The power and failure of ‘shoulds’

The Christian way is not about "shoulds." To think this way is to turn faith into a religion with rules and a narrowly defined way.

Yme Woensdregt

I am a hard–core reader. I read for my work. I read fiction at meal times and bedtime. I even have a book in the car — just in case. I love suspense and mystery novels; they draw me into other worlds for a short while.

I recently picked up the latest novel by Ted Dekker, entitled, “A.D. 30”. It tells the story of Maviah, the outcast daughter of a powerful Bedu sheikh. Born out of wedlock and sold as a slave in Egypt, she eventually she finds her way back home to Arabia and then on to Palestine, where she meets a man named Yeshua — the Jewish name of the one we know as Jesus.

I’m not going to say any more about the novel, so no spoiler alerts are necessary. The characters were sympathetic and believable, the story was tight, and the historical research was accurate.

What has given me pause to reflect is a short essay by Dekker at the beginning of the book, “My Journey to A.D. 30”. Dekker tells us that he grew up as “the son of missionaries who left everything in the west to take the good news to a tribe of cannibals in Indonesia. They were heroes in all respects and taught me many wonderful things, not least among them all the virtues and values of the Christian life. What a beautiful example they showed me.”

So far, so good.

But then Dekker narrates a story in which he gradually began to feel like a failure. His Christian faith seemed … somehow less than what he thought it should be. He writes,

“As I grew older, all the polished answers I memorized in Sunday school seemed to fail me on one level or another, sometimes quite spectacularly. I begin to see cracks in what had once seemed so simple.

“I was supposed to have special powers to love others and turn the other cheek and refrain from gossip and not judge. I was supposed to be a shining example, known by the world for my extravagant love, grace, and power in all respects. And yet, while I heard the rhetoric of others, I didn’t seem to have these powers myself.

“During my teens, I was sure that it was uniquely my fault — I didn’t have enough faith, I needed to try harder and do better. Others seem to have it all together, but I was a failure.

“Can you relate?

“Then I began to notice that everyone seemed to be in the same boat, beginning with those I knew the best. When my relationships challenged all of my notions of love, when disease came close to home, when friends turned on me, when I struggle to pay my bills, when life sucked me dry, I began to wonder where all the power to live life more abundantly had gone. Then I began to question whether or not it has ever really been there in the first place. Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t measure up.

“So I pressed in harder with the hope of discovering God’s love. But I still couldn’t measure up.

“And when I couldn’t measure up, I began to see with perfect clarity that those who claimed to live holy lives were just like me and only lied to themselves — a fact that was apparent to everyone but them …”

My first thought after reading those paragraphs was, “How sad! How utterly, unbearably sad.”

I remember as a child growing up in a church where the same kind of completely unrealistic expectations were laid on people. The language of this church, and others like it (such as Dekker’s) was filled with “shoulds” when the reality of most of our lives is that we can’t. “Shoulds” just make us feel guiltier, more like a failure. “Shoulds” just add to the already heavy burdens so many of us bear. Our best intentions are never good enough.

I am relieved and glad that I have found another way. More accurately, I am relieved and glad that another way has found me.

The Christian way is not about “shoulds.” It never has been. To think this way is to turn Christian faith into a religion with rules and beliefs and a narrowly defined way.

But Jesus never came to do that. Jesus — Yeshua — pointed us to a relationship with a loving and compassionate God who sets us free so that we might live a more abundant life.

One of the church’s earliest leaders, Augustine, once said “Love God, and do as you please.” It was echoed by Martin Luther many centuries later. The profound truth of this is that as we love God, we will also love what God loves.

It’s a much freer way of living than a life of “shoulds” ever could be.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook