What to Do About ‘Shoulding’?

Time Magazine calls Dr. Becky Kennedy, a 40-year-old Manhattan psychologist and mother of three, “the Millennial Parenting Whisperer.” Dr. Becky, as her legions of fans call her, started offering short parenting videos on an Instagram account she launched in 2020. She quickly went from no followers to almost a million in the space of a year. From that platform she has sold more than 35,000 workshops—on topics ranging from potty training to how to deal with “deeply feeling kids.” Her style is decidedly counter to the “helicopter parenting” environment so many Millennials experienced growing up. Empathetic but firm is a good description.

One more crucial element of her popularity—Dr. Becky offers young parents grappling with helplessness and despair a lifeline of shoulds. In the same spirit as the wildly popular Ask Amy syndicated column, written by the Chicago Tribune’s Amy Dickinson, Dr. Becky gives pointed, specific advice on exactly how parents should handle their challenges. Like Dickinson, that advice-giving extends to “Here’s exactly what you should say/do.” In her Time profile of Dr. Becky, writer Doree Shafrir says: “Having someone like Kennedy tell you, straight up, not just that you’re doing a good job, but also here’s exactly what to say to your kid who refuses to put on his shoes every morning, offers just a small bit of control over a world that can seem very out of our control.”

It’s tempting for ministry leaders to do likewise.

Like Kennedy and Dickinson, we are embedded in a generation of young parents who crave Christian-living shoulds. That’s why so many of our sermons sound more like TED Talks than expeditions into the heart of Jesus, and the Kingdom of God he came to reveal. The pressure to should people is always pushing us toward religious imperatives—the determined do’s and don’ts of what passes for the spiritual life. But at what point does this become pandering to the quick-fix spirit of the age? It’s tempting to invite people to live in a spirit of duty, because we can make that sound do-able. For example, I can make sure to switch on the coffee pot just before my wife gets up or carry the groceries in from the car, but those do-able acts are not relationally risky. Counselor and author Steve Merritt says: “[Shoulds] put us in the driver’s seat for a moment. We briefly—and falsely—receive the earthly acceptance we crave. But [shoulds] create only two kinds of people: Pharisees and failures.” When we trade a relational passion for Jesus for the do-able shoulds of the Christian life, we ignore the “one thing” that really matters.

When Martha of Bethany invites a tired, hungry, and thirsty Jesus into her home, she quickly fixates on the do-able shoulds of a hospitable host—scrambling to make sure she serves Jesus well. But her sister Mary is apparently oblivious to Martha’s growing resentment. Instead, she is “seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to His word.” And Martha, just as you and I would likely do, blows a gasket: “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.” Jesus’ response subversively undermines Martha’s hanging shoulds: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only a few things are necessary, really only one, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42).

When we encourage people be dutiful about their shoulds in the Christian life, we’re also encouraging them to keep God at a respectable distance. We’re inadvertently encouraging them to follow orders, rather than follow their heart.  I didn’t marry until I was 29. What if my parents, worried I was destined for a lifetime of loneliness, decided to do the heavy lifting for me? What if they’d knocked on my door one night and I’d opened it to find them standing there with a woman I’d known in college, but not very well? And what if they said: “Hey, we’ve found someone we think is perfect for you—we’ve checked her out and we’re a hundred percent sure you should love her”? And what if, during this long and awkward encounter on my doorstep, my parents grew increasingly insistent about this woman’s obvious matrimonial qualifications, and increasingly frustrated by my reluctance to get in lock-step with their should?

That’s right—yuck. We’re just not wired by God this way. Jesus doesn’t want a “supposed-to” relationship with us. He doesn’t want to be that girl, standing on my doorstep, listening to my parents convince me into loving her. He wants to be known and loved for who he is—the only way that’s going to happen is for us to slow down and get to know his heart. Have we really soaked in the personality of Jesus—pursued him as the most fascinating, magnetic, and beautiful person who ever lived? And if he’s really all that incredible, why are “supposed-to’s” even necessary? People who are caught up in a great passion don’t have to be told to focus on the object of their affection; it’s hard to stop thinking about the person, actually. That’s not because we should be preoccupied with the object of our affection—we simply can’t help ourselves, because we’re inexorably drawn to beauty.

Jesus wants to capture our hearts, not force our obedience. And shoulds serve the latter, not the former.

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following JesusHe’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution, The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. In the Spring of 2024 his new book Editing Jesus: Confronting the Distorted Faith of the American Church will be published. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.


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