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.