Finding Grace within the Walls of Legalism

The creativity of God knows no bounds.

He leaned back in his chair, its squeak distracting him from what he wanted to say. He leaned forward, his hands folded on his desk next to his little sign: President So And So. He was that important, I don’t even remember his name.

Gosh this is formal, I thought.

“Well Janell, I called you in here because I’m concerned about what kind of Bible you’re using.”

Oh. Right. This again.

Fresh out of my private Christian high school in the fall of 2001, I willingly and knowingly admitted myself into an Independent Fundamental Baptist college. Independent and Fundamental, two words that should never go together. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It was cheap. My friends were going there. It’s in California! They had a great music program. So I went. I said goodbye to my pants and any music where the beats fell on one and three, donned some killer jean skirts, and smuggled in my (New) King James Bible.

In one of my Bible classes, I read a passage from my Bible out loud. This was it, I thought. Let’s see if they’ll notice. Let’s see how big of a deal this King James Only thing really is. There was an awkward silence when I was done. Shifty eyes. The girl sitting next to me with her perfect hair and makeup and eyes that said, “I can’t believe you just did that.”

“Thank you Janell,” the teacher said, and went rambling on about how Jesus didn’t really turn water into wine. He turned it into grape juice.

President So and So continued, “It’s come to my attention that you don’t have a King James Version Bible.”

“Oh! Yeah I have a New King James Version. I’ve had it since I was a kid and I’d rather keep it if that’s alright with you. Aren’t they pretty much the same?” I replied innocently.

“Well not really. You see, we believe that the 1611 King James Version is the preserved and infallible Word of God. We just want to make sure you’re hearing God correctly.”

He said this with so much sincerity and conviction I thought he might as well be the Pope arguing the Vatican I over Vatican II.

Oh he’s not kidding, I thought.

“We have a lovely bookstore downstairs. There’s a few you can choose from.” he said.

“Well I don’t have any money.”

“I’ll tell ya what,” he said as he reached into his pocket and pulled out two twenty-dollar bills. “I’d be happy to pay for it.”

“Oh gosh, that’s so nice of you.” I barely reached over his desk as I took the money from him.

The bookstore smelled nothing of books or learning. Its back-lit glass shelves held books so pristine that if questioned too much, they wouldn’t be worthy of the glass shelves. These were reverent books. To be respected, honored and obeyed; doubt and wrestling with the text was never an option. I reached up and grabbed a thin, navy blue KJV Bible. I skimmed through its stiff pages, not even focusing on any of the words. I smiled and gave the cashier college girl President So and So’s money and kept the change. That Bible went on the bookshelf in my dorm room and that’s where it stayed. Sometimes I would pull it down out of guilt, but inevitably I always put it back.


I had never wrestled with feelings of guilt as much as I did over those nine months at that college. I see the guilt now as a nudge of God’s grace.

Something that gnawed away from within me, from within that place. Always birthing condemnation, never a gift of God’s grace in sight. A veneer so shiny and thick, layered over so much shame. Smiles of polished white teeth. Sing to the Lord! Hands lifted high while passing the offering plate three times during a service, morning and evening, and Wednesday nights too. And on the seventh day they did not rest. Permission slips for this and that. Am I wearing something that could make a man lust? Don’t go to the movies. What if someone sees you? They don’t know what you’re there to see. We must be above reproach at all times.

More, more, more! Are we doing enough for Jesus? It’s as if they were asking, “How could we ever repay you, God? We just feel so guilty all the time.” As it turns out, it was never enough. Like a story straight out of the Old Testament, the rules revealed once again that we were never enough.

Behind closed doors in the girl’s dorm rooms were the secret places of grace. There was laughter and tears, stories were told and hands were held with understanding, confessions were whispered in the night. Within those dorm rooms, there was room to breathe. We could hear our own sighs. And find a way out. In a laugh, a hug, a knowing look, a note from a friend. Sneaking in food and (gasp!) Ocean’s 11 and Tracy Chapman. Processing the news of 9/11. Repressed anger, depression, shame, regret. In a place that snuffs it out, grace can seem like you’re breaking the rules

Removing the yoke of perfection and slipping into the easy yoke of Jesus, there was space and room to breathe. There’s always a way to break the law, but is there ever a way to escape grace?

At the time, I had no idea how deep the roots of legalism can run. This college was just a tip of the iceberg. How could this be a place that loved Jesus? I was so confused. They preached Christ crucified like it was the end of the world, yet without hope. Somehow there was a disconnect between what they believed and how they lived.

For by grace we are saved. But instead of walking by faith in the grace received, it’s tempting to say, Thanks God, I can take it from here. And before we know it, in our own blindness, we’ve gone ahead and done the very thing that Paul says means nothing in Ephesians 2:8-9. Boasting of our works and lifestyle, putting all the weight of glory back on ourselves, instead of reflecting back to Christ. Within the reflection of Christ, there is room for us to flourish. Room for mercy and room to be, well, human.

Without the space to allow that goodness to grow, we were told to deny ourselves and follow Christ. What self? How can I deny myself if I don’t even know who I am? All the air had been sucked out, barely anyone alive. If I stayed much longer, I worried the voice of Jesus might become quieter and quieter.

Ironically, it was at this independent, fundamentalist college where I learned what grace actually felt like. When you live in a world of transactional love, one-way love can feel too good to be true. But when we start to see the effects of this one-way love that Jesus offers, we can say, It is true because it’s real. All the fruits of the Spirit start blooming and growing within us, reforming us for the sake of others. Even within the walls of Legalism, the Spirit of God is roaming that fallen garden, asking, Where are you?

The creativity of God knows no bounds. And thankfully, neither does our longing. Grace can come in any number of ways. The best ways bring a smile and surprise, a laugh or a tear. St. Augustine says that there are always “tremors of bliss, a wink of heaven and a whisper.” Or grace can come disguised as a legalistic college.

It took me a long time to not regret my time at that college. Anger and hurt and confusion morphed into sadness. Sadness gave way to the language of lament. Grief, confession, and hope, all shared within the bridegroom, Christ’s church, learning the sound of His voice. What people use in their self-righteousness and short-sightedness, God is always there to pick us up out of our rubble and show us a better way. He retells our stories and makes them good. And one day, we’ll look back at our stories and shake our heads in wonder. God was there all along.

subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


10 responses to “Finding Grace within the Walls of Legalism”

  1. Wendy says:

    Good article . God’s grace is sufficient

  2. Ashley Larkin says:

    The secret places of grace, the sadness that gives way to the language of lament. Praise be! Janell, what a beautiful story of the unexpected goodness of God!

  3. Connie Meyerdierk says:

    “He retells our stories and makes them good. And one day, we’ll look back at our stories and shake our heads in wonder. God was there all along.”
    Amen! Beautifully said Janell ❤️

  4. Alexa Mason says:

    Oh so beautiful. Thank you for these words and the reminder that even in the places you least suspect, God’s grace is there. Thank you for this. I only hope for more articles from you, so powerful!

  5. Jenni Severson says:

    Beautiful Janelle. Grace always comes. God breaks through in the most unexpected places indeed! Thank you.

  6. Joshua Retterer says:

    Great piece!

  7. E Nash says:

    Proof-testing! What a beautiful way to learn what grace really is, by having its opposite drawn so powerfully.

  8. David Zahl says:

    Love this so much, Janell!

  9. Angela Gardner says:

    Wonderful, thought provoking piece!

  10. Andrea Lucero says:

    Praise God – He is ALWAYS furthering His kingdom and in His infinite wisdom and grace allows us to participate. I often pray that He open my eyes to see His marvelous works so that I may therein know him deeper. So thankful that it isn’t up to us…He is holding us all the way preserving us for the long haul. Thanks for sharing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *