Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot from the word “should.” People should do this; they should not do that. The church should be like this; it should not be like that. A writer should do this; she should not do that. You should do this; you should not do that.

Sometimes these shoulds are silent – “That’s very inappropriate.” “Why doesn’t he act his age?” “Tsk. Tsk. Tsk.” Sometimes they are whispered in my own mind – “You should really go on a diet.” “You should read more.” Sometimes they are manipulative or even cruel – “If she really loved me, she would (a subtle form of should).” “A good Sunday School class includes more teaching.” “If you were a real writer, you would write all the time.”

Should is such a horrible word. It thrusts forth a huge amount of guilt toward the person to whom it is directed as if to say if you don’t do this, you really are a horrible person. And of course, what determines what “should” be done is an individual’s (or organization’s or culture’s) sense of what is right and wrong/better or worse; there’s an element of control and power here – if someone feels guilty, they may fall more in line with what we want to see. Since most of us, at least sometimes, think we’re pretty horrible already, I find this use of guilt abominable. Guilt doesn’t motivate us to be better people; it simply motivates to not be the worst version of ourselves.

Even the Bible, that tome that so many see as a bastion of guilt-inducing mandates, doesn’t use “should.” The Ten Commandments are exactly that – commandments. They don’t guilt us into doing something; they just tell us what we will do – “Have no other Gods before the one true God.” “Honor our father and mother.” There’s no manipulation here, no guilt. Just consequence, real and true. The Bible is not about (and our loving God is certainly not about) making us feel bad for what we have left undone; instead, it calls us to be better and gives us precepts and principles (and occasional commandments) for how to get as far toward “better” as we can in this life.

So much of fundamentalism – in religion and in life in general – deals in “shoulds.” A good Christian should . . . . a good student should . . . . a good daughter should . . . . a good husband should . . . . What if instead of should-ing everyone we encouraged them? What if making people feel guilty or holding them to some rigid standard of our own making we urged people on to what is great in them? What if when someone we know does something wonderful we said, “Wow! The way you talked to that older woman showed you were really interested in her. I bet you made her day.” What if we did that instead of saying, “You should be nicer to old people?” What would our world looked if it was full of thoughtful encouragement instead of guilty indictments? What if we trusted God to do the convicting of consciences and gave people the support they needed to live through the consequences of their choices and choices of those around them? What if we loved instead of judged?

The Guilt by Alek Lindus“The Guilt” by Alek Lindus