Somewhere Between a Mess and a Legalist

After my first daughter was born, I started to devour Christian parenting books. At first, I was super excited. Each book fueled the dreams I had of the blissful journey of parenting and how my husband and I would train our children, and they in turn, would be everything the book said they would be. It wasn't too many years, however, before I began to realize that this approach wasn’t working.

The books seemed to say that if I just parented this way, then my children would turn out to be sweet, quiet, obedient, and happy. But I wasn't able to stay consistently gentle and firm and diligent with my kids, and they certainly weren't consistently responding to my efforts by obeying me all the way, right away, and with a happy heart. Something was wrong, and it was obviously me. If I were just a better mom, we’d look just like the family in the book. I'd buckle down and try harder, try a new book or new method, only to get frustrated again when my own sin or my children’s sin messed it all up again.

I stayed in that cycle for several years until God brought some good, solid teachers and authors across my path and I learned so much more about the concept of grace than I’d ever imagined. Gradually, with much time and preaching to myself—as well as returning to the Scriptures—I began to understand that neither my worth nor God’s love depend on my performance.

Then one year I went to a women’s conference that focused on parenting. The organizers must have noticed the same focus on legalism and performance of most parenting books, because they seemed determined to bring another message. The whole weekend was sprinkled with skits, videos, and messages of women telling story after story of their mom-failures.

At first, I appreciated the honesty and transparency. It was refreshing after so many years of feeling as if I didn’t measure up as a parent. But then I noticed the conference became a kind of competition of who was the worst mom, with an air of bragging about how much of a mess we all are.

This is true, of course. We’re all a mess. But the conference stopped there. Rather than the extreme of calling women to follow certain steps in order to be a good Christian and mom, the conference organizers went the opposite direction and claimed that we’re all failures—we just need to own it and be thankful for grace.

I left that conference feeling empty and dissatisfied. I already knew I was a mess and a failure as a mom in many ways. And while I appreciated not being held to an impossibly high standard for successful Christian parenting, I also knew that acknowledging my mess alone wasn’t the answer. I felt like I had crawled out of one ditch only to cross the road and fall into the ditch on the other side.

The women to whom we minister need hope. But that hope won’t be found if all we give them are legalistic standards for being a Christian that they will never be able to keep. Nor will it be found if we simply encourage them to confess their mess and never offer any reason or practical help to straighten things up. We must help them find a place to thrive that’s somewhere in the middle.

Point Them Back to Grace

True salvation is found when we realize there is absolutely no way we can be saved from the wages of sin apart from Christ. We’re simply not good enough nor can we ever be good enough to save ourselves. We need to throw ourselves upon the righteousness of Christ and place all our trust and hope in Him alone.

As followers of Christ, we understand this. However, I’m afraid that far too often we subconsciously believe His grace is enough for our initial salvation, but after that, we have to achieve holiness on our own merits.

At least this was true for me. I failed to see the abundant grace that is mine every day as I stumble along the path of the Christian life. I trusted in God’s grace for my justification, but I thought my sanctification was all up to me, and He wouldn’t be happy with me if I didn’t measure up.

We must be extremely careful not to perpetuate this message. I’ve talked with many women who have fallen into this same pit, which is a difficult one to climb out of. Countless Christian women are walking around today feeling like God is mad at them because they’ve failed to fulfill what they believe are the requirements for Christian success.

Oh, how they need to hear that God’s grace doesn't stop at the moment of salvation! They need to believe that because they are in Christ, God will never be angry with them and He is completely satisfied with them. They need to hear our own authentic stories of how we have failed to measure up and how God’s grace was sufficient. They need to be taught to breathe His grace in every minute of the day and to rest in the joy of knowing His grace is enough to fill in the gaps between their meager efforts and His perfect standard.

There are so many promises of God’s sufficient grace in Scripture. Here are two:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me (2 Cor. 12:9).

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? . . .Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. . . . For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:31, 33–34, 38–39).

We will naturally, in the course of our ministries, challenge women to faithfully keep the spiritual disciplines. This is right and necessary. Regular time in the Word, consistent prayer, evangelism, being faithful to Scripture in the current season of life, striving for holiness—these are all things we need to stress as crucial to the Christian life. That’s discipleship, after all. However, let’s never err on the side of calling women to these disciplines without reminding them of the grace that is theirs when they fall short and that God’s love for them is never dependent on their own performance.

Call Them to Holiness

However, as dangerous as it is to call women to a standard of Christian living without pointing them toward God’s grace, it is just as dangerous to show them the grace that is theirs and let them think it’s acceptable to remain where they are. There is so much more grace than any of us probably realize, but it does not mean anything goes. Grace does not mean everything is acceptable, that holiness doesn't matter.

We do those in our ministry no favors by neglecting to call them to holiness. Scripture calls us to disciple and teach and train, not to simply say, “Yes, you’re a mess but I am, too, and God loves us anyway so don’t worry about it!” It’s good for us to share our own stories, to be honest about our shortcomings and weaknesses so that women see they aren’t the only ones who struggle. But we also need to share how we are still fighting that sin or fighting for more consistency in the Word and in the disciplines of the Christian life.

We will never achieve perfect holiness in this life. We’ll always be slipping and sliding our way up and down hills and valleys with varying degrees of progress. It’s important to be honest about that so women aren’t shocked when they stumble. However, it’s equally important to emphasize that the grace of God that covers our stumbles is not a free pass to quit trying to run.

Again, there are any number of Scriptures we can find that call us to holiness even in the midst of God’s grace. Let’s look at just a few:

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. . . . Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions (Rom. 6:1–4, 12).

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:12–14).

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:14–16).

The call to holiness is clear in Scripture. The abundance of grace that is ours does not cancel this call. Yes, we are swimming in an ocean of grace that will never run dry, but it’s important to keep swimming. We’re not called to simply float, and it’s imperative that we don’t allow the women in our ministry to believe that remaining static is a healthy option for a Christian.

Somewhere In-Between

None of us are perfect. We are all, indeed, a mess. But we don’t have to stay where we are. In fact, we must not stay where we are!

The Christian life is a race to be run, a fight to be fought, full of work to be done. We have no room for a lazy acceptance of our imperfections, no room to embrace our mess like it’s some sort of badge of honor. On the other hand, we also have no room for Pharisaical rules and codes that have to be followed in order to be accepted by God or for any kind of ministry that makes honest confession of sin and weakness an impossibility.

Accept women in their mess, and then cheer them on as they begin to clean up. Show them the grace of God that’s available to the chief of sinners and then how that same grace enables them to walk in holiness instead of sin. Create an atmosphere of safe transparency, and then fill it with encouragement to put off the old man and put on the new.

We must help those in our ministry stay on the path without falling into the ditch of legalism on one side or the ditch of cheap grace on the other. As we press forward on our journey, and lead others to do the same, may we all strive to remain somewhere between a legalist and a mess.

This week, take an honest look at your own heart and ministry. Do you find yourself drifting toward one of the ditches? Then spend time in prayer and honest reflection, asking God to help you avoid both of these extremes.

About the Author

Monica Hall

Monica Hall is a pastor's wife and mom of six in West Kentucky. She spends her days homeschooling and chauffeuring her kiddos, dreaming up family road trips, and curling up with a good book. She loves talking with women, sharing how Jesus has transformed her heart, and finding encouragement and laughter for the journey.

Contact Monica at