Leaving Should-Town

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Should happens everywhere.

You should floss, you should lose weight, you should make your bed, and you should read this biography. You should see this new movie (it’s soooo good). You should love cottage cheese and enjoy broccoli and brussels sprouts. You should eat super foods like kale (even though they don’t taste super unless cheese is involved).

You’ve heard the infamous imperative, “You should drink less coffee”—yeah, right. You should go to church more, put your kids in a certain school, read the Old Testament more, and you should go to that birthday party wearing a smile. You know, just make an appearance, at least. You should.

And the should-ing continues.

The word should isn’t all bad. It’s obviously appropriate for matters of life or death: you should wear your seatbelt, you should tip your waiter (who’s also human), and you should be careful with machine guns. Also, there are appropriate should-nots: you shouldn’t swing a baseball bat if someone’s face is near your back swing, you shouldn’t flip off the Pope, and you definitely shouldn’t let your two year old swim without a swim-diaper in the community pool.

But there’s a particular way we use the word should that’s stifling. Without knowing it we sometimes point a religious finger or use a superior tone. This can make our relationships feel like a smoke-filled elevator stuck between floors. I hate feeling stuck in should.

I’ve been the arrogant you-ought-to-do-this guy. I’ve been unaware of how much my language contains a-lott-a should. There are different manifestations of the should-man. There’s the emotional bully who won’t let you feel sadness or worry—“You should be happy,” he says. Or the verbal manipulator who constantly slides his philosophy of life into the conversation, to let you know he’s got all the answers. There’s the hype-man, who sells you a trendy new fad each month: “You should check it out! It changed my life.” Our self-absorption often leaves others disrespected, dishonored, de-valued, and invalidated in their experience. At worst, they are unable to be themselves around us.

I told my wife back in October, “You should just be more thankful,” when she was dreaming of buying a nicer piece of furniture. I even told my youngest son recently, “You shouldn’t be scared of the pig-man! God is with you.” (Okay, good advice. Yes, God is near—that is true. But with a nervous gulp in my throat, the pig-man is still a little freaky.) When I try to control someone else’s heart, I’m wrong.

When you get should-ed on, you know it. What if my wife’s desire for a new chair is completely fine? (She’s a very content lady and works in interior design, so wanting a new chair in our home is very appropriate for her every once in a while). What if the pig-man is a legitimate fear for my three-year-old son? I wonder, could childhood monsters be comparable to the middle-aged man’s fear of being unsuccessful and insignificant?

I’m learning more dad-patience from God. He’s teaching me to ask more questions about fights, fears, and frustrations; deeper gentleness is developing. With my three-year-old, while I’m teaching him to pray, maybe it’s okay to buy a few dozen batteries for a small flashlight. In the end it’s probably a better way to overcome the pig-man.

God instructs us to not be afraid; he also stays with us in the valley. He does a lot of listening, too. In dark moments of trial and suffering, all people grow afraid, and to demand or expect that we should never be fearful, sad, angry, doubtful, or anxious—well, it’s completely absurd. Allowing ourselves to feel strong emotion is an opportunity for rich intimacy between us. The Psalms remind us that it’s okay to be afraid and to need comfort.

Our feelings aren’t the only things under the pressure of obligation. When I slow down to hear myself think and talk, I’m surprised at the voices I’m absorbing other than God’s. The voice of duty can sound like an old family mantra, a religious phrase that rhymes, a catchy pop song on the radio, or the invasive billboard by the mall—drowning out the gentle whispers of God.

I think it’s why college road trips were so fun. We left duty and should-town behind and had the whole universe before us. There was a deep wonder and excitement about what we could do and be! What would our friendships, marriages, families, or churches feel like in the wide-open space of could?

To be clear, I’m not talking about throwing out doctrine or the Ten Commandments, or liberating ourselves with some kind of scripture-less, godless freedom—that’s been done, and it doesn’t work. For the record, it’s not “cool” to be an isolated, rebellious planet, spiraling away from community; we need our brothers and sisters.

I’m talking about genuinely reconsidering the way we interact with one another. We could use the language of invitation and learn to release our unrealistic expectations of one another.

Relationships are like curvy mountain roads: they’re full of unique voices, creative perspectives, and surprises. What if we could listen better, adjust more, and settle into the diversity and ambiguity of people? We could learn to give and receive, instead of controlling, pushing, or taking.

We can even disagree sometimes. It’s better than making people feel like they’re “in” or “out” with you over your taste in music, church models, or politics. There’s room for a loving and healthy conflict. How else will we grow?

Could-ing is different than should-ing, and conformity is not the same as true surrender or love. If I force you to look like me and do what I want, love is missing. The very essence of love is at the center of Jesus’ heart—he gives his Bride a choice. He invites the church to respond, he doesn’t coerce her or intimidate her to love him. I don’t know many women who would respond well to the imperative, “You should marry me.” Or how do these sound? “You should buy me a birthday present!” or “You should do it exactly the way I do it” (that kind of attitude is found in conversations about parenting, quiet times, little-league baseball, and lawn care)—not quite the loving invitation.

I believe God commands us to do certain things, but he also asks really, really good questions to get to the heart of the matter. There’s always a why behind the what, and it’s saturated in love. God is very different than an authoritarian should-man. So, if God, who has all the answers, doesn’t force or manipulate us, why are we doing it to one another?

Jesus only did what he saw the Father doing, and the invitation for us is the same. We’re invited into a moment by moment friendship with God. We could hold his hand more—and along the way we could ask more questions, imagine more, and explore more; it’s hard to say what we might find over the horizon.

There will be pain, joy, giggles, and grief on the journey for all of us; we could encourage one another with hope and say, “I really don’t know what I would do if I were you, but I’m praying with you, and I’m here for you if you need to talk.”

The script for tomorrow is unwritten, and it’s exciting to see what will happen in next chapter of the story. We can let Abba take us there, together.

We could.

1 Comment

  1. Alex Parnell
    May 31, 2016

    Well said! Letting go of the should’s and must’s is incredibly good for the soul.

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