Anxiety’s False Interpretations (Part 8): False Shoulds

The word “should” connotes some level of moral obligation. We should worship God. We should honor our father and mother. We should tell the truth, flee sexual immorality, and restrain our tongues. the Bible is full of commands and yet anxiety is often prone to put an emphasis on that which for which we are not morally responsible. False-shoulds is an interpretation that suggests to us that we are wrong, sinful, or in major error if we do not take care of non-moral matters. Under the influence of this interpretation we will give moral weight to either unrealistic or non-moral issues. The ammunition to fight back against this interpretation comes as we remember that morality is defined by the Word of God.

“Where does the Bible say that this is wrong?” It was a massively important question for Melody, and on we asked nearly every counseling session. She had a sensitive conscience and was prone to turn every feeling of guilt and shame into a serious sin. When she was unable to help her mom pack up boxes one weekend (due to another obligation) she felt that she had sinned grievously. When she violated the rules of her diet, she was sure she had disappointed God. When she let the kids watch too many movies she determined that she was a bad mom. In each case she was adding moral weight to non-moral matters. In none of these scenarios was she violating a principle of God’s Word.

She tried to convince herself that she was violating the Scriptures. Our anxious minds are always searching for some justification for our feelings. She could tell herself that an inability to help her mom pack was a failure to honor her mother. She could tell herself that a violation of her diet was a failure to let her “yes” be “yes.” She even told herself that letting the kids watch TV all day was not “raising them in the fear and admonition of the Lord.” But these were self-determined interpretation, they did not derive from the text of Scripture. It was possible to honor her mother and be unavailable one weekend; it was also possible fore the kids to love the Lord and binge watch the Pixar catalog one day. God did not tell her that these activities were sins, and by adding moral weight where there wasn’t any she was condemning herself.

The Scriptures give us a prime example of this type of false filter in the infamous story of Mary and Martha. Luke recounts how Jesus came to their home and while he was teaching Martha busied herself with playing hostess. The desire to be a good hostess is not, in and of itself, a wrong desire. It can be a wonderful way to show hospitality and care for guests. In this case, however, Martha was wrong. She was wrong because, as the text tells us, she was “distracted” from spending time with Jesus. She was also wrong because she created a moral obligation where there was none. We read of her complaint and Jesus response in Luke 10:40-42:

But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

Martha felt responsible to be hostess and she felt so responsible that she was willing to impose that expectation on her sister. Jesus corrects her. While being a good hostess is honorable, it’s not a moral issues and therefore not a requirement. She could let go of the expectation and sit with Jesus.

We often create expectations for ourselves and others that stem more from cultural customs, perfectionist tendencies, and upbringing. We create moral obligations where God does not and, as a result, set ourselves up for anxiety. The solution is to turn to God’s Word and confirm or denounce our expectations. We must, like Martha was forced to in this text, go to Jesus with our expectations. We must seek to understand where our ethical standards are coming from. God sets the standard and if our moral obligations cannot be grounded in his decisions then we are wrong!

Does this necessarily erase the feelings of anxiety? No, but it gives us an opportunity to fight back with intentionality and focus. We can zero in on our expectations and confront them with the truth of God’s Word. He sets the standards and if I feel guilty for failing at something that is not described in Scripture as sinful, then I can identify that guilt as a false guilt and attempt to move forward differently. God establishes what is a moral obligation, not us. So, ask yourself:

  1. Does this responsibility come from God’s Word?
  2. Is it an indirect implication of a command in Scripture? If so, is my failure an obvious violation of that indirect implication?
  3. Do other wise and godly people agree with my assessment of failure? Can they help me see something different from Scripture?
  4. Is God more gracious with me than I am with myself about this issue? How do I know that?
  5. Do I hold to this expectation because I read it in God’s Word and care about obedience, or for some other reasons rooted in self?

Let God’s Word help you evaluate your personal expectations. Challenge your anxiety’s false interpretations with the authority of God’s moral standard.

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