“Don’t should on yourself today.” I heard this a few years back in a message by Brennan Manning. He credits it to his mentor, who apparently got it from someone else. Yes, I know… it’s a juvenile kind of humor, but there’s a serious truth in it too.
I find I’m always living in a state of not enough. I’m not enough of a husband. I’m not enough of a father. I’m not enough of a Christian. I’m not enough of a minister. When I say this to myself, I’m actually saying, “I should be better.”
Not the Good Deal It Sounds Like
What’s not to like about that? It sounds like a really helpful thought at first, right? It sets a goal in front of me. It should motivate me to become something better than I am. But in reality, it doesn’t quite do this. Instead I find it makes me live and think of myself in terms of deficit. I am not enough… I should be better…
I’m always one step behind where I “should” be. I always “should” be doing better than I am now. It’s exhausting. And no wonder! It diminishes grace and the Holy Spirit’s transformation in my life if I focus on how much I lack. I think this is what Paul was getting at in 2 Corinthians 3:6 when he said the letter (of the Law) kills, but the Spirit gives life. Living with an attitude of “should” leads to a long list of expectations and rules that suck the life out of grace.
I wonder if it’s better to focus on God’s grace for failures, recognizing I am perfectly righteous (justification) because of what Jesus did. It doesn’t mean I have no room for being better. That’s ridiculous (1 John 1:8). It means my focus has shifted from legalism to grace.
What About Sanctification?
“But aren’t we supposed to be good Christians? Don’t Paul and John also tell us not to continue in sin?” Absolutely! But our life of becoming more like Jesus is a result of our salvation, not a requirement. There is nothing you can “do better” to keep your salvation. Paul asked the Galatians, “Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3). This doesn’t mean we can live however we want. Paul made that really clear in Romans 6. But it does mean our focus has shifted from should to grace.
If the Christian life is a race, running it with legalism is a race with no end. If our performance determines our salvation, even the “perfect” people are hopeless. But, if we run the race with the Spirit, the end is God’s glory as we show the world how great he is in saving hopeless sinners like us. It’s a race filled with thankfulness and joy because he already determined the end of the race. The Christian life then becomes, not a “should-do-better” race, but a “can-do-better” race.
The process of becoming more like Christ, increasingly becoming better at doing the right thing, is the benefit of salvation. Think of it as a perk of being a child of the Almighty Creator. Imagine planting an acorn in the woods. It would be insane to expect the acorn to be a full-sized oak tree a few minutes or even a few years after planting. But just because the tree isn’t fully mature yet, doesn’t mean it won’t be eventually. Yes, the conditions need to be healthy in the surrounding environment. But the healthy environment doesn’t produce instantaneous maturity.
Being a better person isn’t required for salvation in the end, but all who are saved naturally become better people.
Good News While We Grow
The good news is that God’s grace takes care of the “should” of the Law. The Christian life becomes instead a life of grace that requires nothing more of me, yet gives me the opportunity and sets me on the path to become more than any “should” I can think of.
It’s not okay that you sin in the Christian life; that’s still evil. But it’s okay when you sin. God knows our tendencies to look for sin, and he gives us grace through and because of Jesus. The benefit of trusting him to save you is the gradual journey toward mature righteous behavior. Without grace, that journey is legalism and brings nothing but depression and death.
Don’t should on yourself today. You don’t need that kind of grace-sucking negativity. Walk in grace and take joy in knowing that as you walk this way you will grow in maturity and righteous behavior.