I don’t believe in should. As a Christian, I believe in grace, which means that I believe that God loves me and you and everyone else in ways that none of us deserves. I want grace to be the dominant principle in my life. I want my thoughts and words and actions to reflect a life built upon the axiom that God’s love for me isn’t dependent upon what I think or say or do. In other words, I want to live a life that invites other people to believe that they are loved regardless of their behavior. I want people to experience the same freedom that comes with unconditional love that I have experienced. And that leaves me with no room for shoulds or oughts or need-tos in my life.
Lately—and I am not really sure why—I have noticed that, when I start to tell someone what he or she should do, I often catch myself in midsentence and start over in a way that avoids the use of an expectation or an obligation. In a manner that comes across as border-line schizophrenic, I interrupt myself, offer a verbal self-correction, and then restate what I was attempting to convey without telling that person what I think that he or she needs to do. “You know,” I might say, “I think you should… No, wait, I don’t mean ‘should.’ I don’t like that word. Let me try that again. What you might do is…” I know: that sounds crazy. But something is going on in my life that is drawing me back to the principle of grace—God’s unmerited favor for me—in a radical way that is changing even the way I speak.
Maybe I am experiencing that grace-focused renewal because I now have four children and find myself walking frequently that indiscernibly fine line between disciplining the ones I love and loving them no matter how much discipline they need. Or maybe it’s because I have now been married for over a decade and have learned how easy it is to take for granted the for-better-or-worse love that my wife and I have pledged to each other. Or perhaps it’s because most of the people who come and meet me in my office are looking for unconditional, unending love and haven’t yet found the only one who can give it to them. Whatever the reason, anything that stands in the way of grace—even a single word like “should”—hits my mind and ears and heart like a needle scratching across a record. Even a tiny obstacle to grace is unacceptable because grace with limits isn’t really grace at all.
Using similarly radical language, the apostle Paul wrote,
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all [children] of God, through faith.” Galatians 3:23-36 (ESV)
Paul was writing to a community that was split over the issue of law and grace. Some Christians were insisting that Gentile converts be circumcised as a sign of obedience to the ancestral faith of Jesus. Others felt that, despite Jesus’ Jewish identity, requiring full conversion to Judaism undermined the grace proclaimed by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. On this Paul weighed in unequivocally. For Paul, who had been an obedient, zealous adherent to the Jewish law for his whole life, the freedom that grace provides—the invitation to become a full child of God through faith alone—was incompatible with the should, oughts, and need-tos of ritual observance. Paul’s own conversion to the way of Jesus—the way of the cross—had taught him that.
In Jesus Christ, God tells the world that there are no more shoulds. Yes, as Paul explains, the law and all its “thou-shalts” and “thou-shalt-nots” is a good thing because it provided a framework for a good relationship between God and human beings. But, as Paul stresses and as anyone who has tried to please an unsatisfiable parent, boss, or spouse can attest, a relationship built on conditional approval is doomed to fail. The law, though good, could not complete or perfect what God intended that relationship to be. The fault is ours—the product of the human condition—but the remedy, which is grace, belongs to God.
There is no room in the gospel for should. That word has the power to shut a door, quench a flame, dash a hope, and ruin a dream. The concept of should sets us up for failure. It is a condition upon which approval, satisfaction, and love depend. When we say to someone, “You should do this” or “You ought to try that,” what we are saying to them is, “If you were the person you were supposed to be, then you would do this thing that I am recommending to you.” And where is the love in that?
Instead of telling someone what you think they need to do, try mimicking what God says to us. In Jesus, God declares that there is no thought, word, or deed that can get in the way of his love. Could we love others like that, too? What would our relationships become if we allowed grace to rule our lives? Might all of us become the children of God that God has created us to be if we only believed in the power of unconditional love, allowing that love to melt away all the conditional statements of our lives? You are loved like that. Whether you realize it or not, God already loves you no matter what. Consider, then, the joy that comes from loving other people in the exact same way.
This post first appeared as an article in our parish newsletter, The View. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn about what God is doing in and through St. John's, Decatur, please click here.