Get to? Or Have to?

Get to? Or Have to?

I think it was Bert and John Jacobs, in their book about their clothing brand Life is Good, who first flagged for me the fundamental difference in mindset that happens when we say we get to do something compared to when we say we have to do something.

Think about it: How different is it to say “I get to go to work today” than “I have to go to work today?” “I get to work out today” versus “I have to work out today”. You can change your life just by changing those phrases out, by the way.

Maybe the biggest barrier to making peace with yourself and with God is that we put love on the wrong side of ethics. We think about peace, or happiness, or acceptance, as something that we can only find after we do a bunch of “have-to” things. For a lot of people, that means keeping commandments (which by the very nature of them are “have-tos”) or measuring up to all the other norms and rules and unspoken expectations of what a “good person” does. For others, it means accomplishing some great calling or mission (which I can verify is every bit as much of a trap). Only to the degree that you do those “have-tos” do you get to feel peace, happiness, God’s love. And, unless you’re a lot different from me, it’s way easier to see where you don’t measure up than it is to see where you do.

The Church is fully complicit in this. This might be true with most culturally dominant religions, come to think of it. From an anthropological standpoint, religions exist to enforce a social order, a code of have-tos, and so kids come out of church schools steeped in guilt and well-versed in the rules. The have-tos. From the outside, what religion has to offer is a transaction: Do the have-tos, and you will get to heaven someday.

That is a sucker bet not worth taking. So people either leave religion, content to enjoy the marshmallow of this life’s empty pleasures instead of holding off for the promise of two marshmallows in the great beyond, or else they get trapped in the endless web of have-tos, always feeling like they don’t quite measure up, that they’re down 12 late in the fourth quarter of the game.

We need to root that approach out of our way of being, because it is the opposite of the Good News.

Think about a loving relationship you are in, or have been in. There are a million things I do for April, or Betsy, or even some of YOU people, that you could never make me do as part of a commandment structure of have-tos. You could not compel me to change diapers for the promise of heaven or the threat of hell, but I changed plenty of them for love. I have endured any number of things I did not enjoy, and volunteered for any number of tasks I would never do for myself, because by doing so, I helped make the life of someone I loved just a little bit easier. I didn’t have to, but because I loved, I got to.

I think that’s what we Christians get wrong about this thing we profess. The institutional instinct of the religion is to push to the ethics, to make sure people do right, and they end up pushing ethics out of order. In the process, they lose the essence of the Gospel.

We are loved immeasurably by the God who made us. 

Full stop. 

No “if-then” statements. No “have-tos.” All we profess:

  • The Incarnation – that God stooped to become one of us because He wanted to be with us that much
  • The Eucharist – that God wants to be IN us and WITH us in a way we can’t even wrap our heads around
  • The Crucifixion – that God would endure anything to be with us
  • The Resurrection – that God shows that even the worst we can throw at Him is not enough to drive him away

Those are all totally insane things that God didn’t have to do; God would say God GOT to do them, because that is what love does.

(Another day I’ll say more about how that points to the real reason why marriage is a sacrament; because it offers us to mirror that mutual self-sacrificial love, to the extent that we get to offer it to each other.)

When people asked Jesus what have-tos to prioritize, what he said was, love God back. And love who God loves, which is everyone, especially the outcast. And by doing so, you’ll be surprised at the things you get to do.

What the Gospel offers isn’t a transaction, it’s a relationship. What we don’t say enough is, those ethics of love of God and neighbor aren’t really have-tos; they are get-tos, in response to a God who loves us regardless of what we do or don’t do. If we choose to love God back, we get to play on God’s team in bringing love, joy and peace to the world. And if we really buy the offer of that get-to mindset, we can make peace with ourselves and with God.

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