture. When you communicate the standards God has laid out in Scripture, you risk being called a pharisee. It just seems so tough to have the wisdom to know when to speak up and when to be silent and let God deal with His people without your help.

    • I agree, it is sometimes difficult discerning the best course of action in a given situation. I often find myself pondering John’s description of Jesus as ‘…full of grace and truth…’ while longing to learn to be full of both without yielding either.

      The more I read the gospels, though, the more I realize the only people-group among whom Jesus had no real ministry while on earth was the religious leaders of His day. And when Jesus did speak to the religious leaders it was usually to either deliver dire warnings or to point out the flaws in their legalistic approach to scripture.

      We are far closer to the heart of God when relying totally on His grace than when ferreting out supporting scripture to reinforce our pet legalistic perspectives.

      Thank you, Wendell…both for the insightful comment and for the FB repost. 🙂
      joe recently posted…Reins of LegalismMy Profile

  3. “I see the horse not as a riding machine to be controlled, but as a partner to be communicated with.”

    I’m not a horse-rider myself, but I get what you’re saying here, Joe, and I totally agree. Letting go of our legalism takes time—it doesn’t want to give up control—but it’s so worth it to trade it in for relationship.
    Lisa notes recently posted…Admit you don’t knowMy Profile

    • “Letting go of our legalism takes time—it doesn’t want to give up control—but it’s so worth it to trade it in for relationship.”

      Yes…we have a real bent toward legalism, don’t we? The hooks sink deep. Even in pursuing deeper relationship it is so easy to get sidetracked along a legalistic tangent.

      Thank you, Lisa!
      joe recently posted…Reins of LegalismMy Profile

  4. This is such a helpful analogy. I love this: “as both horse and rider gain experience and trust, the reins are used less and less as a means of directing and more and more as a means of communicating” I think it’s the same with learning a lot of things- it’s more mechanical to start with, then with experience we can rely more on instinct and it comes more naturally.

    • That a great point, Carly! New things do tend to always be mechanical and awkward at first…and we do tend to be very rule-oriented in any new endeavor we are trying to master.

      With maturity and experience we grow past that stage.

      Thanks for sharing!
      joe recently posted…Reins of LegalismMy Profile

  5. This is a great metaphor for legalism, Joe. I don’t know much about horseback riding, though I feel as if I’m being tutored here a bit! But I do know that I’m guilty of legalism at times and have been negatively impacted by it quite a bit as well. It’s always easier to see it when others are doing it to me! ha! In fact, there is someone in my life that has taken this stiff approach to leading (not my hubby) and I do wish he would learn to lean in to the Holy Spirit rather than relying on a legalistic tight rein or painful kick here and there. Thanks for the insightful words, my friend!
    Beth recently posted…Comment on New Mind, New Marriage And WW Linkup by JosephPoteMy Profile

    • Yes…the tight rein and spur kicks get old quickly, don’t they? They tug us first one way and then the other, never allowing us to get comfortable or to become a part of the decision-making process.

      God’s way is much better…drawing us into Himself and leading us thru the guiding of the Holy Spirit.

      Thank you, Beth!
      joe recently posted…Reins of LegalismMy Profile

    • Yes, good point, Kelly.

      Rules are necessary when raising children, but by the time they mature to adulthood they are no longer rules. Hopefully, they have become guiding principles grounded in the personhood of Jesus Christ.

      joe recently posted…Reins of LegalismMy Profile

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