My attempt to address the use of “should” and “shouldn’t” in American Christian culture
One of my 16 resolutions of 2016 was to eliminate should and shouldn’t from my speech. The reason? It’s shaming language. When someone tells us that we should or shouldn’t do something it is a soft manipulation to make you feel badly about what you are or are not doing. It’s effective, sure. But ultimately in the long run, it’s damaging to people.
For me this is sort of a soap box vexation, I acknowledge that. There’s bigger fish to fry perhaps. But for me it’s a pet peeve especially within Christian circles. We are constantly told that the Christian life is not based on works. Evangelicals believe that we are justified due to our “faith alone in Jesus alone because of grace alone.” That is what is said. That is what is preached. But in practice, we get all these nudges and comments and articles telling us what we should or shouldn’t do as Christians.
What we should or shouldn’t be
You get the point.
Publications from a Christian perspective seem to be notorious for having articles with “should” or “shouldn’t” in the title. It’s clickbait for evangelicals. And it’s turned into a major pet peeve of mine because I believe it ultimately undermines people’s understanding of the Christian faith and who they are as Christians. It isn’t congruent with what the gospel is about. Jesus didn’t go around “shoulding” on people. If they were doing something wrong or living in a way that wasn’t consistent with the faith they professed, he called them out on it. Sometimes in a very direct manner, sometimes not. Sometimes he spoke in parables. Sometimes he used ultimatums. He challenged people and their motivations, but he didn’t shame them. His challenges and rebukes were specific, and they were precise. They weren’t general lists of “7 Things that every Christian should be doing.”
I’m composing a list of articles that I come across that have should or shouldn’t in the title. There are all sorts of other ways to target your guilt or shame to try and create change – but I’m simply going to focus on the times that “should” and “shouldn’t” are explicitly used in the title. I’ll have plenty of articles meeting that simple of a criteria, trust me.
Lists of things we should or shouldn’t be doing are extremely common right now. That speaks about how we process things these days, I’m sure. I don’t want to oversimplify why this is true – simply blaming our high speed, busy social media infused lifestyles and BuzzFeed lists – but whatever the reasons are, I don’t think that they are helping us be more thoughtful, intentional, or genuine people. They encourage us to think “If I do these things, I’ll be a better Christian, friend, spouse, family member, citizen, person.” On some level and on some occasions that might be true if we actually made the practices they suggest over and over part of our daily routines instead of measuring sticks. However, we don’t become more authentic in our faith and in our relationships by trying to live into lists of do’s and don’ts, shoulds and should nots. Growth comes when we address who we are as people – not by what we are doing or not doing. Self-discipline I believe is indeed key to growth and maturity. Practicing spiritual disciplines helps put ourselves in the position of humility and honesty so that we might learn to become the types of people that live out of love, compassion, and empathy. We learn how to live our lives in ways in which we don’t say “I’m a good Christian because I did _____ or didn’t do _____.” We learn to view our lives more as a journey in which we recognize that because we are Christians – people who are attempting to reflect and model their life after that of Jesus – we therefore love, we therefore have compassion towards others, we therefore forgive, we therefore show mercy, we therefore don’t judge others, etc.
When lists are made, and when we are told what real Christians should or shouldn’t be doing, it makes it seem like God’s love is conditional and that being a Christian is conditional based simply upon our behavior. Yes, Christians behave certain ways – but that comes out of a response to God and his unconditional love towards us. The love that tells us that we don’t have to act a certain way or do certain things to be loved more by him, or to be seen as a true child of his. Sanctification isn’t creating lists of shoulds and shouldn’ts. It’s believing that God loves us no matter what, and then living in such a way that reflects that. The Christian life is a response to God’s love. The Christian responds to God’s love by living in gratitude and towards others, and thus towards Him. The law is done away with in Jesus. Love is the new law of Jesus. Love – towards people and towards God. In good times and in bad. And yes, that’s easier said than done.
Remember this encounter in the book of Matthew?
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Sanctification is believing that God loves you, and then living like that’s true. You’re enough. As “good” or as “bad” as you are. You are enough. God loves you. Period.
Once we understand that, our perspective on life is one of freedom, not burden. Jesus gives us that freedom. We don’t have to worry about our standing before God. That has been taken care of. Our lives are now outward focused upon those around us. Yes, part of that is making sure we are taking care of ourselves, that we love ourselves and understand our own value, but we don’t have to worry about whether or not God loves us or accepts us. When we do wrong, we own up to it, confess it, and move on. We try and learn from our mistakes and sins – and we help others in the areas in which they are struggling. We need each other. Life is hard enough as it is. We don’t need to be comparing ourselves to lists of shoulds and should nots. Like I’ve said numerous times on this blog, a good motto to remember is
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
Here’s my working list. If you come across articles that use should and shouldn’t, let me know and submit them to me in the comments so I can add them to my list if you’d like. I list these here to help us be aware of how often these things are being said and how these topics are being framed so we ourselves can avoid saying things in this way ourselves. Listing these articles here is a way to be aware and to try to not allow articles like these to shape how we view what the sanctification or maturation process looks like as Christians and as people.
A lot of these articles come with good motivations. They do. But they enter into the discussion from an overall unhelpful perspective. And I get it. They are oftentimes trying to be persuasive, but still, I don’t think it’s very helpful. And I don’t really blame the authors either. These are the articles that get read. The ones that people share with others online. And sometimes the content in these articles are good, but I believe they would be much better if the content were framed from a different perspective. And honestly, if we lived into all the should’s and should nots of these articles we would be robots who apparently never sleep and have no lives apart from trying to perfect ourselves and know everything there is to know about what is going on in the world.
Relevant Magazine: www.relevantmagazine.com
Relevant Magazine is geared toward the 18-35 year old age group – basically millennials. And they often try to address issues that many in this age group are going through. Relevant is known for it’s attempt to bridge the current culture of our day with the Christian worldview. Sometimes it does a good job. Oftentimes it resorts to making lists of shoulds and should nots, unfortunately.
Gospel Coalition: www.thegospelcoalition.org
With the Gospel Coalition many of the should and should not articles seem to try and compress, summarize, and explain events and topics within our culture into digestible and quick reads. But they also suggest how we should be thinking about these topics. Not just explaining them. It’s like they assume we can’t come to conclusions on our own, and worse, that there is often only one right way to think about these issues. They don’t leave room for people to come to varying conclusions on their own about these topics. Oftentimes it feels like they are trying to emulate websites like Vox.com, which famously “explains the news,” but then they take it a step further and tell you how to think about the news. Also, what happens if I don’t know the 5-9 things about a certain topic that we are being told we should know about? What does it mean? Am I a worse person for not knowing these things? Am I not a good Christian if I don’t know these things? Because honestly, ain’t nobody got the time to read all these articles and to know 5-9 things about every topic in the news.
Those two websites above are two sources that I am familiar with because I follow them on Facebook and Twitter and I see the titles of their articles being shared all the time. If you know of other sources which might be helpful to add to the list here, let me know. I probably will add Christianity Today at some point. I don’t mean for this to be an exhaustive list by any means, but I want to show how often topics and articles are framed in this way. It affects how we think about ourselves, about issues, about people, and about God. I think it is damaging enough to bring up in this way.
Also, if you don’t consider yourself a Christian I’d be curious your take on this too. Have you noticed the Christians around you using this type of language when talking about people or events or life? Do you feel like Christians are shaming you for what you are or are not thinking, doing, or saying?
If you are interested in the topic of shame and guilt within the church, I wrote about shame and guilt and the church a couple years ago on my blog in a simple three part series – with help of (my hero) Brené Brown. Check them out if you’d like.