Can't vs. Don't

As I've grown in my relationship with Him, I've noticed that a lot of things people think I can't do are actually things I don't do.
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls. But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed. If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.James 1:19-27 KJV


Today I want to talk about two specific words that are close in meaning, but imply very different things: can/can't and do/don't (or do). "Can" means to be able to, while "do" means to cause something to happen.[1][2] Both relate to actions, but one references actually carrying out an action while the other is limited to ability. If I do something, I am obviously able to. However, being able to do something doesn't mean you will. Where this get's really interesting from a spiritual perspective is when we discuss the opposites: can't and don't.

Can't implies that you would like to do something but are unable to, but don't tells me that you are simply refusing to do something whether you can or can't. When we use these words in sentences, it tells us a lot about how we perceive the situation. For example, I can't eat a lot of cheese. I love cheese and left up to me, every meal would be cheesy. However, my skin breaks out in pimples when I eat cheese; the more cheese I consume, the more pimples I see. On the other hand, I don't drink milk. I have no desire to drink milk because I dislike the taste. It's not that there are negative consequences for consuming milk, I simply don't enjoy it.

In Christian Vocabulary

So, how do "can't" and "don't" affect our Christian walk and why am I rambling on about them?

Often when I don't do something, particularly something popular in the world, people default to "oh you can't do that because of religion." Whether I say can't or don't, they understand can't, because it's something they expect everybody to want to do. This is one of the fundamental issues in why people decide they don't want to be Christian—they see it as a list of rules they don't want to abide by. However, that's not how it's supposed to be.

Let me ask you a question. Say you're married. Your spouse is out without you and the opportunity to cheat presents itself. Would you want your spouse's response to be "I can't sleep with someone who isn't my spouse" or "I don't sleep with people who aren't my spouse?" Personally, I'd prefer the latter. The former says that he wants to sleep with someone else but is merely suppressing his desires to conform to a standard. That may work for a year, or ten years, but eventually it's going to fall apart because it's not what he actually wants.

This is how our relationship with Christ is. As I've grown in my relationship with Him, I've noticed that a lot of things people think I can't do are actually things I don't do. The closer we become to God, the more we take on His nature; when the Holy Spirit indwells in us, we are compelled to reject worldly desires. Things that I used to find entertaining when I wasn't as close to God are not appealing to me now.

In the Old Testament, God calls the Israelites to be a peculiar people, this peculiarity has passed on to believers regardless of our origins. The reason we are to be peculiar, is because our heart's desire is to be toward God. There will always be things that God may not have explicitly forbade, or that He has forbidden but the world chooses to do anyway, that we find either displeasing or have no interest in due to our guidance from the Holy Spirit. This will make us seem peculiar.

Conveying the Message

Photocredit: Wallis
The hardest part, believe it or not, is not standing out or being different, but conveying the message. We are not all in the same place in our spiritual walk, which means we don't all feel the same convictions.

Many months ago I was at a Bible Study in which the topic of what we watched on TV came up among the group. Some of us were convicted to purge ungodly shows and movies, while others thought the idea was ridiculous. Because I belong to the group that feels convicted to be cautious of what we consume with our eyes and ears, I can easily make arguments for why I do or don't watch/listen to certain things. What I don't want, however, is for what I say to come out like why everyone should or shouldn't watch/listen to certain things. The reason I want to avoid the latter, is for multiple reasons:
    1. It comes off as judgmental
    2. It implies there is a Biblical passage that condemns that specific show/song
    3. It forms a list of do's and don'ts instead building a relationship with God
Conviction is a strange thing. Sometimes, we are convicted, but our heart hasn't changed yet, so there are truly actions we can't do. In this stage we may try to ignore the conviction, which is usually when we are vulnerable to turn away from God because our desire to continue doing what He is trying to convince us not to do leads us away. However, sometimes we aren't convicted at all. There are a lot of things people won't do because they've been told it makes them a "bad" Christian, but the Holy Spirit has never convicted them that it's wrong (may be it isn't even wrong).

There are many things that perhaps God has removed the desire for in our own hearts, that now we push on to others as a "can't." It looks something like "because I don't do this, you can't do this." That's when we push people away from God.


So, I want you to think about life. Think about the things you "don't" do versus the things you "can't" do. Is God convicting you or is it just a tradition man has placed on you. Do you push these feelings outward on those around you? Are you judging fellow believers because their convictions don't match yours? I want us to think about both sides of this issue. Know that some people you meet really have reached a place where worldly things have no value to them. Also know that we're moving at different paces, we have to allow the Holy Spirit to get each of us to that point rather than setting do/don't lists for new believers to live by.


  1. "Can". Merriam Webster; visited October 2018
  2. "Do". Merriam Webster; visited October 2018

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