Shiny Happy Childhood – Legalism

My family going for a hike in 1977

This blog series is about my reactions to the documentary series “Shiny Happy People.”

Post 1 “Background” explains why the documentary struck so close to home.
Post 2 “Authority” talks about the authoritarian teachings of Bill Gothard and how those affected my life later.
Post 3 “Spanking” works through why I was so horrified when reminded of that “spare the rod, spoil the child” teaching.

Today I’m going to talk about what that all adds up to – legalism.

When one of my brothers read my post about spanking, he said (among other things), “Mom was always the type that latches onto extreme rules to basically avoid having to ever use discernment.”

But that basically describes what Bill Gothard’s “Basic Life Principles” was going for — He pulled “principles” from the Bible so that you didn’t have to. From the documentary, he got more and more and more specific as the years went on about how you should live your life.

Now, as far as I’m concerned, the best thing that our family got from those seminars was the idea to memorize whole chapters of the Bible. My parents started with specific challenges – for example, $5.00 if we could memorize Hebrews 11 — and eventually my Mom made a whole system of paying us 10 cents per verse to say a chapter word perfect, and then 5 cents a verse to review a chapter as long as it had been a month since we’d recited it the last time.

So — that was much more fun than doing housework for money — so I started working hard at memorizing, and eventually have memorized (a chapter at a time) the entire New Testament, Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, and more. (If you want to know more about that, check these posts: Memorizing Scripture and Three Tips for Memorizing Scripture.)

Now, I’ll talk about the good side of that in a minute — it was an overwhelmingly good thing in my life, because despite the fact I was doing it for money, the Bible got into my heart.

The down side? I, too, really like having a list of rules to follow instead of having to exercise discernment. I like doing things to show I’m a good person and a good Christian. Memorizing Scripture was one more thing I could do to be impressively good. And bonus: I went to Christian schools for third grade through college, and it was a big advantage for getting good grades in Bible class!

So yes, I was a very legalistic little kid — and that’s what I still have to push myself against.

Bill Gothard’s rules had a big attraction for me.

The biggest comeuppance was when I filed for divorce after my husband had an affair and left me. I had promised my kids, thinking I could make that promise, that their parents would never get divorced. And that was a big rule that I was proud I wouldn’t break.

But of course there were other things. As I said in the other post, Jesus switched from a long list of commands to a command that sums them all up and is far more nuanced: “Love one another as I have loved you.” And the apostle Paul said that’s a continuing debt — we can never be proud because we’re so good at loving people, because there’s always more love we can give.

Anyway, the good side of memorizing all that Scripture was that it backfired. Once I knew very well what the Bible said, I was no longer willing to take an authority figure’s word for it.

I memorized John 9 in I think 7th grade. Jesus heals a man blind from birth. The Pharisees explain to the man who was healed that they know Jesus is not from God because he didn’t keep the Sabbath. The blind man responded that he didn’t know anything about that — he just knows that he was blind, but now he sees!

Even in 7th grade, I realized this was an example of the Pharisees proving from Scripture — their interpretation of Scripture — that Jesus was not from God.

I began to notice that the chart of the “End Times” on the wall at church wasn’t found in the Bible. Or when our church passed out political “scorecards” showing if representatives voted for “Biblical” values — I could say with confidence that those were definitely not necessarily Biblical values, because I knew what the Bible says.

Someone once said they were surprised I hadn’t left the church altogether when I left a church that asserted that LGBTQ people are sinning. But the thing was, I knew the Bible says absolutely nothing in condemnation of transgender people, and for the rest of the LGBTQ folks, it’s a matter of interpretation – and an interpretation I don’t agree with. (If you wonder about that, check out my “Transcending” blog series I wrote at the time.)

I had confidence in coming to God without an “authority” figure between me and God because I know and love the Bible. All that memorizing plus years of Bible classes, and the Lord still has plenty to teach me, but I’m no longer a good candidate for authoritarian teachings.

And there was one last thing that I want to think about from the documentary. Thoughts about Forgiveness and the “Root of Bitterness” and God working things out for good. Some of this is from the documentary and some from my memory.

What I remember is that the seminars gave me a strong confidence that God works all things together for good. I don’t think I absorbed the toxic part about if something bad happens, you must have gotten out from authority and there are holes in your umbrella leaving you open to Satanic attack.

The part I absorbed is maybe when something bad happens to you, it helps you become mighty in spirit. Or some other reason that God will bring good out of the situation.

I still believe this. And yes, knowing that God will bring good out of even bad things can help you forgive. Dr. Fred Luskin, without mentioning God, says in his book Forgive for Good that when your life is going well, it’s easier to forgive. For example, when I got on the Newbery committee and realized that my entire librarian career wouldn’t have happened if my husband hadn’t left me, it’s a lot easier to stop resenting him for doing that. I’m happy! It all turned out good. But I am speaking from many years later.

I also remember that Gothard preached that a “Root of Bitterness” is a terrible sin that will poison your life. Today, I would call it “chronic resentment” — terminology I got from reading a wonderful book by Steven Stosny, Love Without Hurt. But I also believe it will poison your life.

However, it looks like Gothard teaches you must forgive immediately. Women must stay with abusive husbands. God will bring good out of it, so is it really so bad?

I believe that teaching is toxic. Just because God can bring good out of bad things doesn’t mean those things are not bad. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt when they happen to you.

When my husband left me, I thought divorce was wrong and I tried to pray him back. So he tried harder and harder to convince me our marriage was over. I wanted to shine by showing him love — and I think I was somehow trying to pre-forgive him. It seemed like if I was going to forgive him — and that was my plan — it shouldn’t hurt when he said cruel things.

Spoiler alert: It hurt like crazy! I needed to stop putting myself in the way of his anger.

But memorizing helped me there, too. Look at Psalms! There are more Laments in Psalms than any other type of Psalm. (And check my post on writing your own lament.) The psalmists whine and complain about what they’re going through. Then they remember that they’re trusting God and ask God to bring them through — but they don’t ever pretend that it’s easy.

Look at the beginning of Psalms, the first Lament, Psalm 3, first verse:

Lord, how many are my foes!
How many rise up against me!
Many are saying of me,
“God will not deliver him.”

Yes, forgiveness is something to work toward. But forgiveness isn’t denial that anything bad ever happened. And it doesn’t mean you have to put yourself in the path of more abuse. And it doesn’t mean that if there’s grounds for a court case against someone that you should drop charges. And it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get a share of your military ex-husband’s retirement. (To use a personal example.)

Now, in my case thinking of Bill Gothard, thinking of the mistakes my parents made when following his teaching — I’m long past the consequences of that, so it feels like I don’t really need to deal with forgiveness at this point.

So what am I trying to do with this series? I’m looking back as a fairly objective adult and saying: Yes, those teachings affected my life. In a few good ways and in many bad ways. It’s opening my eyes to fundamental ideas that I once took for granted and helping me shine light on them and challenge those ideas.

And my heart goes out to everyone interviewed in the documentary and everyone who was much more involved in IBLP than I ever was, with a whole lot more baggage to unpack. May you know the truth, and may the truth make you free.

Comments? Questions? I think I’m done with this blog series — unless there’s more people would like to talk about.

And if you’d like to read more of my writing:

Here’s a landing page for Project 52, written the year I was 52 and posted each week about one year of my life. That page isn’t complete, so you can also read the blog posts – but they’ll be listed in backwards order.

Praying with the Psalmists is the title of the book I’ve written about how to use patterns from Psalms in your own prayers (not published yet) – and also the title of the blog series with example psalms. And I’d love to get examples from readers in the comments.

Transcending is my blog series about why churches should affirm transgender people.

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament is a series showing how the New Testament can be read from a universalist perspective – and it actually makes a lot more sense (in my opinion).

Sonderquotes is my blog of quotes from good books (mostly Christian ones) that I’m reading. is my main site of book reviews — all ages, all subjects.

And finally, I’ve got a free substack, Sondermusings, where I’m gathering my Christian writing — blog posts, quotes, and reviews.

Thank you for reading my thoughts!

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