The Pressure of Do’s and Don’ts: The Secret Language of Policing Behavior



Whenever I see a post titled “7 Ways to Know How” or “What You Should Obviously Know” or “Don’t Do This or You’re A D-Bag” — I get a little knot in my guts and I’m compelled to tattoo all the info in my brainfolds.  It’s an overwhelming shock of adrenaline and endorphins.  I feel both a mini-panic-attack and a bursting well of satisfaction that I suddenly know more than the helpless masses, because I got the secret sauce from Cracked and Relevant and Christianity Today, so I’m ready to flex my newfound skills to impress my witless friends.

Many of these practical tips are useful, and maybe even life-saving.  There are experts who have done it better than us, and we need to hear from them.

But all this anxiety-driven pragmatism either 1) paralyzes me into a deep fear of failure, or 2) gets me in an uppity self-righteous superiority over others who don’t know nothing.

I also get the sneaking suspicion that I’m just copying some programmatic method to earn the approval of my culture-bubble, and if I don’t know the 20 Facts on What To Do When I’m 20, then I’m totally losing at life.

I can see the slithery snake of a needle underlying all these “Do’s and Don’ts.”  We have suspected a secret insider-language suffocating every must-know list —

You should.  You’re supposed to.  You have to.  You better — or else.  If you miss this — you’re out.  Get on my program, or you’re dead.

I’m not sure this is any better than religion.  It sounds like we’re adding burdens rather than setting people free.  And a list of “How To Set People Free” is still dripping with the poison of arrogance.

It’s just adding rules about how to follow rules.  This is legalism, and it’s not okay.

Bloody Puppets in Control of Control

If a preacher gives three points every Sunday, he’s smacking down over 150 points per year.  Throw in Fridays and that’s 300.  Throw in Wednesday Bible Study and Sunday evening service, and that’s over 600 things to remember.

Who else added over 600 need-to-know things on their list?

Oh, right.  These guys.  The original schoolyard bullies.

I understand why we do this.  I understand the need for it. Three-point-sermons can bring the fire, and a self-help bestseller can clean you up for a while.  But inside every book, blog post, sermon, TV host, and street-corner therapist is a desperate manic need for control.  We want to wrestle every scenario into an ideal shrinkwrapped cube of carbonite.

So we pile on a perfectionist manifesto, and end up with a twitchy, neurotic, hardly functional clone regurgitating the 19 Steps to Keeping It Real In Ministry, and he doesn’t even know why.

We find eventually: this doesn’t work.  People are not designed to live under fear or the threat of conformity.  We are not created for slightly sarcastic non-formula formulas written by a bitter blogger in his basement.  But many of us fall into it — and we’re drowning in marginally better technique.

Most of us are marionettes hung by a thousand bloody strings attached to pragmatic fragments, without a script or direction or destination, dancing madly at the latest loudest cue.

This is an untenable burden that will steal the God-given pneuma out of your veins.


Bricks, Dirt, Gut, Sun

Perhaps more importantly —

You might know all the how-to, but you’ll never know what for.  You’ll never know the why.

Something has to compel us into an internally motivated, lifetime sustainable, inside-out life.  Otherwise, all these “do’s and don’ts” are just parole officers waiting for you to fail.  They are bricks, all shape and no soul.  We are plants, waiting for light and water to break in.

Life starts from the roots, from the pit, from the gut.  It starts from a seed of unconditional acceptance, pushing through the dirt into the sun.  Seeds have a law, but they are nourished by love.

You’ve met people who have truly been rocked by inside-out motivation.  That person who is passionate about his work, but not attached to results.  The one who loves everyone, but she really needs no one.  The guy who isn’t so hard on you when you make a mistake, and guides you into a better version of yourself without you even knowing it.  She is not moved by self-promotion, image maintenance, or Darwin-esque survival.  She appears to have a reason of No-Reason without expecting anything back.

Some of us say this comes from having children, from a social cause, from discipline, from a lover.  But all these are in danger of enslaving me once they make demands, and none of them can save me.  They cannot set me free.


A Rest for Peace, a Resolve to Fight

As a follower of Christ, I take this up all the way to the highest place.  However you might be struggling with God or the Bible or the church: I believe even in my darkest doubt that we are compelled by a love who loves us before we did a single thing to prove our worth, and I’m free to walk into that love, with my gritty imperfections and messed up motives and my rough raw edges.

Where everyone else and every other system demands I prove my smarts, my resume, my sexual prowess, my outgoing-ness, my ability to follow the three-points — there is a sacred space where I can quit selling myself.  I am pre-approved here, qualified before I walk in the door.  There is even acceptance here for legalists, for Pharisees, for those who burdened others with the rules they failed to keep themselves.

In this place, the rules are helpful, but they are not the ultimate measuring stick for my worth.  They are not the be-all, end-all.  They cannot tell me if I’m good enough or not enough.  They help my behavior, but not who I am becoming.  They only remind me that I fail, and they point to the one who doesn’t.

If the story of Jesus is true, that means:

I can rest.  I can relax.  My motivation is NOT in gaining acceptance: but it starts in the acceptance He has already given.  I can find resolve by knowing He resolved to find me first.  I can fight, because He fought for me.

We can quit getting antsy over do’s and don’ts.  We have room to fail, and in this we can succeed.

I pray we move into this rest.  I pray we drink of His grace.


“[To have Faith in Christ] means, of course, trying to do all that He says. There would be no sense in saying you trusted a person if you would not take his advice. Thus if you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. But trying in a new way, a less worried way. Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already. Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.”

— C.S. Lewis

— J.S.

6 thoughts on “The Pressure of Do’s and Don’ts: The Secret Language of Policing Behavior

  1. We all need directions to follow a path. For example, when you drive or journey. a road sign, or today a GPS device. Perhaps some geek may design an app in the future to warn all of us what to avoid to prevent us from making foolish decisions. You are right about too many do not instructions in life. Perhaps that is because there are too many detours available to stray us off a straight path in life.


  2. It’s a tough ride, man. I was surprised to learn a few years back that there were some Pharisees who were real: they were actually in it to try their best to be the straight up people of God. So there were some who did all that stuff with the right spirit, and I’m sure that helped at least from time to time.

    So I believe it comes down to our approach, and you noted that from the start. If we take these snippets of insight as a way to take control of our lives, to get answers or enact changes in our lives that the Holy Spirit may not be giving or doesn’t want to give us just yet, then we are Pharisees in the most negative sense.

    The hard part is learning to always be mindful of the difference, as if we really did commit to abandoning control of our spiritual journeys when we put the Savior in control. And I’m not very good at that. (I’ll still read your blog, though. :-))


    1. Yes, agreed. To echo you, I believe the church does need Marthas. We need a Nicodemus. The Pharisees were not all evil and I probably jumped too quick to declare “legalism.” I just see so much burdensome pragmatism that we become pinballs getting bounced around by the latest advice, never quite stopping to take it all in. I wonder how many college students are on autopilot and simply following signs and goal posts. I wonder how many Christians and business owners and doctors feel imprisoned by “going through the motions.” So much of these do’s and don’ts churn out assembly line people. I agree it’s helpful to know. I just hope we digest it as part of something bigger and not merely stop there.


      1. On “autopilot”! Wow, that’s sounds a lot like a blog I posted on October 25 (he says, hoping JS will let the shameless plug for his blog slide)!

        You’re right on. Another problem with this burdensome pragmatism of the latest popular advice is that it causes us to stop thinking for ourselves. We just regurgitate religious talking points.

        Thanks for your time, JS.


  3. I grew up reading the Bible for the lists of “dos and don’ts,” thinking that this would make me a better person (in some regards it did. 😉 ). But in doing so, I think I completely missed the point.

    When God says, “Don’t,” it’s because He doesn’t. When God says, “Do,” it’s because He does. I’ve learned much about the character of God by reading His word in this way. This, in turn, increased my love for Him, which caused my heart to yearn to please Him, since I want to be like my Daddy!

    Having studied the lists of “dos and don’ts” in order to know Him better causes my attitudes…then my actions to change as a result of time spent with Him in this way (and with a TON of help from the Spirit!).



    1. That’s a great way of putting it. I really believe the dos and don’ts are necessary, but of course they begin from a heart of love for us. Without knowing the core, we go straight into bad religion. You’re right on.


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