On Legalism and Why I Haven’t Written About it

by | Oct 5, 2015 | 31 Letters from London

This is day six of a new series: 31 Letters from London. In October, I’m doing something a little different and writing to you about the realities of life as an expat; finding the nearness of God through random experiences with new culture. It’s important to begin here and find the collection of letters here. (This letter was written a month ago.) We’re breaking for Sabbath every Sunday.


Hello Friend,

I woke up before sunrise to ride the underground with my daughter to Heathrow Airport. She flew back to the United States yesterday after a month here in London. I’m okay. I haven’t cried. Yet.

The thud-thud-thud of the wheels (and thank God for that invention!) from her two suitcases cracked through the stillness of our neighborhood when we left the house in the dark. We walked silently for about 10 minutes, the air thick with fresh mercy.

Quietness from a vacancy of people in an urban city feels holy, other worldly, and enticing. It’s one of the most surprising things about living here – how a bustling city goes silent by choice.

There is a new chill in the air and grass is carpeted with leaf litter. Autumn is slowly revealing herself. I’ve been thinking and writing about commuting inward a lot lately.

With suitcases parked in front of our kneecaps, the sway of the train makes us and several passengers sleepy. The more strangers fill in empty seats, the less self-conscious you become to the people around you. I’m always amazed how a person’s head hangs over his lap in sound sleep yet manages to wake up at the right stop.

People don’t talk while they commute but a smile goes a long way in communicating. Ear buds and headphones are a lucrative business here.

As we walk through terminal 3 on electric walkways, a Hasidic Jew wearing traditional side curls (payot) hanging below his shoulders and a black hat, he breezes past us on foot. When I see him, I have two thoughts.

My mother used to give me banana curls when I was little and they took forever to create. I am curious how long it takes him to get ready in the morning. I know: random.

And . . . I wonder what he would think about the book I’m writing on Sabbath.


The Sabbath Society isn’t founded on the mitzvoth lo ta’aseh, the cornerstone of Jewish Sabbath in prohibition of work based on Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. We don’t tease out the 39 categories of activities to be avoided on Shabbat with their implications.

If he was truly devout then I wouldn’t expect him to judge me or throw stones just because I don’t live out my faith in a similar fashion.

But for some of us, Sabbath is associated with the ugliness of legalism, a justification of thou shalt nots. I know this because I get asked questions about it every time I speak.

How do you Sabbath? I know it’s really a probing question about my beliefs.

When I convey freedom in Christ through resurrection, an immediate change in physicality tells me that my answer is one giant relief.

For many, the Sabbath Society is an exhale of permission to rest without jumping through hoops. Kind of like napping on the train among strangers; you have freedom to be yourself.

I haven’t talked about the way legalism effects our perceptions of Sabbath much here but I am dedicating a chapter to it in the book I’m writing.

Does legalism in your past affect the way you Sabbath now? I’d love to hear your feedback about this. Write me back in the comments.

With love,



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  1. Celeste

    I grew up in a family where everything was in place, a place for everything. Since partnering in the society I feel like i am taking baby steps. I recall one weekend where I left dishes in the sink. Every time I walked into the kitchen I had an internal dialogue running in my head.
    This is not how you run a house….this is lazy, this is not right….yada, yada, yada.
    I wasn’t born into a Bible believing home. Christianity came along by the time I was 12.
    Well meaning, church going folk had rules for what it meant to be a “good Christian”.
    More rules heaped upon rules.
    Years later I am still learning about Grace.
    For me it is a daily laying down.

  2. Lynn D. Morrissey

    I remember reading this before, but never commented, because I don’t think I was raised recognizing a legalistic Sabbath. But upon reading this again, I “commuted inwardly” and wondered: How am *I* personally legalistic. It’s a good question to pose to myself, and I want to reflect upon it further, inwardly . . . but just at a quick inward glance, I know sometimes I superimpose my moralistic beliefs on how I think Christians *should* behave, how they *should* worship, how they *should* dress, and I stand convicted. I want God’s grace rhythms of Sabbath to permeate my song all week long. I want to live in the atmosphere of grace on Sunday and everyday. Thank you for making me think, Shelly.

  3. Megan Willome

    After your recent encouragement, I am sticking with my renewed commitment to Sabbath. It was never legalistic before, and it still isn’t now. As you know, legalism wasn’t why I stopped. It’s been nice to find that the old rhythm is still there.

  4. Devi Duerrmeier

    I suppose my background had some legalism in it, but hardly any related to sabbath keeping, so I feel free approaching sabbath. I love your note about the wheels on the pavement. I still remember the wheels of my red suitcase clackety clacking along in Watford (just outside London) when I was traveling around the world six years ago.

  5. Leah

    This post reminds me of an incident that happened a few weekends ago: the worship director at our church stopped by our house just to say hello when he saw us sitting on our porch steps. He asked casually if we were out of town tomorrow, since my husband who plays on the worship team has to let him know if he will be absent on a Sunday. I knew Tim was thinking about slipping in the quick, easy white lie, “yeah, out of town, family” {So easy and not terrible really}. But I don’t give my husband an inch! “Nope” I answered quickly, “just going apple picking with the girls. It has been a couple of difficult weeks and we could use the down time and rest” He was gracious, but it made my husband uncomfortable, like being exposed as being bad or something. I told him later that Marty {the worship director} has lost a wife to cancer and has estranged relationships with some of his older children and yet still praises The Lord every Sunday anyway. You could not have narrow, rule- keeping faith and still do that. So relax babe! To me, that is Sabbath.

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