ix. A Sense of ‘Should’

If there was ever a word to be banished from the English language due to its disservice to mankind, it’s ‘should’.

‘Should’ is a little menace that sits on your shoulder and pipes up every now and then to tell you what you ought to be doing, who you ought to be, and whether or not you are on-track with life. I’m pretty sure half the reason I frequently feel exhausted is down to my sense of “I should…”. Mine likes to tell me that I should have achieved more by now. I should be more interesting and knowledgeable as a person. And I should definitely say yes to hundreds of things, even if I’m running myself ragged, rather than say no and give myself time to rest.

Sound familiar? ‘Should’ is basically a big emotional stick that we beat ourselves over the head with. And beyond the worldly pressures it piles on us, the sense of ‘should’ can also sneak into our thoughts and feelings about relationships; “I should feel chemistry with my partner every day”, “I should feel happy and in love all the time”, or, in my experience, “I should never be doubting my feelings this much”.

Where does all this ‘should’ pressure come from?!

What this sense of ‘should’ is really evoking in us, in all of these scenarios, is the belief that there is one right path to take – or otherwise lots of potential wrong paths. It makes us feel that a decision is either a right decision or a wrong decision, and someone is either a right partner (THE right partner) or a wrong partner; and you should, apparently, have no doubts at all if you’ve chosen correctly.

But the truth is that ‘should’, in this pressurising, black and white, right or wrong context, is utterly draining. When it comes to relationships, it’s also really incredibly unhelpful; there simply isn’t one ‘right’ person for each of us, and questioning your feelings does not make something ‘wrong’. The thinking of ‘should’ shackles us in the spiral of uncertainty and anxiety – the complete opposite of Jesus.

Jesus came to free us, and so I reckon he is pretty keen that we shed those shackles. John 8 verse 36 tells us “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” and Psalm 119 verse 54 reminds us “I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.

That’s freedom to be following where God leads us, rather than the ‘should’-versions of our own worldly plans, and free to choose a partner without needing to worry that they are definitely Mr or Mrs Right.

Freedom, not pressure. Peace, not fear. That’s his light yolk – let’s swap our ‘shoulds’ for that.

vi. The Choice

Many years ago when my brother got engaged, I remember him telling me that he didn’t always feel in love with his fiancé. “Love isn’t a feeling, but a choice”, he told me.

At the time, I thought it was the most unromantic thing I’d ever heard. I distinctly remember thinking that, unlike him, love for me would be so absolutely blindingly obvious that it’d never have to be a ‘choice’. Love would choose me.

Years later, and it’s ironic to find myself repeating my brother’s words as advice to an engaged friend. Only now, after years of my own marriage, I can see what he meant.

There are times when feelings of love rise up easily; when things are going well, when you’re gelling happily with your partner, or life is generally good and that positivity spills over into your relationship. And then there are times when, sometimes with no seemingly obvious explanation at all, you just do not feel it.

Now I know that I love HF, but I can promise you that knowledge is not based on a barometer of my consistent feelings towards him. Yes, a lot of the time I feel happily ‘in love’ and all is well. But there are also many times when my love-radar is on holiday, and I don’t feel particularly enamored at all; indeed sometimes my dominant emotion towards him is more along the lines of irritation than anything else.

At those times, choosing to love someone feels hard. It can also lead to all kinds of anxious thoughts, questioning whether it’s time to throw in the towel, or taking it as a sign that you made the wrong choice in your partner. So what do you do when, in the words of Top Gun, “you’ve lost that loving feeling”?

Well, let’s consider another area of life where feelings come and go: faith.

There are times when we feel fired up for God, willing to go the extra mile for the gospel and to lay down our lives for it. At other times we don’t feel it so much; life plods along and we might continue on in our prayers and church-life through more of a sleepy haze. But we still choose – we choose to persevere in our faith even when we’re not spiritually on fire, when we’re tired or sick, and even when we don’t feel like God is near. We choose to believe, to know, that he is there and worth pursuing. Faith, like love, is a choice. 

Probably one of the most destructive modern concepts is that falling in love just happens to you; like falling into a puddle. Films and novels can have us believe that unless we’re constantly skipping along together hand-in-hand and goey-eyed, that there’s something wrong. ‘Love shouldn’t be hard’, culture tells us; ‘it’s easy when it’s right’.

But that is utter nonsense. Like with faith, we have to keep choosing love – especially when we don’t feel like it. That’s what makes a relationship, whether with a partner or with God, go the distance. It’s when we stop choosing it that it stops working.

Ironically, I think this is when we see love at its most beautiful. When it’s difficult to love someone; when it doesn’t seem like there’s much in it for us, but we choose to love the other person anyway despite them being tired, stressed, grumpy, or ill – that’s the gritty, hard, beautiful love that Jesus is all about.

And even more ironically it’s usually when we show love, in spite of our feelings, that it really blooms. Loving actions often lead to loving feelings; a joyful side effect.

It turns out that my brother is quite the romantic after all.

v. Comparisons

If I had a penny for every time I compared myself to others, I could probably buy my own Caribbean island by now.

Recently, we had dinner with some friends who, from where I’m standing, look like they have the perfect marriage. They post cute pictures together on Facebook, they seem to be besotted with each other, and everything about them appears to be just, well, wonderful.

That’s why it came as a surprise when the conversation turned to marriage, and they revealed that they frequently miscommunicate and end up arguing with each other. I shouldn’t have been shocked; of course they are a completely normal couple. But I have to confess I was also pretty relieved. In my mind, they were on a pedestal of “ideal marriage”, that I hadn’t realised I’d been comparing my own relationship to.

Comparison is a dangerous game, especially for those caught in the trap of relationship-related or any other form of anxiety. When we’re feeling uncertain, searching for confirmation and looking around for a model of what is ‘right’ can be very tempting, and equally destructive.

It’s also incredibly unreliable. What we see on the outside is not always, if ever, the full picture of how things really are. This is particularly true of social media, where statuses and photos usually portray everyone as constantly happy, successful and living life to the max. Let’s face it, most people don’t post about being bored, lonely or feeling down – understandably, few of us want to showcase the less sunny parts of our lives to the world.

The truth is that we rarely see others through an accurate lens. And this makes comparison a pretty futile exercise – when we match ourselves up to others, we’re doing it against a perception rather than reality.

The other danger, as well as being inaccurate, is that comparing sucks contentment out of our lives.

There are two potential outcomes when we compare to others. We either feel we’re not as good/successful/in love/happy as someone else, leading to anxious or depressive thoughts, or we feel we’re better than someone else and have a burst of pride that puts the other person down. Neither is positive nor fruitful. Whichever way around, comparing saps the joy out of our lives and our friendships, making it difficult to both enjoy our own blessings and to feel genuine happiness for other people’s.

So what’s the antidote to The Comparison Game? I think we can find it in Philippians 4, verse 19: “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in Christ Jesus”.

God promises to provide for all our needs, and to have created us exactly as we are according to his good plans. So not only is comparing to others unhelpful and unreliable, it also undermines the promises we’ve been given from our loving Heavenly Father.

Just like with anxiety, it’s gratitude and trust that free us from the shackles of comparison – giving thanks for the abundance of our own blessings, and trusting in God’s perfect provision for our lives.

This is the Jesus-shaped route back to joy – the kind that is beyond all compare.

iii. Gut Feelings

Oh gut feelings. How you torment me so!

From which career path to take, to whom to marry, I’m the kind of person that relies quite heavily on my gut. People say it all the time; “listen to your heart”, “trust your gut and you can’t go far wrong”, and my personal dreaded favourite, “when you know, you just know”.

What is this ‘gut feeling’, and why do we offer each other advice so readily to listen to it, and especially to rely on it as some kind of psychic guide when it comes to making major life decisions? Can you ever ‘just know’, really?

When I got engaged to HF, my gut went on overdrive: “this is wrong” it told me, constantly, to the point of making me physically ill. If you’re going to make a decision as monumentous as getting married, that is the right time to be paying attention to your gut instinct, surely? And, if you don’t ‘just know’, then perhaps it’s just not right.

Except what I wish I could go back and tell myself now, is that your ‘heart’ and ‘gut’ feelings do not know the future. They do not have magical powers, and they can’t tell you whether your decision will lead to success or failure, happiness or heartache. What they point to instead, is fear.

My gut/heart/inner-self or whatever you want to call it, was so terrified of making a ‘mistake’ (having had it ingrained by every Hollywood and Disney movie known to man that such a thing is possible), that it started waving a big red flag as soon as HF proposed and the possibility of being hurt was trebled.

In some cases, there are reasons to listen to these feelings – if there’s an underlying issue such as conflicting views on faith or having a family, for example, and certainly if you’re in a hurtful or abusive relationship in any way. These situations need prayerful consideration. But if it’s something like “the way he chews his food really bothers me” or “I don’t feel the same spark as I did with that hard-to-get/unavailable/uncommitted ex”… then perhaps it’s more a case of the fear-factor.

The other tricky issue, as a Christian, is deciphering whether or not these niggles could actually be a prompt from the Holy Spirit. In the Bible there are plenty of examples of people being convicted about things by the Spirit, and the apostle Paul writes about his conscience “bearing witness in the Holy Spirit” . When your gut is prodding you, it can be hard – and highly anxiety-inducing – to be sure whether it’s fear or God speaking.

But here’s the helpful distinction for the anxious person: the language of the Holy Spirit is not panic.

The God of peace doesn’t fill you with an overwhelming sense of anxiety as a way of telling you not to marry someone; especially if that person is a kind, loving and good match for you. Instead, we need to look to what the anxiety is pointing to inside – what fears are dwelling underneath the veneer of feeling “this isn’t right”.

So the next time your gut pipes up with its ‘sense of knowing’, pay attention, because it’s telling you something. But just be cautious about how you read its message – when it comes to gut feelings, all is not always as it seems.

ii. “What if” & “If only”

“If”. Such a little word, yet such an epic menace.

Anxiety loves to start sentences with “What if” or “If only”. In the height of my marriage-related anxiety, thoughts like “What if I’m making a mistake” and “If only I had a sign from God, then I’d know it’s going to be ok”, played on repeat. Even now, I can find myself coaxed into worrying about a never-ending list of potential upcoming disasters. I worry about what might happen if I get sick before an important event or whilst away on holiday, and I let my mind wander to anxious thoughts about the security I could’ve had if only I’d married an investment banker instead of my lovely, non-investment banker husband.

The trouble with the tiny but mighty word “if”, is that it lives in the future. And the future is a massive unknown. Irrespective of how much I worry about it, I cannot control whether any of my loved ones develop a terminal illness. I also cannot control suddenly being made redundant. Really, I even have a limited amount of control over the future of my marriage, because I do not control HF. Despite all my best wifely efforts, I don’t know for sure that he isn’t going to run off with someone else down the line, and there is no guarantee that we’ll have a long and/or happy marriage.

No wonder this little word has so much power over us; in the fallen world in which we live, there is a lot that could go wrong.

But the Bible has a pretty awesome antidote to “if”-syndrome. Jesus offers us an alternative to the endless worrying and wondering about how things are going to pan out. He promises that he has a plan for our lives, and that – unlike us – he really is in control.

Apparently God tells us “Do not be afraid” more than three hundred times in the Bible. Crikey. That’s a lot of reassurance, and from a good source – God, being in control of everything, doesn’t just want us to give up our addictions to hypothetical worrying. He wants us to lean on him fully, to stop trying to control things ourselves and then turning to jelly when we realise that we can’t. He asks us to trust him and his perfect plans.

So even “if” my life turns into a disaster, and that strange pain in my leg turns out to be an incurable disease, and HF decides he’s had enough of me and leaves for someone far more interesting and a million times more beautiful, Jesus tells me he’s with me for the long-haul.

Nothing is a surprise to God – he doesn’t deal in “if”s. He knew I’d type these words before I even thought of them, and he knew you’d read them exactly where you are, right now. We don’t have to live trapped by fear of the unknown, because all things are known to him.

So I don’t need to be afraid of the ‘what ifs’ – if only I trust him.