Miller didn’t know if the man was aware of the fact that he is an evangelical Christian. Whether the surgeon knew it or not that last comment caught Miller up short. Are evangelicals really known for helping people even though they don’t enjoy it? Are they characterized by doing good things for people dutifully but joylessly? That would certainly seem to be the surgeon’s perception. This led Miller to admit to himself that Christians do seem to spend a lot of time talking about what we “ought to” do or “should” do. He determined that perhaps we should be a lot less focused on what we “ought” to do and more on what we want to do. Perhaps, he concluded, like that surgeon we’d be more full of joy and of life if we spent more of our days doing things we find to be fun. Perhaps we would have more passion about whatever we do if we lost the “ought to” emphasis.
I see many verses in the Bible that say that the life of God in us should in no way look like a death march. Quite the opposite. Jesus talked of knowing the truth and it setting us free. He said that coming to know him will in fact remove the crushing weight of the “ought to” life and give us a burden that is “light,” bringing rest for our souls. God’s Word is depicted in Psalm 119 as being delightful and in Psalm 19 as giving light to the eyes. The kingdom of God, Paul wrote, is about peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. All of this sounds hugely appealing. I want to get out from under the cloud of failure, guilt, obligation and duty into the light of freedom, joy and rejoicing. And that is what the Gospel of Jesus Christ promises us. So maybe Donald Miller is on to something.
However, before I go overboard and live solely for what I want to do, there are some things I need to notice. Yes, the Bible speaks much of peace, rest, joy and freedom. But Jesus also calls on us to deny ourselves. Typically I don’t want to do that. That requires doing something rather unappealing, something that may well not be fun, because it is what I “should” do. Ephesians 6:12 says, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood.” Struggle? The Greek word Paul used there meant “hand-to-hand fight.” Uh, that doesn’t sound very restful. 1 Thessalonians 4:3-4 says “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable.” Wow, that’s three “should’s” in two verses. That’s quite a bit of “ought to.” As I read the Bible I see no way to avoid the fact that there are a lot of calls for us to do things that we “should” or “ought to.” In fact, there is no way to talk about God’s will and about what the Christian life is like without saying what we should do and be.
I also notice that “ought” isn’t always or necessarily an onerous thing. Last fall when we were on vacation we played tennis several times. Our reaction each time we played was “we ought to do this more often.” We certainly did not mean by that statement that we had a moral duty to play tennis more frequently. Our “ought to” in that case was a reminder to ourselves to have more enjoyment in our lives. We have not followed through on that “ought to.” Particularly during the cold and wet winter months we have not played tennis. I do not carry around a sense of guilt about that. I have not dedicated myself to fulfilling some duty to play tennis because we have decided we “ought to.” So that says to me that having fun and enjoying something is not the opposite of “ought to.”
I also note that there are many things that I do though they are not fun because I “should,” but that I am very glad I do them. I do not look forward all day to flossing my teeth. I do it because I should. I don’t gleefully floss with reckless abandon and a huge sense of freedom and joy. Flossing is not fun, at least not for me. I do it because it is what I must do to keep my teeth and gums healthy. So, yes, I ought to do it, and I don’t especially enjoy it when I do, but I am glad I do it. I am thankful that I have had dentists who have drilled into me I should floss. In fact there are many, many things in life that fall into that category. If I never floss, brush my teeth, exercise, pay my bills, say “no” to eating doughnuts every day, and so many other more important things I “ought to” do, I’m going to destroy myself. Those things I must do may not be “fun” and I may not necessarily feel like I “want to” do them, but in fact I do want to do them. I want to do them because I desire the results they bring in my life.
Perhaps what is needed in this discussion is a definition of “want.” There are many things I don’t “want” to do if “want” is defined as “feel like” or “enjoy as fun.” But I actually do “want” to do these things because they produce something in my life that is way more important to me than how I feel at the moment I am doing them. I rarely “want” to exercise or “feel like” doing it, but I want to keep my body as healthy as possible, so I choose it even though I don’t “feel like it.” This is so true when it comes to spiritual and moral choices. I choose to sanctify myself as Paul commanded in 1 Thessalonians 4 not because I feel like it, but because I want to do the will of God.
So I guess we “ought” not to rid ourselves of the word “ought.” Nevertheless, I do believe Miller was on to something. Jesus did come to bring rest for our souls. He did come to bring us freedom. I think at the core of the whole thing is the life of grace. When we live in God’s grace the burden of “ought” is removed. That burden really is “you must do this or you are unacceptable, unapproved, unloved, and worthless.” Yes, there are things we ought to do that may be no fun to do. But we do them because we desire the results they will bring. We do them knowing that because of God’s grace we are loved and approved and nothing will ever change that. As a result I believe that God wants us to live freely, to live a life of reckless abandon to his joy and his freedom.