Ben Stiller, rules and religion, and Christ

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In an interview this weekend in Parade magazine, actor and comedian, Ben Stiller, (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Zoolander, Zoolander No. 2, Night at the Museum) made a quotable quote about religion. Most of the article was devoted to his mother, who recently passed away, and her effect on his life. He grew up in a religiously split household; his mother was Catholic; his father is Jewish. When asked if it was difficult growing up in a family with two religions, Ben said it wasn’t, because those two religions actually share a lot in common. When the interviewer probed further into what that might be, Ben replied, “Rules and guilt.”

Well that pretty much nails it, doesn’t it? Just about everybody’s religious experience in two words: rules and guilt. And it’s not just Jews and Catholics, it’s Baptists and Pentecostals and Presbyterians and independent Bible church people — mostly all evangelicals. People who should be experiencing the grace of God and freedom in Christ are still experiencing rules and guilt. Jews have to keep sacrificing to cover their guilt; Catholics have to keep confessing to do the same; and evangelicals have to keep going to church or singing in the worship band or tithing or serving in some capacity in order to cover their guilt. It’s a vicious cycle: you try to follow the rules; you blow it; you feel guilty; you try harder to follow the rules to cover the guilt; you blow it again; you feel even more guilty. And all the enemy has to do to keep us trapped in this cycle is step in every once in a while and impress upon our conscience: “There you go; you did it again.”

Here’s the problem: we may even have the words of grace and forgiveness, and be able to understand the concepts — even teach them (that’s me) — and still, in our inner self, be operating on rules and guilt (that’s me, too). That’s because rules and guilt are built into us. They a critical part of our human DNA.

To be sure, rules and guilt are both good. Rules are important to show us what is expected of us, and guilt is important because it is the conscience that let’s us know we’re blowing it, but that’s as far as either one of these go. The law is good, it’s just not going to make anybody good. Guilt is an important warning, like a Wrong Way sign on a oneway street, it just doesn’t show you where the right way is or how to get there.

We need a complete redo. It’s the only way out of this mess. It’s what Jesus meant when He said “You must be born again.” You must start over. You must because “That which is born of the flesh is flesh” (rules and guilt); “that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit” (a new Spirit, a new mind, a new self)(John 3:6). You can’t follow Christ with the old self. The new self is born in us by God. It’s His righteousness, His goodness, His faith, His mind. We literally become a new person, and that new person has nothing to do with rules and guilt. It has everything to do with grace and forgiveness and the Spirit of God making us new.

To be sure, we still have to carry around that old self. That’s the bummer. It’s what we walk around in — what Paul calls this “body of death.” It’s still there, we have to just stop listening to it, and listen to the Spirit instead. The Spirit is constantly reminding us of who we are in Christ and what our resources are in the Spirit.

Christianity is all about Christ, and Christ came to follow the rules for us and remove the guilt of sin from us forever. That’s the good news we walk in, not the old news of rules and guilt.

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12 Responses to Ben Stiller, rules and religion, and Christ

  1. Mark Seguin says:

    Almost as I began reading today’s Catch, yesterday’s pop in my mind: One of my fav verses: “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1)” Amen!
    PS Pastor Jon I’ll again try to ask you can u please pretty plz ask about me not getting an email – oh forget it 3 times and you’re out… 😦

    • jwfisch says:

      Well, all I can say is, I’m glad God doesn’t operate on the three strike rule. Please send me a private email and explain your problem. I see no problem on this end. You are current and are getting the email through Constant Contact. I need to know what problem you are having.

  2. stephenstoll says:

    I love this. And I needed it today. For some crazy reason I can never be perfect. 🙂 And then for some even crazier reason I feel so much guilt because I’m not perfect. But “new Spirit”, “new mind”, and “new self.” Thanks.

  3. Joyce Lanier says:

    I appreciate your commentary and your blogs. I think that the key to a fulfilled life with CHRIST requires understanding balance (rules and grace when we fall short of them) and I agree that it is HIS SPIRIT that teaches us that. HE is graceful to us. I am empowered by HIS grace daily. However, HIS precepts and council should still also be revered. HIS grace is full of Love, but so is HIS council. HIS precepts teach us to love our neighbor. To some, that may seem like a rule, but it is HIS council and following HIS council always brings life. HIS Word tells us that there is no condemnation (guilt) to those who are in HIM, (Rom 8). But how does one accept that if there is no respect for HIS Word? I am a recipient of HIS grace on a daily basis and am extremely grateful for it. I am also grateful for where HIS statutes, wisdom, council, precepts and ways (rules) have lead me, directed me and prevented me. Where has the honor and the respect for the Word of GOD gone? I do understand Mr. Stiller’s response and your commentary. I just wanted to share my perspective as well. Respectfully submitted

    • jwfisch says:

      Thank you. Yes, God’s word shows us what it looks like to be like Christ. But we don’t get that by following rules. We get that by having Christ in us, conforming us to Himself by His Spirit. It’s how we get there that counts.

  4. Peter Leenheer says:

    Does this rules/guilt syndrome perhaps have a root in the fact that we are forgiven and we are ok with that. The question is do we ever forgive ourselves? We must love God and our neighbor as ourselves. I contend that this ‘loving ourselves’ is often forgotten. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized that I have to let myself off the hook because Jesus says that he has it covered with his blood. I knew I was saved but had not let go of my guilt.

    • jwfisch says:

      Guilt is too much focus on ourselves. God just wants to use us. God wants a vessel of His righteousness; He doesn’t want a perfect person.

  5. Tim says:

    My guilt feelings are more related to years of being a part of teaching that reminds us continually that we’re not good enough. You can’t earn grace but you can lose it by not believing enough, or the right way. When I was a kid we were even taught if you died with any unconfessed sin you would go to hell.
    I don’t believe that any more but have found it is easier to say, “I don’t believe” than it is to erase it from my heart or conscience.

  6. mitchteemley says:

    OK, got it: “Walk in the good news, not the old news of rules.” Just hope I don’t blow it; I’m gonna feel so guilty if I do. ;>) Good stuff as always, John.

  7. Kent Burkholder says:

    We just started a study on Grace using Louie Giglio’s “Grace (the one and only)”. Only 2 sessions into the study and already my mind is trying to figure out how to let God get rid of my guilt. When the thoughts come back, I keep saying “I’m forgiven, I’m forgiven”. Then go right back to “why did I do such a stupid thing”. Guilty again. It’s easy to receive forgiveness but extremely hard to give up guilt. I’m looking forward to the next lesson in our study.
    I could say that it’s amazing how your devotions and our study are coming together, but then there is Gibb’s Rule 39. Thanks

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