Can or Should? That is the Question

Quite a few years ago now, two of my grandchildren would get a positive answer when they asked “Can I have another sweet?”. But their pleasure quickly diminished when the reply in full was “You can have another sweet, but you may not”.

It was one way of learning both the polite way to ask for something and also the need to be precise in the use of vocabulary. To distinguish between what is possible [can], and what is allowed or beneficial [may]. Once the lesson was learnt, they had a great time using their newly acquired knowledge when others made the ‘mistake’, if that is what it was, of saying ‘can’ when ‘may’ would have been more appropriate. For example “Can I help with the washing up?”.

Perhaps only a pedant would wish to emphasise the difference between ‘can’ and ‘may’. But very recently there was a good example from the Prime Minister and the First Minister of Scotland (and probably from the First Ministers of Wales and Northern Ireland as well). Soon after the five days of fewer Coronavirus restrictions over the Christmas period were announced, the message changed to distinguishing between what we
could do within the guidelines and what we should do; or in other words the difference between ‘can’ and ‘may’. Our plans might well have been within the legal framework, but we were encouraged to think very carefully of the consequences of any actions we intended to take.

Of course, since the five day relaxation was announced, the situation deteriorated drastically, and it was no longer a case of ‘can’ and ‘may’; just basically ‘cannot’, not even ‘may not’.

But there is a lesson for each one of us as we finish one year (and what a year!), and start another. In response to something that was being said in Corinth, Paul replied to the early Christians there as follows:

"We are allowed to do anything," so they say. That is true, but not everything is good. "We are allowed to do anything” – but not everything is helpful.

1 Corinthians 10:23

It was Augustine (354-430AD) who put it in a slightly different but very challenging way:

“Love God and do whatever you please.”

He was not advocating that a Christian
can do anything, or may do anything (because God is a God of love, and will forgive you). He is saying that once a person truly, deeply, loves God, whatever they do or want to do will be what Jesus would do and what God wants them to do. A real challenge, as we enter 2021 with perhaps a New Year resolution to be a better person than we were in 2020.

We conclude our last post of the year with another challenge from Augustine:

"Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special attention to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstances, are brought into closer connection with you."


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