Genesis 3:2-3 The woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’”
When I was growing up, building moral fences was seen as a solid defensive strategy against temptation. If God forbade a certain behavior, then not only should we avoid it, but we should stay as far away as possible. Since drunkenness is a sin, we should not drink any alcohol… or have it in the house… or have friends that drink. God says, “”Don’t eat,” and Eve adds, “Don’t even touch.”
When one’s moral strategy focuses on the defensive—safe-guarding, self-protection, strictness of rules—then the positive nature of our spiritual lives shrinks. We become legalistic, we respond more from fear than joy, and oddly we become more vulnerable to temptation because we live in an environment of self-induced deprivation. We rewire our consciences to feel guilty for innocent acts that suddenly make us law-breakers in our own minds. The pleasure drive kicks in fiercely as a reaction to our tightly restricted morality, and since we’ve already lost our innocence, why hold back? We crumble like strict dieters who take one bite of a glazed donut. As Paul taught, legalism breeds sin.
But the tragedy of legalism even extends to those who manage to keep their self-imposed rules because it constricts spirituality and growth and creates a false sense of righteousness. If we find security in a corral mentality, we will never venture out onto the trail. We will feel content circling the same spiritual ground over and over, happy in our well-maintained obedience like a pianist who gets better and better at playing Chopsticks. Growth is not about becoming more and more settled into our old ways, but in challenging our old ways. Growth always brings change.