The Potential Destructiveness of Should

I’ve come to pon­der if the word should, whether from inside, or imposed by the out­side, might have the poten­tial to be very destruc­tive. When the word is used, most often it may be trans­lat­ed to read, “[You/I] do not mea­sure up.” How good are our pro­tec­tions against false ‘shoulds’? Do we let oth­ers impose a stan­dard upon us with­out con­sid­er­ing the valid­i­ty of and author­i­ty behind the ‘should’. Worse still do we stop and ques­tion our self-imposed ‘shoulds’?

This is an area in which we should exer­cise the most dis­cern­ment, and yet, con­sis­tent­ly for myself and oth­ers it seems to be the area where we prac­tice dis­cern­ment the least. We keep poor defens­es against the ene­my with­out and seem­ing­ly reserve no mar­gin of safe­ty from the sup­posed ally with­in.

An excel­lent Faith­walk­ers Sem­i­nar titled “All You Need is Love: The Sim­ple Path to Mar­riage” plant­ed some seeds that may only now four months lat­er to be sprout­ing. They lured us in by promis­ing us a method­ol­o­gy that coun­ters the last 25 years of Chris­t­ian dog­ma on dat­ing and rela­tion­ships. Some­thing dif­fer­ent, and some­thing far less com­plex, oner­ous, and dic­ta­to­r­i­al. A breath of fresh air maybe, right?

Here’s the sem­i­nar descrip­tion:

Thou­sands of books, sem­i­nars, and coun­sel­ing ses­sions have been spent on try­ing to fig­ure out exact­ly what you need to get mar­ried. I think the path to mar­riage is a lot sim­pler than it is often made out to be. Of course sim­ple doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean easy, but let’s get togeth­er and talk through the Bib­li­cal prin­ci­ples of love that pro­vide a sim­ple path to mar­riage.

Pas­tor Paul John­son opened the sem­i­nar [LISTEN] by hand­ing us a 20 item list of all the great chest­nuts of rules and advice that we’ve all been told by youth lead­ers, pas­tors, and our Chris­t­ian men­tors about seek­ing rela­tion­ship. They asked us to clas­si­fy each one as either 1) a com­mand, 2) a prin­ci­ple, or 3) a pref­er­ence. I’ll list them here; a whole list of exter­nal­ly imposed [musts/shoulds].

  1. You must get coun­sel before pur­su­ing a rela­tion­ship
  2. Phys­i­cal attrac­tion should not fac­tor into your inter­est in anoth­er per­son
  3. Only mar­ry a Chris­t­ian
  4. Don’t date until you’re ready to get mar­ried
  5. Don’t kiss until your wed­ding day
  6. Hus­bands must bring home the bacon
  7. Wives must stay home and take care of the kids
  8. You must be out of debt to get mar­ried
  9. You must be con­vinced that this is the per­son you’re going to mar­ry if you want to date them
  10. You must be con­tent to be sin­gle and not look­ing for a mate
  11. You must be sex­u­al­ly pure before mar­riage
  12. You must be a mature Chris­t­ian before you get mar­ried
  13. You must be able to make and keep a bud­get before get­ting mar­ried
  14. You must “like” and eval­u­ate a poten­tial spouse for at least a year before talk­ing to them about your feel­ings
  15. Men must pur­sue and women must wait
  16. You must be com­plete­ly objec­tive in your eval­u­a­tion of a poten­tial spouse
  17. Your life vision and direc­tion needs to be iden­ti­cal for a poten­tial rela­tion­ship to work
  18. Men must talk to a woman’s father before ask­ing her out on a date
  19. You must guard your heart from any attach­ment
  20. You must have con­vic­tions on birth con­trol before dat­ing

S’wha? I’m not sure I’ve ever heard that last one. Per­haps they made it up to round out an even twen­ty items.

Two I think? Yes, two. Two of those are bib­li­cal com­mands. All of the rest fall into the cat­e­gories of good prin­ci­ples (one may read Proverbs for that), and pref­er­ences. We have all expe­ri­enced those who give advice and instruc­tion (whether solicit­ed or not) with the atti­tude of you [should/must]. They tend to be rather legal­is­tic about it and they suf­fer no dis­cus­sion or dis­agree­ment. Ques­tions are shamed to silence by being called sin­ful. Unwill­ing­ness to let go of some­thing is respond­ed to with accu­sa­tions that the some­thing has become an idol. Prin­ci­ple becomes Com­mand and well, Pref­er­ence too in most cas­es.

An long­stand­ing irri­tant to me has been the care­less and thought­less use of the admo­ni­tion “Guard your heart?” or the chal­lenge, “Are you guard­ing your heart?”. A help­ful phrase turned mantra instead does harm. I some­times have the hyper­bol­ic image in my mind of a mar­ried youth pas­tor telling a young man on his first and ill-con­sid­ered for­ay into love to “Guard your heart.” who, even though the young man has matured and has his eyes set on find­ing a God­ly com­pan­ion for the road of life, is thought­less­ly chas­tised each suc­ces­sive time to “Guard his heart.” Played out to the ridicu­lous end, the sce­nario changes venue to a nurs­ing home where the no longer young man, bach­e­lor his entire life, shows inter­est in a wid­ow on the same ward, only to be told by sign lan­guage to up the vol­ume on his hear­ing aid by his cur­mud­geon of a youth pas­tor so that he may hear his youth pastor’s admon­ish­ment to “Guard Your Heart.”

The sem­i­nar leader point­ed out that the bible gives us a word for peo­ple like that who do those types of things: Phar­isees. As bad as these out­ward Phar­isees are, they often pale in com­par­i­son to the Phar­isee many of us keep inside of our­selves.

I know that in my own life I impose ridicu­lous, some­times impos­si­ble ‘shoulds’ on myself. My arro­gant Phar­isee also then decides for oth­ers that since I fail those stan­dards oth­ers must be pro­tect­ed from me for their own good. They real­ly must be allowed no say in the mat­ter.

So how do we guard against the out­ward and inward Phar­isee? I’m only the rud­est novice in this new dis­ci­pline, and as such, I only have a list of things I am test­ing out for pos­si­ble inclu­sion in a per­son­al how-to list.

  1. First deter­mine if the source is exter­nal or inter­nal.
  2. Ques­tion. Do not blind­ly accept.
  3. Respect lead­er­ship, but do not assume that they infal­li­bly lead in all things.
  4. Pray. For guid­ance and wis­dom. Pray for con­fir­ma­tion or inval­i­da­tion.
  5. Test all against scrip­ture.
  6. Avoid extremes. Seek to grow towards the ideals of par­a­digms, but nev­er to achieve them entire­ly.
  7. Be on the look­out for state­ments made in the absolute.
  8. Be on guard against gen­er­al­iza­tions too vast in scope.
  9. Be high­ly self-skep­ti­cal of any­thing moti­vat­ed and craft­ed inter­nal­ly; most espe­cial­ly if much inter­nal thought and debate over a long peri­od of time has led to unortho­dox con­clu­sions.
  10. Be wary of emo­tion­al states that lead to self-imposed ‘shoulds’.
  11. The more I am cer­tain, the more uncer­tain I should prob­a­bly be.
  12. Does a con­clu­sion elim­i­nate hope, con­demn holy desire, or affirm help­lessnes? If so, it’s doubt­ful it’s from God.
  13. Be alert to the reac­tions of oth­ers when I share my think­ing and con­clu­sions… if they start look­ing at me fun­ny, I should weigh care­ful­ly all respons­es and not assume I’m right.
  14. If it’s a per­son­al ‘should’ that I’d nev­er sug­gest oth­ers adopt, Be afwaid. Be vewy afwaid! Is my dou­ble-stan­dard born of arro­gant pride and con­tempt for another’s ‘low stan­dard’? Am I hold­ing myself to an unrea­son­able impos­si­ble stan­dard that great­ly dif­fers from the one I mea­sure against oth­ers.
  15. Be will­ing to learn from some­one less knowl­edge­able than myself.
  16. If I’m reluc­tant to solic­it the opin­ions of oth­ers or to seek guid­ance then it’s an espe­cial­ly good time to take Elmer Fudd’s advice to heart. The greater the reluc­tance, the greater the like­li­hood that I NEED an exter­nal gut-check.
  17. Stop uni­lat­er­al­ly decid­ing things for oth­ers. Stop steal­ing from them the right to make up their own mind, to take their own risks, to explore a pos­si­bil­i­ty that excites or intrigues them! Acknowl­edge and respect their wis­dom and hon­or their right to test and weigh and decide for them­selves. Do not hold con­tempt if they reach con­clu­sions dis­sim­i­lar to mine. They may well be the wis­er and have a bet­ter under­stand­ing. Be will­ing to let them make mis­takes … This is per­haps one of the things for which my friends gave me great­est grace and patience, because I kept mak­ing these uni­lat­er­al deci­sions and con­clu­sions that I must not, or am sup­posed to not ever seek a new beloved for the rest of my days. This was the time peri­od where my excel­lent Chris­t­ian coun­selor Brad­ly Roark told me that “Per­haps you need to let some­one who is less knowl­edge­able than you teach you about love.” I thought it pro­found at the time, but as usu­al, I failed to real­ly grok his full mean­ing. That came with the full­ness of time and more hard lessons. Far more pro­found than I orig­i­nal­ly kenned, and far far far more hum­bling. Learn­ing that I can be a very well-edu­cat­ed idiot has been so very free­ing.
  18. If I am self-deny­ing myself some poten­tial bless­ing due to some self-imposed rule or stan­dard I can nev­er achieve, and if it’s a stan­dard or denial God might not be will­ing to back me up on and hasn’t been explic­it about in scrip­ture, I must remind myself that God is a lov­ing non-dic­ta­to­r­i­al par­ent who loves our free-will, who gave us the bible not as a rule­book, but as a fence around a lush green pas­ture, keep­ing us in the good, and away from the bad.
  19. Do not take the bit in my mouth and run. Do not wear blind­ers. Do not stick fin­gers in my ears and yell out obscur­ing noise like a brat­ty child.
  20. Sun­screen good. No sun­screen bad. Rest of advice based on years of Jedi teach­ing expe­ri­ence, yes?
  21. I did men­tion ‘pray’, yes?

Over sev­er­al years, and under the guid­ance of Chap­lain and beloved friend Bart Lar­son, with some rein­force­ment from my pas­tor at church, I have tried in my com­mu­ni­ca­tion to replace “you state­ments” with “I state­ments” and most impor­tant­ly the “you should state­ments.” Like­wise I have been try­ing not to use hyper­bole like “always” and “nev­er”. I’ve tried to put in check a ten­den­cy when excit­ed to care­less­ly use superla­tives, sweep­ing gen­er­al­iza­tions, and exag­ger­a­tion. Need­less­ly to say, despite try­ing a mil­lion times, I always always fail and nev­er ever suc­ceed in efforts not to use the very most egre­gious exag­ger­a­tions and worst hyper­bole. Actu­al­ly, it’s a process and I’ve made so much won­der­ful progress down that road. I still slip from time to time, or for­get and grow care­less. Suc­cess has been very reward­ing as it has allowed friend­ships to go deep­er and pre­vent­ed much offence that leads to argu­ment. I’m grate­ful to both of these men

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