The reality gap revisited – banning ‘should’ and ‘ought’

I’m not generally in favour of banning anything. Nonetheless, in my view ‘should’ should be removed from the dictionary, and ‘ought’ ought to be banned. 😉

We’ve probably all heard countless well-meaning Christian talks telling us what we ‘should’ (or ‘shouldn’t’) do, or how we ‘ought’ (or ‘ought not’) to feel.

We ‘should’ have a daily ‘quite time’; we should pray more, read the Bible more, tell more people about Jesus, give more time or money to church; we should go on mission trips; we should forgive and seek reconciliation; we should be hospitable, kind, welcoming, considerate, etc; we should have a good and positive attitude.

And conversely we shouldn’t do naughty things; we shouldn’t swear, get drunk, gamble, gossip, get angry, watch naughty films with rude bits. We shouldn’t ever be selfish or mean or rude or cranky or have a ‘bad’, negative attitude.

But I don’t think any of these shoulds and shouldn’ts are actually helpful; quite the contrary.

Why ‘should’ doesn’t work

Firstly, we already know all this stuff without being told. Few Christians will hear these kinds of injunctions and think ‘Oh my goodness! Now I understand at last! I thought I was supposed to get raging drunk and shout at people – but now I know that I need to pray and read the Bible instead, I’ll get straight on with doing what’s right!’

Rather we hear this stuff and feel burdened, guilty, ashamed. We feel like failures. Perhaps we might resolve to try a bit harder for a while, but that almost never works. So we give up again and feel that we really are useless, third-class Christians who God only loves because he has to. We’re never going to pray enough or read the Bible enough like those super-Christians we read about in inspirational books (generally the ones who’ve written the books.)

Shoulds never changed anyone’s life, because shoulds don’t change the heart. Shoulds address the rational mind but don’t touch the soul. As I say, we already know deep down what we ‘should’ be like or ‘should’ be doing. But the kinds of changes we need most are not primarily changes to superficial behaviours like praying more. They’re deep, heart changes which come over time with seeking and struggling and soul-searching; with crying out to God in our weakness and failure, rather than trying harder to be good Christians.

Pray less, swear more… 😉

And actually, I’m not sure that all of these ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’ are always right. I think a lot of them may be wrong, at least if approached in this kind of way. I’m not sure that we should necessarily always pray more or give more or be kinder or go on more mission trips. I’m certainly not sure that we shouldn’t ever swear, watch controversial films or drink a little too much alcohol.

Indeed, sometimes I think we need to pray less, read the Bible less and be less nice. Sometimes our prayer has become a empty or compulsive religious ritual, almost a form of spiritual OCD. Sometimes our Bible-reading isn’t helping us because we read it through lenses of guilt or fear or an unhealthy and inhuman theology. Sometimes our niceness and generosity is a compulsive ‘false self’, a way of avoiding wrath or of making ourselves feel like better people.

Sometimes I also think we need to do a few more ‘naughty’ things. I’m not talking about adultery, murder or embezzlement, but just not having a fearful or overly ‘spiritual’ attitude – the kind Paul characterises in Colossians as ‘don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch!’. We’re called to engage wholeheartedly with life and with God’s rich and diverse world, not to hold up our hands in horror or pick our skirts in disgust.

Now I do actually believe that we are ultimately aiming to be people who pray and give and love and display Christlike qualities. I just don’t believe we get there by trying harder to pray more or give more or be more Christlike. We get there by addressing the deep issues of our heart and soul, of our relationships, our emotions, the deep underlying patterns and programming of who we are.

Which kind of brings us on to the second major area where I think ‘should’ and ‘ought’ are particularly unhelpful – our emotions, and trying to control or change them.

Feelings just are

We’re quite often told that we ought to feel particular ways – we ought to be joyful, or grateful, or glad, or full of hope. We ought to feel love towards God, or else towards people we don’t like. And we ought not to feel hate or anger or lust or envy or despair. Ever.

The major problem with this is that we can’t actually control our emotions, and it’s pointless and counter-productive to try. Emotions and feelings in themselves are not good or bad, even the ones which feel uncomfortable or taboo. Feelings just are.

Nor can emotions be switched on and off. They can be suppressed and pushed out of sight, but that’s always, always, a mistake. Emotions shoved away under cover pop out again unexpectedly and then they can lead to all sorts of errors of judgement and unfortunate behaviours. The harder we try to be ‘good Christians’, the more likely it is that these ‘bad’ emotions that we’ve shoved out of sight will come gushing out at stress points and lead us to say or do things we deeply regret.

The problem with emotions is never the feelings themselves, however uncomfortable or discomfiting these may be. The problem is how we act on them; what we choose to do with them. I may feel intense hate or murderous rage towards someone, and that’s okay (indeed inevitable at times) – so long as I don’t act out of it by killing them or harming them. And if I just rush to push that nasty feeling away, I’m not actually dealing with it. The only way to deal with it is to let it be, but not let it cause you to ‘sin’.

Similarly, sometimes we’re told we’re not meant to like certain things, want certain things or even think certain things. This way lies insanity. You can’t control what you like or what you desire, and trying to control what you think can be deeply counter-productive.

What you can do is accept that you do currently like or want certain things, but that those things may not be helpful or beneficial or available to you. Although you may actually need to question whether all those things are in fact unhelpful. We need to grow up, consult our conscience and decide for ourselves whether things others have told us to avoid are really bad or not. (Maybe yoga, Harry Potter, Life of Brian, beer or rock music aren’t really of the devil.) We also need to do the same for things we’ve been told are good or right or essential.

And with our thoughts, yes, it’s true that some lines of thinking are less helpful or healthy than others. But we don’t make them go away by calling in the Thought Police, trying to clamp down on our ‘bad’ thoughts or banish them into the darkness. Rather we investigate them, question them, hold them up to the light. We offer them to Christ, and welcome him into them – however horrible they are.

As an OCD sufferer I’ve sometimes had terribly blasphemous or other deeply taboo thoughts, but I know now that I can’t get rid of them by trying to. Rather I let them be, and seek to let God into my mind to bring about slow, long-term change.

So we can’t banish ‘bad’ thoughts or feelings, nor even ‘bad’ behaviours, simply by trying hard. But let’s banish ‘should’ and ‘ought’. Rather than talking about what we should do or ought to be like, I suggest we take a different approach. I suggest we look for ways of living and thinking and relating that are healthy, helpful, beneficial, life-bringing; that are more likely to promote human flourishing. I suggest we look at and seek out what makes us more human rather than less. ‘Against such things there is no law.’

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Emerging, Evangelicalism, Grace, Mental health, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The reality gap revisited – banning ‘should’ and ‘ought’

  1. Theothedog says:

    Indeed. Wholeheartedly agree. The sad thing is, arguably, that ‘ought’ and ‘should’ have actually already been banned, by grace. Why is it that we seem to be so bad at understanding the completely revolutionary implications of that latter term?


    • Yes, it’s odd isn’t it? Humans seem to struggle dreadfully with the whole concept and practice of grace (I certainly do, at any rate). Grace just seems to feel alien to our natures, or to run counter to the laws and customs of the universe.

      And of course there’s the additional irony that if any church has the word ‘Grace’ in its name you can almost guarantee that it will be less than averagely gracious or grace-filled. (Rather like countries with ‘Democratic’ in their name…)


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