Shaking Free from the ‘Shoulds'
I don’t know exactly where they come from, these negative, dictating thoughts. The uniform they all wear is “Should,” and they consider themselves experts on any and every nuanced area of my life. Sometimes our relationship feels like an awkward dance, in which I dread being their partner but cannot drum up the courage to exit the dance floor. I twirl stiffly from one to another, barely touching but getting close enough to see the pursed-lip disapproval on each face. There are some who dominate the room, Should-Be-A-Better-Mother perhaps the most formidable. The marks of our unhealthy dynamic are obvious. My disdain and desire for distance coexist with a compulsion to please. But the anonymity of my own head and heart keep any interventions from appearing necessary. Well-meaning questions, advice gingerly given, and referrals to great counselors are all easily avoided in this invisible, abusive relationship.
I hate that I typically notice the Shoulds most after I bend to them in some way. Either through obeying them with my actions or feeling guilty when I don’t, I convey my continued allegiance to their approval. Often times the guilty feelings run low and steady, like soft background music playing in a busy restaurant. God’s common grace to me comes in the form of moments of introspection. The noisy din of my day quiets down long enough for my attention to be focused on that inconspicuous soundtrack. “Why am I feeling guilty right now?” I wonder. The sharp, caustic tones of the Should’s symphony become clearer.
Like a finger pointing in my face, my own thoughts attack even the most mundane decisions, and no matter which way I go, it feels like a misstep.
“You let your baby cry too long last night.”
“You didn’t let her cry long enough to self-soothe.”
“You should have gotten up before the kids, to read the Bible and pray.”
“You better not be falling back into legalism with your ‘quiet time.’”
“That’s the sugary food you’re packing for your kids’ lunches?”
“Wow, they’re going to be disappointed when they see these boring vegetables.”
And I haven’t even made coffee yet.
Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.
Long ago a woman was caught in adultery and brought before a crowd for judgment. I can imagine those pointing fingers, condemning voices, shaking fists, and murderous eyes. She faced the possibility of a gruesome, excruciating death for her transgression. Stoning. A word so archaic today that the weight of it is lost. Being hit so forcefully and repeatedly with rocks that you experience internal bleeding, organ failure, and die.
Right on the heels of a man using her body for his own pleasure, she was now being used by the religious leaders of the day to try and trap Jesus. They saw him as a threat to be neutralized. The Pharisees wielded power over the people, the malignant mass of their manipulation being fed by twisting God’s word and greasing the palms of the politically elite. This man, who claimed to be the Word made flesh, and his message of repentance and faith in the Kingdom of God, burned their evil pride like heavenly radiation. But they had him now!
How would he respond? He must either betray the Mosaic law, given by the God from whom he claimed to descend, or depart from his ministry of healing and loving to engage in violence they could report back to the Roman rulers. The soon-to-be-striped back they thought they’d pushed against the wall stooped down to touch the very dirt he created before time began. The tension was palpable, as everyone awaited his words.
Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.
I wonder how long the silence hung there, as every mind within earshot tried to process the cosmic shift they had just witnessed. Did they realize that this man writing in the dirt, so clearly not interested in throwing stones, was the only sinless one among them?
I wonder what it felt like for the woman to watch her accusers, her abusers, walk away one by one. Death was no longer imminent, but I wonder how long she was able to savor that reprieve before the shame and the shoulds swooped in. But her pardon was before her in bodily form. What it must have felt like to look into Jesus’s eyes! Perhaps for the first time in her life, a man’s gaze rested on her, free of selfish motives and quick assessments of what she could offer him.
She was face to face with her Creator and the lover of her soul, the same man who would soon die to remove her shame forever and offer her his pure, white robes of righteousness.
Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?
No one, Lord.
Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.
John 8:3-11 ESV
Sticks and stones are contrasted to hurtful words in sing-song rhyme, but children grow up to learn the truth of their similarities. Oh, that we’d be taught what to do when the words come from within. When we look down and see the stone in our own hand.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. Romans 8:1-2 ESV
The same freedom offered to that woman thousands of years ago is offered to us today! If we believe by faith that Jesus was Who he said he was- God made flesh- and that he accomplished what the Bible said he did- lived sinless, died in our place, absorbed the full wrath of God toward sin, defeated death by resurrecting after three days, and ascended to the right hand of the Father, reigning today as our faithful advocate- then we are free! Free from condemnation, free from stones hurled from the mouth of the Liar. Free to face the stones in our own hand and speak the gospel truth.
I am not who you say I am. I am who Jesus says I am.
I do not have to please you. I was created by Jesus, to glorify him and enjoy him forever.
I do not have to fear your judgement. Jesus faced the only truly fearful judgement, that of the Holy Father, and he passed the test.
I do not have to perform to meet your arbitrary standards. I am judged by Christ’s perfect performance, and his righteousness covers me.
His Spirit, by his abundant grace, shifts my perspective and removes the fear from my heart, like stones dropping from open hands. Those “should” thoughts lose their power. Their shaking heads and rolling eyes fade completely out of sight, as Jesus extends his nail-scarred hand to me. Why do I contort my life to please such horrible partners, when the Light of the world offers to lead me in the greatest, most joyful dance imaginable? By his grace alone I turn my back on all those Shoulds and take his hand. Lead on, Lord Jesus.