Should-less Living



Today I will not should on myself.”– Mary Michael O’Shaughnessy

This past week I’ve had several conversations with people in all kinds of contexts where I’ve encountered the horrible weight of the dreaded “should”. So many live under a great sense of difficult obligations and heavy rules. Most of those still feel they are not living up to all that is expected of them. They should be doing more. Their yoke is not easy; their burden is not light.

I should go to church.

I should probably attend that wedding.

I should pray more.

I should wash the dishes.

I should volunteer to do that.

We each respond to the word ‘should’ in different ways. How we hear that depends on the ears we’ve developed over time as we’ve lived out our stories. If we grew up believing that God is harsh and demanding, that he doesn’t care, that he’s out to squish our happiness we will hear the ‘shoulds’ in scripture the same way: hard, dictatorial, demanding, cruel and contributing to our misery. That type of God seems controlling and oppressive. If, however, you grow up and into a God-view that promotes the One who gave up His Son for us, the one who saves us, the One who redeems our lives and generously transfers us from darkness into light upon light everything is different. That God understands we are dust. He knows our frailty—we are that way by his very own design. Knowing that God allows us to hear the ‘shoulds’ as invitations to enter community living with God himself, to participate in the type of life God lives.*

Is it possible then to live life without the weary weight of the ‘should’? What would that even look like? If a new God-view is a part of that—how does that work? Can our opinions of who God is be converted half way through our stories? What new freedoms would we experience if we weren’t bound by the tyranny of the oppressive ‘should’?

I’ve been mulling these things over and I offer up these ideas for exploring should-less living. They are curiosity driven and not entirely comprehensive. I feel certain I will be exploring this topic more, but I give these to you in hopes that we will explore this together.

— Not all of these are from me. I asked people I know that live from a place of freedom for their thoughts on it and I’ve credited them at the bottom of the post. These friends seem to have skirted the ‘should’ in a grace-filled way. The first set of these thoughts deal with the heart behind the ‘should’—the next are perhaps more practical in how to respond to the rising ‘should’ that pops up on our soul’s radar from time to time.

  1. It would behoove each of us to examine how we view God. Who do I think He is? How do I think He reacts to me? What characteristics qualify his personality? Who is God? I would suggest writing this out. Spend some time on it. So much of how we “do” life is based on this fundamental starting line. When you’ve got it penned down, take a step back, and look at it objectively. You might invite someone else to take a look too. Have a conversation about this. Seek out a friend or a clergy person or a spiritual director. Invite God into the conversation too. Ask him to reveal his True Self to you!
  2. If what you are carrying around is not easy and not light, might I suggest, shaking that off, and taking up Jesus…or better yet, let Jesus take you up. As He gently gathers you in his arms, He will carry you close to His heart (Is 40:11). What he gives to you to hold on to is lightweight and effortless. Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly (Matt 11:28-30 The Message). *
  3. Our culture puts so much pressure on us. We live with so many expectations placed on us—do more, make more, work harder, be skinnier, look younger, eat healthier. But when we start living in and out of Jesus our perspectives change and the things we ‘should’ do no longer have the same hold on us. Grace flows out of that truth. The pressure is off! The things we now want to do from our new pivotal point in Christ far exceed the things we used to feel obligated to do. The oughts are gone! *
  4. There is a profound difference in being driven to do something and being called to it. Driven ‘shoulds’ drive us toward burnout and resentment. When we are called to something everything changes. We experience joy and a mysterious sort of energy. *
  5. Obedience is a virtue. The question really is Who or What are we obeying? *
  6. “Duty only takes us so far; at some point we must delight in what is ours, in the relationships and responsibilities that are ours. It is duty and desire together that make for a good life, not only knowing what I should do, but wanting to do what I should do.” Steven Garber, Visions of Vocation. p222.
  7. As we are settling these things in our stories it’s imperative that we not impose our understanding of our freedom and our calling on anyone else. That’s when the ‘shoulds’ become cumbersome and wearisome. Another’s shoulds are not ours. They do not belong to us. We do well to remember that in our enthusiasm for a cause. My friend Russ said it like this: “We need to present (our ideas) graciously to others not as authoritative but as the out workings of the gospel in our lives allowing freedom for God to lead another differently according to (God’s) wisdom, goodness, sovereignty, and the Spirit of truth. We ought not to assume the position of God in these matters but rather be like, dare I say, the Bereans (who) seek out the truth in community. We must be able to teach all that he has commanded, no more and no less.”
  8. Simple ‘shoulds’ are invitations of sorts. They invite us to examine our own hearts. To be curious about our motivations. To peek past what we do, to why we do it. Accept the invitation. Sit with your ‘should’. Notice its pull. When do you feel it? What effect does it have on you? Who or What are you wanting to please? Ask what this ‘should’ is doing for you? What would happen if you didn’t obey the ‘should’? What might that feel like?
  9. My friend Susanne commented, “If you get a feeling of dread at the prospects of doing something you might want to reconsider your commitment. One should avoid long term or indefinite commitments to things that don’t bring you joy.” Another friend, Yvonne, texted, “I know if I’m going to resent doing something, then I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t do it!”

I know in many ways this is too big for one blog post—but I’ve felt compelled to give you what I’ve got, to at least stir up some grace in each of us, to begin conversations about freedom and joy and restored commitments to the One who came to give us “a rich and satisfying life!” (John 10:10)



  1. Taken from three texting conversations: one with my friend and pastor Steve, one with my friend and cousin Maria and the last with my friend Cindy.
  2. Some of these thoughts distilled from a message from my friend Russ.
  3. This wisdom also came from my friends Maria and Cindy.
  4. These thoughts came from my dearest Lowell.
  5. This is also from Lowell.
  6. Steven Garber, Visions of Vocation. p222.
  7. My friend Russ thinks deeply about this stuff.
  8. This is the voice of a Spiritual Director!
  9. My friends Susanne and Yvonne are good at discerning their no–and finding joy in it!