David Seamands states, “The world is made for forgiveness; it’s made for grace; it is made for love in all of life.”
Seamands, author of Freedom from the Performance Trap, points out that when we use the word “ought,” we are referring to owing something to another person. If I say I ought to do something, it means I have an obligation to someone else. In Christian life that is often God, but the reality is that this terminology has so saturated our language that we use it regularly without even realizing that we are referencing another when we do so. When I say that I ought to take out the garbage, I am stating that I am doing it for someone else. That may not be my conscious intent, but on some level I have distanced myself from the task and failed to take responsibility. As a result, there is an internal struggle and a natural push back. I am no longer intrinsically motivated to take out the garbage, it is an extrinsic motivation- meaning I am externally motivated. It does not feel like I am motivated myself, but it feels rather like I am giving in to an outward pressure.
One of the amazing things about the gospel (truly the “good news”) is that God’s grace eliminates the “oughts” of life if we can accept it- all the debts have been paid by Jesus. But I want to extend this idea and elaborate because it is a pivotal part of many systems of therapy and has been influential with my work with clients. Taking responsibility frees us, acting out of “wants” not oughts and should actually makes us better people.
I’ll never forget one client that I had worked with for years. We had a good working relationship so when he told me that he had to go to his in-laws this past weekend instead of go for bike ride, I asked him about the gun that she put to his head. He looked at me puzzled and I said again, “She must have had a gun to your head right? Since you had no choice?” Whenever we use language like “have to,” “must,” “need to,” “ought to,” we are denying that we have choice. I challenged him that he wanted to go to his in laws and he balked at the idea. I asked him why he didn’t go for a bike ride instead. He told me that his wife would be very angry and it would make for a miserable week. I told him that he wanted to go to his in laws more than he wanted to go on a bike ride because he didn’t want to have a miserable week. I added that he also really wanted to work on his marriage because of the various conversations we had. I was surprised by his response. He felt better, more empowered and less controlled. He realized it was a choice and given his options it was the choice he wanted.
We do what we want. When we make a choice it is because it seems to the best option given the set of options available to us. It is no less a want because there is not third option that we really want. Just because it’s not our ideal doesn’t change that it’s still our choice. We have a way of shirking responsibility in our language and reactions. We often take the role of victim claiming that the choices are beyond our control. But that leads to bitterness, anger, helplessness and a lack of agency (the sense that I can impact my life and the world). Our upbringing, experiences, and emotions often prod us to disengage and not take responsibility but it is actually empowering to do so.
Instead of blaming the person who gave you bad advice, accept that you chose to take it. Own your decisions and your failings, but don’t beat yourself up for it. This life was made for grace, we’re allowed to fail because it’s inevitable but we have an ever expanding grace that grows and shifts to fit our life’s brokenness.